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“We don’t get into politricks, man.” So says Shmuel Caro, the heavily bearded lead guitarist of the Israeli jam-collective Aharit Hayamim, or End of Days. It’s an unexpected statement from the front man of what’s been called the house band of the Hilltop Youth, the young radical settlers known for setting up makeshift outposts deep in the occupied territory of the West Bank.
Caro and his band are backstage at 92YTribeca, a Jewish music venue in Manhattan, preparing for a headlining set on the East Coast leg of a North American tour that had included a performance annual Jewlicious festival for Jewish college students, among other venues. While the band is associated with some of the most extreme elements of the settler movement, fellow performers and promoters say that their politics shouldn’t prevent them from appearing in mainstream Jewish venues.
“We’re here to represent the real vibe of Israel,” says keyboardist Yehuda Leuchter, before bursting into spontaneous harmony with the rest of Aharit Hayamim. Dressed in flowing shirts and large, knitted kippot, the four band members sang a reggae-inflected round of “Holy Mt. Zion.” After a minute, Yehuda announces: “That’s all we got to say, man.”
Aharit Hayamim was touring North America with Shemspeed, the Orthodox hip-hop label. They shared the bill at their March 15th concert at 92YTribeca with such regulars on the Jewish music scene as black Orthodox rapper Y-Love and Dov Rosenblatt of Blue Fringe, along with newcomers Eprhyme and Shir Yaakov. Matisyahu, the breakout Hasidic reggae star, made a surprise appearance.
Despite their avowed aversion to “politricks,” the group’s ideological orientation is apparent to its fans. Chaya Hershkopf, a young Lubavitch woman from Crown Heights, says that she first saw Aharit Hayamim perform at T’Koa D, a small, unauthorized outpost 2 km from the settlement of T’Koa, itself 8 km past the Green Line. “They talk a lot about the earth and the land and how it’s ours and the importance of holding on to it,” says Chaya. “They talk about Jerusalem and keeping it ours. They’re very settlery, and that’s mostly what I like about them.”
When asked whether they considered themselves Hilltop Youth, the members of Aharit Hayamim are evasive. “If you have a beard and a big kippah, you’re on the spot,” says Leuchter. “Doesn’t matter if you’re, like, Arab…Kids all over the world have tattoos and long hair. So, in Israel, they don’t have tattoos and they don’t have earrings. They have big payis and they believe in the land and they believe in peace and they believe in music and they believe in redemption.”
Each year, Aharit Hayamim hosts and headlines a music festival in Bat Ayin, a settlement in Gush Etzion. The celebration began as a memorial to Leuchter’s father, a musician who played with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and has grown into a multi-day gathering for Israeli jam bands. “It’s the most high festival in the world, man,” says Caro.
“[At the festival,] everybody smokes pot and dances around,” says Jewish social entrepreneur and Jewschool.com founder Dan Sieradski. Meanwhile, he says, “the message that’s being imparted is one of opposition to the policies of the state of Israel, opposition to the interests of the secular Israeli public, opposition to having peace with Palestinians.”
“[Their] message is about a…neo-Zionist uprising against the state or secular Jews or against liberal politics in favor of religious nationalism, theocratism, and messianism,” says Sieradski. And yet, Sieradski doesn’t object to their appearances at major Jewish venues alongside American Jewish artists. “I may think their views are abhorrent,” he says, “but if I don’t engage them and I don’t share a stage with them, how can I ever hope to change their minds or confront them to question their own beliefs? I don’t support cultural boycotts. I would support financial boycotts against companies doing business in the West Bank, but I wouldn’t support an artistic boycott of a band that lives in the West Bank.”
Eden Daniel Pearlstein, an observant Jewish rapper who performs as Eprhyme and appeared on the same bill as Aharit Hayamim at 92YTribeca, agrees with Sieradski. “I’m totally open to appearing onstage with a diverse spectrum of artists—racially, religiously, ethnically, and politically. I consider it a great honor to present my work in front of people who might not be on the same page as I am.”
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the organizer of the Jewlicious festival in Long Beach, California, where Aharit Hayamim performed on March 1st, said that the band’s politics played no role in the decision to invite them. “We don’t consider people’s political beliefs a barrier or an entrance into the festival,” he said. “It’s about the music.”
Regardless of whether American Jewish promoters and artists agree with the band, Sieradski says that chances are their message will be lost in translation. “If Aharit Hayamim was getting on the stage and saying support the occupation and support settlements and defend Israel from Arabs who all want to kill us, then I think it would be a big problem,” he says. “[But] they’re singing lyrics in Hebrew that 90% of the people coming to their shows are not going to understand. So I don’t know how big a deal it is. I don’t know that they’re going to have that much of an influence.”
Additional reporting by Wesley Pinkham.