Composing a Nation: Israel's Musical Patriarchs
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein
31 May 2009
Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher Hall




Composing A Nation

By Leon Botstein

The creation of the state of Israel and the history of Zionism as a modern nationalist movement are among the most widely debated subjects in recent history. Zionism was a direct response both to the European anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth century, and to new national movements among groups and nationalities within larger dynastic entities—primarily in Eastern Europe where the large majority of European Jews resided. Zionism, especially after the momentous publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State (1896) in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, took its cues not only from contemporary French and German nationalism, but also from emerging efforts to forge political and cultural independence in Poland (which had been divided into three parts), the Czech lands, the Balkans, in Romania, and in Hungary. The Jews of Europe, owing to extreme discrimination and legal and social restrictions, were political pariahs. Their exclusion in Europe caused them to see themselves not simply as bearers of a distinct religion but as a dispersed nation, as valid and legitimate as both the oppressed and oppressor nations around them: German, English, French, Polish, Czech, and Russian. The vibrant nationalisms in Europe inflamed a desire for Jewish political autonomy.

The dream of the Jews as equal citizens with a different religious persuasion within several European nations was completely exploded by the events of European history after the Dreyfus trial. But this new Jewish nationalism imitative of its European parallels required a new national language. This is why Hebrew, the modernized transformation of the traditional religious language, became the language of the Zionist movement and Israel, displacing the use of Yiddish, the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews and one of the great and rich languages of modern history. Just like the Czechs and Hungarians, Jewish nationalists sought to generate communal pride in a distinctive culture through literature and music.

The most striking aspect of the modern Jewish national project was that it could not be realized within Europe itself. Where was this long sought-after Jewish homeland to be, a place where Jews would no longer be pariahs? The solution favored in the end by all proved both logical and convenient for the European colonial powers. At the turn of the century, the vexing issue of what Europe was to do with its Jewish population was elegantly answered by Zionism: relocate them to some other part of the world, outside of Europe. The imperial arrogance of the victors of World War I made this notion seem plausible. Some of the non-European locations proposed for the Jewish state, such as Uganda, seem incredible now. But the most compelling location was of course the place that by tradition and religion was associated with the ancient Jewish nation, Palestine—which, conveniently enough, was under the control of the English and French after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Encouraging Jewish settlement in Palestine was doubly attractive to the European powers. Not only did Zionism promise to get all the Jews out of Europe, but as grateful colonial settlers, the Jews would provide ongoing leverage in the region for perpetual conflict with the Arabs, which was of course greatly in Europe’s imperial interests: divide and conquer. As long as everyone was constantly fighting each other there, there was no chance that any viable Arab government could form that would challenge European interests. During the interwar period the presence of a thriving Jewish settlement in Palestine would help ensure that the lucrative flow of arms and transitory alliances between Europe and corrupt sheiks and princes could continue indefinitely.

Events, however, took a starkly different turn. By the mid-1920s a large segment of European Jewry did emigrate, but primarily to the United States. Comparatively few managed to get to Palestine before World War II. At the Evian Conference in 1939, the non-European nations did not take up Hitler’s offer to expel the Jews of Europe, with the exception of the Dominican Republic which offered to take 100,000. The United States closed its doors behind the façade of the quota system, and the British continued cynical double-game by encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine (for a fee) knowing it would fuel Arab resentment. After the Holocaust and with the end of the British mandate in view after 1945, however, everything changed. By 1948 there was a community large enough and sufficient international momentum to partition Palestine and create the state of Israel.

The establishment of the state of Israel, however, did not follow the conventional pattern of independence and national emergence. The intensity of the circumstances that brought about partition and the war of independence formed the outlines of the political situation that the world continues to struggle with today. During the Cold War and after, despite the veneer of a post-colonial world, it suited the leading powers to have the Middle East conflict remain unresolved. Unlike many new nations in the twentieth century, the major part of the population of Israel did not represent a people that resided on the same land in a continuous manner for generations. They lived in a land that had to be reconstructed and reinvented. The new Israeli population had to make sense of discontinuity, and to generate quickly a relationship between land, culture, and language that would bind them into a sustainable country. The new Israelis had the Bible and the story of the ancient kingdom of Israel, but when they arrived from their European towns and villages to the Middle Eastern landscape and encountered indigenous populations both Jewish and Arab with whom they were entirely unfamiliar, these newly minted citizens realized they had to construct a new unifying national sensibility.

For Americans, this challenge is perhaps more easily understandable than to Europeans. To North America, as well, Europeans came as settlers to a foreign landscape populated by dramatically different cultures. There is a fundamental difference, however, in the way in which the American European settlers forged their country and the way the Israelis forged theirs. In America, the settlers wiped out the indigenous population through war and disease. The narrative of conquest was substituted by the narrative of discovery of an empty and fertile new world. But the settlers in America came from often fanatical and not entirely homogenous elements from Europe, separated from one another by national origin and religion. In order to create a shared American identity, which still took a century after independence from Britain, the focus had to be not on blood and soil but on the concept of shared citizenship in a democracy where the privilege of citizenship could be acquired even by the foreign born, and where there was strict separation of church and state. In the case of Israel the settlers before independence, as pawns in the game of Ottoman and European imperialism, never enjoyed full civil rights. And the indigenous population of Arabs had no intention of making way for the newcomers. The new Israel fashioned a commonality on the basis of a shared Zionist dream and the experience of past oppression. The founding of Israel, unlike the United States, was therefore characterized by a sense of religious and cultural coherence. Nonetheless a sense of a new nationality, a conscious architecture of identity, needed to be created rapidly. Hence in the first years the socialist Kibbutz movement flourished. It took shape out of an idealism inherent in some sectors of the Zionist movement that a better state should be created than the ones left behind in Europe. Faced with the rare historical opportunity to begin a country from scratch, the early generations of Israelis dreamed of what the perfect democratic nation would be, a nation by design, freed from all the baggage of history and convention.

