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Bob Dylan’s bohemian Zionism

The singer-songwriter’s pro-Israel anthem points the way toward a renewal of Zionist activism

American folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing. Credit: Flickr.
American folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing. Credit: Flickr.
Blake Flayton. Source: Facebook
Blake Flayton

This week, we celebrate the 80th birthday of Robert Allen Zimmerman, one of America’s most celebrated singer-songwriters. Many American Jews know that Zimmerman went on to change his name to Bob Dylan in a bid for palatability among mainstream American audiences, and perhaps many of us are conditioned to resent this—to view it as an act of internalized antisemitism or need for assimilation. I can’t argue with this critique, though I will say that Dylan was hardly alone, as American Jews changed their surnames by the thousands in the 20th century for both professional and social concerns. Like it or not, that is our story in this country. It also wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Dylan abandoned his Jewishness, especially if we consider a less popular albeit prominent recording of his from 1983—“Neighborhood Bully.”

“Neighborhood Bully” is about “just one man,” whose enemies say he’s “on their land.” The neighborhood bully “just lives to survive, he’s criticized and condemned for being alive, he’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin, he’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.” Dylan continues: “Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized, old women condemned him, said he should apologize. Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad. The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad.” The song concludes: “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone. Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon. He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand. In bed with nobody, under no one’s command.”

Clearly, “Neighborhood Bully” is a Zionist anthem. Every line waxes poetic on the Jewish-Israeli experience, blurring the lines between how one perceives the Jewish people as a unit and how one views Israel as a state. Written during the First Lebanon War, the piece was seen as a lightning rod of support for Israel from the American Jewish community, at a time when even the Israeli people were increasingly critical of their own government. But over time, the tune has faded away, lost from the memories of even the most die-hard Dylan fans, and Google has even been accused of censoring it.

We, of course, all know the words to songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” These songs take us back to the 1960s, the era of civil rights, social justice and universal ideals. Indeed, Dylan has been immortalized as one of the original authority-questioners, whose promise of “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” launched a new wave of bohemian, liberal culture in America. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the current bohemian, liberal culture in America sees their values and the values of a Jewish sovereign homeland as incompatible, which is perhaps the reason “Neighborhood Bully” speaks to me, but fails to leave a lasting impression on Dylan’s legacy.

However, at a time when advocacy for Jewish self-determination is perceived as conservative at best and reactionary at worst, it is refreshing to listen to a four-minute case for Israel that comes with a three-chord guitar riff from a pioneer of speaking truth to power. I have written at length about the need for the Jewish community to inject a spirit of rebelliousness back into Zionism if we hope to successfully combat the ever-trendy and ever-edgy anti-Zionism we face. So far, this plea has fallen on deaf ears. Listening to “Neighborhood Bully,” I realize that we cannot trust this effort to be led by those already in power, who make the decisions on behalf of American Jewry and Israel. No, the new wave of advocacy on behalf of Israel must be ushered in by Dylan archetypes: young, ambitious and looking to shake up power structures.

If Max Nordau was able to coin the term “muscular Judaism” in order to fashion the Zionist pioneers into his idealized framework, and if A.D. Gordon was able to tether connection to the physical land of Israel to the need for a Jewish state, it shouldn’t be too far-fetched to introduce a “bohemian Zionism” in a bid to strengthen the Jewish people. I can envision a renaissance in young pro-Israel circles, where art, music, literature, cafe culture and hesitation to accept authority are once again embraced. I like to explain to young people that Zionism did not begin or even shift into motion with the convening of distinguished delegates at Theodor Herzl’s Basel conference in 1897. Rather, it began with anxious Jews spending hours upon hours in smoky living room salons, outside the harsh eye of the Jewish establishment, reciting poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew and inviting the most impressive Jewish intellectuals of the day to contribute to the discussion. What is stopping us from igniting this again?

One of the most impactful lines in “Neighborhood Bully” is “He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth, took sickness and disease and he turned it into health. He’s the neighborhood bully.” In hearing these lines, I worry the Jewish community has lost sight of the wonders we have to offer in order to defend what we already have. Our nation is defined by what we create—“wealth” and “health,” but also a rich culture that demands to be expressed and interpreted. Why should anti-Zionist Jews have a monopoly over the universal energy of Dylan and the beatnik generation? It was the beatnik generation’s struggle for freedom and their independent spirit that should inspire us to advocate for the existence and strength of the world’s only Jewish state.

Blake Flayton is new media director and a columnist at the Jewish Journal.

This article was originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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