Photo by Bas Spierings
Punk and hardcore scenes always emerge from a bubbling cauldron of discontent, and Israel is one of those cauldrons. The country’s modern metropolis, Tel Aviv, is safe and Americanised, but its edges are still frayed by the perpetual conflicts of the country and neighbouring Palestine. Being a punk is frowned upon in the holy land, scenes have grown and dispersed due to bad reputations, lack of longevity in bands and the compulsory military conscription for all 18 year old men. Many young adults feign mental illnesses and injuries to escape getting dragged into the militia. Unfortunately, when the government eventually linked this truancy to the punk and emo scenes a few years back, they slowly dissolved through fears of the government stereotyping and the profiling of ‘alternative’ kids.
But the kids are united once again and the scene is flourishing in the face of adversity.
The biggest punk rock band to make it out of Israel are Useless ID from Haifa, who are signed to Fat Wreck Chords and have been touring the world since the mid-90s. However, aside from Useless ID, many punk bands unfortunately don’t make it past their first LP. I caught up with Nadav Rotem, the bassist from Israeli hardcore band Kids Insane after their recent euro-tour, “Punks have their own way of getting out of going to the army. Three of us in Kids Insane spoke to psychiatrists and told them that we hate the world, we hate you, we pee our beds, we take drugs and all this bullshit.” That being said, the majority aren’t committed enough to the music to resist Israel's military. “There’s this weird general feeling when you see 15 year old kids at the punk shows, because you know they’ll be in the army in two or three years. So many kids come and go.” Bands that do manage to escape Israel's indiscriminate conscription aren’t entirely free from the hindrances that their identity brings, “One of my main goals in Kids Insane was to play in Malaysia and Indonesia but we can’t play because we don’t have the right passport!” Nadav explained. “There’s a big hardcore scene there and it’s a shame because they can’t come here either. It’s a matter of ignoring these borders… I think that’s how the next generation will think.”
It’s not surprising that politics and the punk scene go hand-in-hand in Israel just as they do elsewhere in the world. I spoke to Smiley who runs one of the punk record labels in Israel, You’re Next Records, and has been involved in both bands and in activism for years, “Through punk, a lot of people have learned to understand the crazy political situation, the occupation and the oppression of 4 million Palestinians.” He went on, “There is daily oppression going on at the West Bank and the people that can see this reality use punk as a big instrument to promote their ideas and criticisms.”
There’s also the BDS ‘Call For Boycott’ movement, a worldwide campaign for artists to boycott playing Israel and rail against the occupation. It’s a movement that’s bittersweet for the Israeli punks because although many support it, it means they miss out on a lot of Western bands playing out there. The upside, though, is it’s manifested itself in the strong DIY identity of the scene. Nadav (Kids Insane) explained the dilemma, “It’s important that political bands who talk about certain subjects are heard by the kids. But if a band really wants to do this they have to ignore the call for boycott. Rihanna is playing here tonight and I’d call for the cancellation of that because she’s not here to speak about anything important, she’ll just make loads of money and fuck off!”
Jello Biafra was one artist who cancelled his Tel Aviv gig back in 2011 but abstained from being directly supportive of the BDS. “Jello Biafra is a good example because he’s meant to be a symbol of political punk. Him saying that he’ll boycott playing Israel until the government sorts things out will be heard all over the world” Smiley explained.
On top of political tensions Israel's modest population of 7.9million keeps its punk scene close-knit. The venues are in small numbers but their admirable sense of community means that they’re built on sheer passion. “There’s a DIY spot called Zimmer which is really bohemian and it puts on punk shows. They do political stuff over there as well like a summer day camp and after school homework program for African refugee kids,” Smiley explained. “I see all this as part of punk. Fighting for social change, resisting the status quo in the place that you live is part of the basic antagonism of punk.”
Several Israeli punks I talked to rarely went to Palestinian areas, nor have they ever crossed the border for gigs. That’s not to say the same doesn’t happen the other way round though, “We’ve had some crazy nights at the Rogatka (DIY venue),” Smiley reminisced. “Nights with people fighting, taking drugs and Palestinian rappers turning up and doing open mic and spoken word stuff in between the punk bands.”
Israeli’s Mondo Gecko released a split LP with Algerian hardcore troupe Demokhratia back in 2011. This again demonstrates the steps that the younger generation are taking towards improving relations. “I do see the younger generation more determined to step into our shoes and get things sorted”, Nadav (Kids Insane) said enthusiastically.
On the other hand, not all of the bands have ideals steeped in politics; Bo La’Bar (Hebrew for “Come To The Bar”) are all about that good-times escapism that reminds us that the weekend is the weekend no matter where you are. “At times [hardcore] feels like a great way of living in your own world,” admitted Ishay Berger, Bo La’Bar frontman and Useless ID bassist. “What a lot of people are part of is a collective, nostalgic thing. It’s not always about the politics…”
It's an ethos echoed by Nadav (Kids Insane), “At the end of the week it’s the weekend and everyone’s trying to have a good time, so we try not to get too heavy thinking about it! Living down here, Israelis tend to get wild because you could get on a bus and that bus could explode, that actually happens. So if you go to a punk show here it’s more about the party.”
When asked about the future of Israel and Palestine, the punks I spoke to all had similar vexation, “There is too much hatred and aggro going on… whatever happens, there’s going to be casualties,” Nadav mused. Smiley expressed some optimism, “I’m looking forward to seeing more Israeli’s that understand what’s going on here and more popular resistance in Israel.”
Perhaps the short lifespan of the bands in the scene is what makes the whole thing so youthful and pure. People aren’t jumping into bands to become the next Guns ‘N Roses or to make a career out of it, it’s simply a way to have fun, make a racket and get your voice heard while firmly beneath the glass ceiling that hangs over Israel.
This hyperactive, home-grown scene is the epitome of punk and a lot can be learned from the unconditional passion for the gigs and the music. The scene is dominated by adolescents and for the years preceding the army they choose to spend their time crowd-surfing and circle-pitting, which I think is pretty awesome.
Ishay from Bo La’Bar summed it up the best when he said, “Hardcore is the coolest thing for the kids over here and if you think you’re better than the kids then fuck off!”