I have been thinking about Israel a lot in the last few months as I finished off work on a new book titled The Dream of Zion: The Story of the First Zionist Congress. The book will be published in January, and I’ve been doing the normal preparation for its release.
As I write this, there are ongoing disputes about cultural boycotts of Israel and artists visiting there. J.K. Rowling recently signed a letter with others denouncing such boycotts, but there are British intellectuals who support it. Roger Waters, a founding member of Pink Floyd, keeps belittling performers who appear in Israel and others, like Howard Stern, rightly defend the artists who go.
For people like Waters, Israel is still a neighborhood bully. I am thinking of that Bob Dylan song, because Infidels, the album on which it appears, was released thirty-two years ago today.
Dylan spent a total of nineteen recording sessions from April 11th to May 17th 1983 trying to get the album right. He hadn’t had a real artistic success since Blood on the Tracks in 1975. His religious albums had not produced the stirring effects he evidently had hoped for. On April 19th, he turned to his new song, “Neighborhood Bully,” singing six separate versions of the song. Evidently still unhappy, he returned to it on May 17th, the final song sung at the final recording session for the album. Clearly, getting the song right was on his mind, and he refused to be satisfied until the song accomplished the goal he intended.
"Neighborhood Bully" is a Zionist anthem. It is a raucous, sarcastic, unvarnished full-throated defense of Israel. For Dylan, the Israelis, ironically and with deep injustice 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 is no attempt to be subtle here. There is no nuanced view of Middle Eastern history. The persecuted and embattled 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.
I wrote my book about Zionism to unearth the story of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland. Of course, reality is always more complicated than the tale contained in a story or a book. I was after logical arguments. Dylan was after the emotions behind the support of Israel.
He and his then wife Sara had visited Israel in May 1971. They traveled there without their children, hoping to escape the ravenous American media and the fans who too often mistook Dylan for God. Dylan’s father had died on June 5, 1968, and a trip to Israel was also part of his quest to explore his Jewish roots after that death.
On May 24th, 1971, 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.
In late May or early June, the Dylans visited Givat Haim, a kibbutz, to explore the possibility of staying there for a while. Dylan evidently wished to stay in a guest house but not work on the kibbutz. The kibbutz members were understandably concerned that their home would be a magnet for the curious.
As he was thinking about the materials that would appear on Infidels, Dylan went again to Israel in 1983. His son Jesse had a bar mitzvah (somewhat late; Jesse was then seventeen).
Dylan didn’t play his first concerts in Israel for several more years, until he appeared there on September 5th and 7th 1987. No doubt by coincidence, Dylan’s next concert after his appearance in Israel that year was in Basel, Switzerland. Basel has come to mean a lot to me because it was the site of the First Zionist Congress in 1897 therefore the very city I've been writing about for months. I try to imagine Dylan wandering through those streets.
“Neighborhood Bully” remains a remarkable song, one as sadly pertinent today as it was when Dylan wrote it.