Amazingly, a tremendous portion of this effort at national self-invention was assigned to the arts. Herzl’s dream of the new state as one of high culture was embraced by the Zionist pioneers. The creation of orchestras, dance and theater companies was considered an essential act of national self-assertion. Three of the composers on today’s program came to Palestine as refugees fleeing the Nazis. Ödön Partos, Paul Ben-Haim and Josef Tal brought with them a deep familiarity and attachment to the modern European vocabulary of musical expression. Faced with the desert landscape, the rich and diverse culture of the Middle East, the explicit and implicit demand on one’s muse made by changing one’s name and language, how as musicians and composers could they express their own personal reinvention, much less that of an entire nation?

Tal’s answer was to sustain the modernist project in music as a universalist template that could be adapted to the experience of modern Israel. But when I interviewed him at the public celebration of his ninetieth birthday in Berlin, I was reminded of how difficult the task must have been for Tal to reconcile his allegiance to the great tradition of German music with his tireless patriotism and efforts on behalf of Israel’s musical culture and identity. He fit all the affectionate albeit cutting stereotypes applied to German Jews as self-styled taste-makers and cultural arbiters.

Paul Ben-Haim was a composer whose music was particularly liked by Leonard Bernstein. He took a more conservative expressive turn than Tal. He was more explicit in following a path charted by composers from Dvo?ák to Copland who tried to incorporate folk elements. He used the late Romantic idiom in a manner that permitted the appropriation of distinct markers of national identity and place. Of the generation of Israeli composers on today’s programs, Paul Ben-Haim’s music is perhaps the most symbolic of Israel’s independence and the most frequently performed. His Fanfare for Israel (1950) is often used to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Despite his success, the difficulty of Ben-Haim’s exile and emigration should not be underestimated. His massive oratorio Joram (1933), written as he waited to emigrate, deserves a new first-class contemporary performance. It is a monument to how music can express suffering, isolation and hope.

Ödön Partos came from the rich and vibrant early twentieth-century context of Hungarian art and culture. Bartók and Kodály are the most persuasive examples of how twentieth century composers created a musical vocabulary that permits both personal expression and the articulation of national consciousness. What marks Partos’s work on this program is its connection to the Kibbutz movement and the notion that universal compositional techniques could be reconciled with the need to express something particular and local. Resisting the idea of the artificial invention of a new Mediterranean style, Partos found a way to meld modernism with distinctive elements that would make his music expressive of a landscape and experience that was not European but in a novel way Israeli, representative of the idealism of the Kibbutz movement. There is an intensity and emotional angularity that reflects Partos’s roots in Hungarian modernism.

Mordecai Seter, who was the first in this group of composers to come to Palestine (in 1926), was born in Russia on the Black Sea. Seter was a representative of the single largest Ashkenazi contingent to emigrate to Palestine, that of Russian Jewry (defined by pre-1918 borders), the contingent that also provided most of the political leadership in the Zionist movement and in the first years of Israel’s independence. Seter began his musical education in Palestine and unlike the others he returned to Europe to study, a sojourn that included working with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. Seter chose to base most of his mature musical work on sources from the Sephardic tradition. By so doing he anticipated the enormous influence Sephardic Jewry would have on the character of Israel. After 1948 the emigration from Yemen and Morocco brought to Israel an entirely different Jewish experience. The basis of Seter’s magnificent piece are the liturgical and musical traditions of Mizrahi and Yemenite song.

Many years have passed since the music on this program was written. The most important factor (apart from the 1967 and 1973 wars) affecting Israel’s culture has been the Russian immigration that began with the Refusniks in the 1970s and blossomed after the fall of Communism. Israel today hosts an almost unbelievable array of composers, each of whom struggles with the problem of how to transform the particular experience of Israel into musical creations that can resonate as more than mere emblems of identity. The works on today’s program achieve these goals. They are not reductive markers of some version of what it means to be an Israeli.

The Israel of today has developed in both popular and concert music a distinctive and complex Israeli identity, quite different from Diaspora Jewish sensibilities. This varied and complex synthesis includes elements from the German European tradition, the Eastern European tradition, the Russian tradition, the varieties of Sephardic culture, and the powerful Palestinian Arab influence. Each is encountered on a daily basis in the context of everyday life. In today’s concert we hear the first stirrings of how music functioned as an important vehicle not only of individual expression but of a need to craft a new natural sensibility out of the embers of the destruction of European Jewry. The pride and optimism inherent in the works of these composers is matched by the talent they had and the courage they showed in restarting careers cut short by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. These composers represent poignantly the extent to which Herzl’s dream of the new Jewish state as a state defined the highest pinnacles of human achievement—art, scholarship and learning—was deeply cherished at the moment of the founding of the state of Israel. This idealism was sustained through the 1950s and 1960s when there was still an optimism that a new kind of society could be fashioned. But the grim realities of international politics and war and strife have made life more difficult than any of these composers might have anticipated.