The other Bob Dylan
Dylan’s silence and support for the Israeli oppressor makes a mockery of his stature as an “angry humanitarian”.
As the media hype surrounding Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature begins to fade away, the coverage – so far – appears to be concentrating only on one corner of the picture. While the world media, as well as the majority of the Arab mainstream news outlets, framed the singer as the face of protest against US involvement in the Vietnam war, an icon of the anti-war movement and an ally of the underdogs of the world, Dylan’s selective approach in standing for humanity and morality, and how his human and civil rights bona fides have faded over time, have been largely missing.
For the singer, who wrote Masters of War – a song said to be a protest against the military-industrial complex – at times chose to side with those who are aggressive and who oppress. His vehement support for Israel’s wars against the Palestinian people is a glaring example.
The purpose here is not to delve into Dylan’s ideological views, since the singer no longer pursues anti-war activism or influences public opinion or collective conscience.
Rather, it is to question the way in which media outlets, both Arab and international, framed the story without taking issue with Dylan’s pro-Israel stance and instead portrayed him exclusively through the prism of his constructed image as defender of the oppressed.
In an op-ed published by the Lebanese daily Assafir, Dylan is described as a “counterculture icon”, as the singer’s contribution to the music industry and poetry is cited.
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While the London-based al Hayat newspaper portrayed Dylan as “the voice of the anti-war movement, close to the marginalised and the oppressed, the last that can be considered as a supporter of the American establishment’s culture”.
Dylan wrote the song Neighbourhood Bully, in which he praised a state of Israel surrounded by hostile nations whose immensity presents a continuous threat to its existence.
Egypt’s daily al-Ahram rather discussed the Nobel Committee’s “delinquency [in] selecting [a] new genre that some may not consider as belonging to literature, which raises questions by many who follow the literature”.
Among the few outlets that tackled Dylan’s ideological stands head on was the Lebanese left-leaning al-Akhbar newspaper that – in a piece published on October 15 – reminded readers of Dylan’s controversial pro-Israel positions.
The writer pointed out that – unlike the dominant narrative about Dylan – there was not much “revolutionary spirit” in his songs and underlined “Dylan’s detachment from political movements in his own country by getting closer to Israeli bellicose policies and expressing affinity with the most extreme and racist [Israeli] currents”.
Back to the 1980s, in the aftermath of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacres where thousands of Palestinian civilians were slaughtered by Lebanese Christian militias with the connivance of the Israeli military, at a time when large parts of Beirut were reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes, Dylan wrote the song Neighbourhood Bully, in which he praised a state of Israel surrounded by hostile nations whose immensity presents a continuous threat to its existence.
The song, that Stephen Holden described in The New York Times in 1983 as “an outspoken defence of Israel“, begins by stating two key precepts emphasising the Israeli perspective: first by comparing Israel to a man in exile whose enemies unjustly “claim he’s on their land”, a sentence that serves as a scolding to those who refute the legitimacy of Israel’s historic claim to Palestine’s land. Then, by metaphorically presenting Israel as a man “outnumbered by a million to one”, which postulates the frequent representation of Israel as the underdog of the Middle East.
Commitment to humanity and morality
Such a stance by an anti-war activist raises serious doubts over Dylan’s commitment to humanity and morality.
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His song, an indignant defence of Israeli wars and a narrative of an eternal victim surrounded by aggressive enemies as Dylan’s describes it in the song’s lyrics when describing the man symbolising Israel with lyrics such as: “He’s criticised and condemned for being alive; He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in”; or “He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand” thus parroting in this lyric the famous claim of former Israeli Primer Minister Golda Meir after emigrating from Ukraine to Palestine in 1921: “A land without a people for a people without a land”.
In 1971, Dylan, whose anti-war positions made him the face of protest against the Vietnam War, confessed great admiration for Israeli racist Kach movement whose leader Rabbi Meir Kahane demanded the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland and whose party has since been banned.
Dylan described Kahane as “a really sincere guy, he’s really put it all together”.
In that same year, New York Times journalist Anthony Scaduto mentioned Dylan’s “fervent support of Israel and his overpublicised contacts with the Jewish Defence League”. More recently, in 2011, despite calls from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to cancel his performance in Israel, Dylan did not heed such calls.
Such a succinct overview shows how misleading it is to construct an image of Dylan as a universal icon of anti-war activism or a defender of people’s rights and freedoms, while his stance with regards to the Palestinian question as a purely human suffering of a people under an ongoing military oppression and occupation, is disgraceful. His silence and support for the Israeli oppressor makes a mockery of his stature as an “angry humanitarian”.
It therefore goes without saying that Dylan, who once sang “where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, where the executioner’s face is always well hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten”, made his choice decades ago: Siding with the executioner.
Indeed, it was that other Bob Dylan that was missing in the overall media coverage.
Ali Saad is a French sociologist and media critic, focusing on the influence of mass media on society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.