Letter from Zion Square

Every Thursday afternoon, rap artists gather for an impromptu open mic at Zion Square, at the bottom of the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem. One February day, a handful of artists–a fraction of the mass that gathers in warmer weather–form an open circle. They take turns providing a beat for one another, trying their hand at freestyle rhyming as passersby look on.

Flow isn’t the only things on Israeli minds these days. Looming large in the imagination of every Israeli and Palestinian is a small piece of coastal real estate from which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to withdraw this summer. Since Sharon proposed the Gaza disengagement just over a year ago, politicians, military officials, and civilians have been obsessed with it: the plan could be the first step toward a final peace settlement, or it could be a strategic move designed to put the peace process “in formaldehyde,” as former cabinet chief Dov Weissglas suggested in an October interview with Ha’Aretz. Some Israelis are hopeful; others, particularly after a recent Tel Aviv bombing, are not so sure.

Public officials aren’t the only ones debating Israel’s future in Jerusalem; the city is also home to a vibrant hip hop community. “Hip-hop everywhere gives a voice to some character of the society that would not be heard in the mainstream media,” says Khen Rotem, an artist who performs under the moniker Sagol 59. Rotem maintains that the Israeli hip-hop community has a rare tolerance for diverse opinions: “I hear many voices,” he says, “from the right and the left, from the Arab side and the Jewish side.”

Back in the circle, the flow is seamless as the mic passes from one bundled-up artist to the next. “In the circle, everyone one wants it to be fun. But I don’t know how to be fun–my lyrics are hard,” says Roi Assayag, adding that he uses his songs to voice his beliefs, no matter how they may differ from what his audience wants to hear. The 25-year-old Jerusalem native, who performs under the name Rocky B, is the most accomplished in the crowd, with two albums under his belt. A green army-style jacket, square-framed dark glasses, and a Jewish afro give him the look of a Semitic Mos Def. The beliefs Assayag expresses through his music are harsh ones: “This is a racist state, defined by blood,” he says. The concept of a Jewish-Israeli left is a fallacy, he feels, because it means accepting racial parameters for participation.

Rotem’s take on the disengagement plan, meanwhile, is that “it’s too little, too late,” he says, adding that the occupation should have ended decades ago, but that “the nation was drunk on victory and didn’t realize the cancerous situation.” Rotem associates with the left, he says, but does not view the situation as black and white. Being Israeli demands that one questions the version of truth one is told. Acceptance of official narrative, to him, is not an option.

Assayag agrees. “I haven’t been to Gaza. I don’t know what’s happening there. And when I don’t know shit, I look for the real truth,” he says, musing that reality is something constructed and then perceived–in this case, he feels, created by the military and politicians and frequently misunderstood by the public. He is critical of the Israeli mindset, complaining that Israelis believe they know everything because they consume the news in great quantities, but that they don’t think critically about it. “We’re in an era of darkness here,” he says, explaining that music can provide a solution. “It’s a tool. Hip-hop’s not just a culture but a way of thinking.”

Jewish settlers in Gaza, who number around 7,800, are being told to pack their belongings in preparation for the first Israeli evacuation since the dismantling of the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982. A recent poll shows that most of them say they will leave peacefully, but Israeli soldiers expect to have to transfer the ideological core by force. In response, settler leaders are urging soldiers to sign a petition pledging to refuse to dismantle settlements, and thousands have signed.

Rotem–who served most of his three IDF years in military intelligence in Lebanon and still reports for reserve duty–doesn’t condemn the right wing soldiers: “Israel is a strong enough country to even have refuseniks,” he says. To Rotem, though, active refusal is far worse than simply not enlisting; if a soldier forcibly resists an order, then he must be punished. Either way, Rotem doesn’t think the threat of mass refusal will materialize, or that the settlers will put up as big of a fight as they threaten to. The right is just making a lot of noise, he opines; “I think they’ll take the compensation and move. It’s just a shame it took so long.”

Passive refusal is different: we should be tolerant of those who refuse to participate, Rotem says, adding that to refuse is to exercise a level of freedom of speech that will test the limits of democracy. In fact, it is the range of voice expressed on the Jerusalem scene that gets Rotem most excited. Unity is not what’s said, he explains, but the act of coming together to share views. In his experience, it has been “very hard in the last four years, because of the Intifada, to express ideas like my own because the public has shifted towards hate and separation.”

Luckily, a forum remains. Along Shlomzion HaMalka Street lies a nondescript storefront called the Dalia that hosts the kind of cultural events that are rare or absent from other parts of the country. On a wintry Thursday night, hundreds gather there for the first Old Jeruz Cipher, a monthly hip-hop event founded by Corner Prophets–a new organization that draws together the Israeli hip-hop community. That night, the crowd was Israeli, Arab, Russian, and American.

Following a performance by Rocky B, Sagol 59 takes the stage with A7, a 25-year-old black American Orthodox Jew who made aliyah from Baltimore five years ago. Attributing much of his worldview to his orthodoxy, A7 opposes the disengagement plan. The dreadlocked artist blames the government for having mismanaged the conflict and the settlements. “If it starts in Gaza, where’s it gonna end?” he asks. “Are we gonna give them half of Jerusalem for their state?”

A7 is undeterred by being right wing and religious in a predominantly left wing secular community. “I put it out there,” he says of his lyrics, explaining that in the hip-hop community everyone gets to say what they want. His audience responds to his delivery–and if they disagree with him, they can always take the mic themselves. A7 believes that “politics, in the end, only proves to be detrimental to the people.” Peace will come, he muses, when the world assumes the model set by the hip-hop community: when “people of different everything can agree that life is more important that all that other crap.”

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