It is possible to select carefully chosen materials from Bob Dylan's life and songs to reflect your own beliefs. So it is with some hesitation that I describe Dylan's relationship with Israel. I will present all the material, sparse as it is.
In May 1971 Dylan and his then wife Sara went to Israel without their children in hopes of escaping the media frenzy in America, having a bit of a second honeymoon, and exploring Jewish roots, a subject Dylan became increasingly interested in after his father's death on June 5, 1968. On May 24th, Dylan's 30th birthday, a photographer got a shot of him praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem while wearing a kippah, the traditional Jewish head covering.The photo ended any possible privacy. At some point in late May or early June, the Dylans visited Givat Haim, a kibbutz, to explore the possibility of staying there for a while. Eve Brandstein, a member of the kibbutz, told Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin that Dylan wanted to stay in a guest house but not work on the kibbutz. The kibbutz members did not want to accept his conditions for living there and were scared their home would be a magnet for the curious.
From April 11th to May 17th 1983 Dylan spent 19 recording sessions producing his album Infidels. On April 19th he sang six versions of a new song, "Neighborhood Bully," and on May 17th, at the very last session recording the very last song, he did another take of the song, which, to me at least, indicates he wanted to get it right. "Neighborhood Bully" is a sarcastic, unvarnished full-throated defense of Israel. The Israelis, ironically called the bully of the neighborhood, have "got no place to escape to, no place to run." They are "criticized and condemned for being alive." There's no subtlety here, no nuanced view of Middle Eastern history. The persecuted Jews are in the right and are simply defending their lives. Dylan invokes the Jewish people's tragic history as a way of defending Israel:
The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land,
He's wandered the earth an exiled man.
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn,
He's always on trial for just being born.
The album wasn't released until November 1, 1983, but in September that year Jesse Dylan, Bob's then seventeen year old son, had a late bar mitzvah in Israel, and his father flew over for the event. He was again photographed wearing Jewish religious items.
Dylan played his first concerts in Israel on September 5th and 7th 1987. (Probably by coincidence, his very next concert was in Basle, Switzerland, the site of the First Zionist Congress in 1897). Dylan played three concerts in Israel on June 17th, 19th, and 20th in 1993. Symbolically or not, he ended the latter two concerts with "It Ain't Me Babe," about a relationship in which he rejects the expectations placed upon him.
Those are the principal facts. There may be much more we do not know. Additionally, there was a persistent rumor that Dylan would be playing in Israel next month, but if he is the concert is not listed on his official website. He will be in the area around his 69th birthday. He's giving a concert in Greece on May 29th and Turkey on May 31st.
If Dylan seems conflicted about Jewish religious beliefs, he connects emotionally to a Jewish history punctuated by persecution. He grasps the longing for a Jewish homeland. Dylan's silence about Israel may reflect some ambivalence. Or he may just wish to keep his views private. It is significant that there are no negative songs about Israel, no comments hostile to the Zionist enterprise, no initial embrace and later abandonment of the Jewish people's heroic return to national history.
Dylan will be 70 in 2011. It's a symbolic year for him, a biblical lifespan, a time of profound reflection. Perhaps it will be a good moment to pause in his never-ending tour.
I wonder what he will find as he examines himself at 70. I wonder if after all his wandering, his endless searches, his constant need for shedding skins and acquiring identities, he finally needs a place to land, a place connected to his understanding of God, a place where history and geography can't be separated, a place where outcasts have found a haven, a place where his ancestors originated. I wonder if Israel will turn out to be his direction home.