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In Israel, Death of a Wedding Singer Who Was an Icon of Palestinian Culture

The murder of Shafik Kabha raises questions about the rampant violence in the Israeli Arab community

Liel Leibovitz
November 27, 2013
Fans mourn Shafik Kabha’s death.(Ali/Arabs48)
Fans mourn Shafik Kabha’s death.(Ali/Arabs48)

One night last month, a man drove through the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. It was getting late, and the man was tired. He had worked all evening and was looking forward to driving home and relaxing with his family. As he stopped in the spacious intersection leading out of town, a scooter sped up and screeched to a halt beside him. It was carrying two men, a driver and a passenger. The passenger pulled out a gun and shot the man in the car at close range, and the scooter driver sped away. The man was rushed to a nearby hospital and was pronounced dead a short while later. Almost immediately, the phone calls began, with tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs chokingly announcing to each other in the middle of the night that Shafik Kabha, an icon of Palestinian music and one of the most popular singers in the Arab world, was dead.

Their sorrow was more than just the sour sense of loss that permeates the soul when a beloved entertainer dies, especially if he dies young—Kabha was 53—and violently. It was personal: Over the course of his career, which began when he was only 16, Kabha performed in hundreds of family festivities each year, providing the soundtrack to weddings and parties and other joyous events. Kabha sang to his fans not on distant stages in smoky clubs or big arenas but in their back yards and their living rooms. His voice—deep, sonorous, beautiful—was an intimate part of his fans’ memories.

It was also a voice that clearly expressed their cultural traditions and political aspirations. Kabha’s music brought together classical Palestinian instruments and modern sensibilities; in his songs, you can hear the mijwiz, the double-piped woodwind instrument that’s a staple of the sound of the region, alongside ornate organ riffs that resemble the wildest solos of Keith Emerson. And his words were often hymns to his beloved motherland, urging its dispersed sons and daughters to return home and yearning for the day of its independence.

Naturally, in predominantly Jewish Israel, such words had consequences, and Kabha was banned from performing in the West Bank for more than a decade, out of fear that his brand of poetic nationalism would incite uprisings. And yet, while the Israelis considered him too Palestinian, for the Arab world he was frequently seen as too Israeli: Before Egypt and Jordan signed their peace treaties with Israel, Kabha found that his passport, not his politics, determined the scope of his access to his fans; because he was an Israeli citizen, Jordan and Egypt wouldn’t let him in. Peace brought few balms: In the late 1980s, at the height of the first Intifada, one of Kabha’s scheduled concerts in Cairo was abruptly canceled, Mubarak’s regime mirroring the Israeli fear that the Voice of Palestine could cause nothing but trouble.

If such tribulations scarred Kabha, he didn’t let it show. He remained politically outspoken, criticizing, for example, Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights and expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza, but he was never astringent. In song and speech, his was a subtle way, the way of the metaphor or the witticism. Rather than rail against the Egyptian dictator for banning him from entry, for example, Kabha, his tongue firmly in his cheek, praised Mubarak for being “the only politician that respects international law—he respects the agreements he signed with his beloved Israel.” For his fans, little was lost in translation: The singer they adored, they understood, was taking a stand against the treaty that tied what they perceived as two oppressive states, Israel and Mubarak’s Egypt.

With political turmoil a constant in his life, and with the Middle East being what it is, it was not preposterous to fear that the life of a prominent and eloquent man like Kabha might end in some violent outburst. Yet when the Israeli police earlier this month arrested four suspects in Kabha’s murder, many were surprised. The alleged assassins, it is believed, weren’t secret agents of this nation or that or rogue ideological zealots; rather, they were a father and his sons, enraged because Kabha refused to perform at their family’s wedding.

Still, in Israel, where the personal and the national are inseparable, the search for larger meaning in this petty and terrifying act of vengeance was soon under way. Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Israeli Arab member of Knesset, took to the parliament’s podium and lambasted Israeli society for largely ignoring Kabha’s murder. Had a Jewish singer of Kabha’s caliber been slain, Tibi said, the Israeli media would have reported on nothing else, whereas Kabha’s passing went largely unnoticed outside Israel’s Arab community.

More concretely, after more than 10,000 fans attended Kabha’s funeral, thousands more attended sporadic gatherings in the days and weeks following the murder, demanding that the police crack down on the steep rise in violence among Israel’s Arabs. With the state’s investment in its largest minority—Arabs currently account for 20 percent of Israel’s population—falling short of the community’s needs; with economic conditions lagging far behind the statewide norm—an Israeli Arab employee currently earns, on average, only 61 percent of the salary awarded to his Jewish counterpart; with the ongoing regional conflict leading many Israeli Arabs to define themselves as Palestinians; and with a host of societal factors, like a rapid move from a traditional clan structure to one based primarily on nuclear families, crime among Israeli Arab communities is now rampant. Unlicensed firearms are everywhere. And according to the Israeli police’s 2012 statistical yearbook, 20 percent of all murders were motivated by “inter-clan disputes,” a phenomenon prevalent mainly within the Arab community. In the aftermath of Kabha’s assassination, Israeli Arab critics of the police noted that while crime organizations run by Jews are classified as such and fought vigorously, crime organizations run by Arabs are designated merely as clans, thereby blunting the perceived threat they pose to society.

Less than a week after Kabha’s death, a group of young people from Kafr Qara, Kabha’s hometown, organized and sent a petition to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to make fighting crime in the Israeli Arab community a priority. “We, as citizens of the state, wish to be treated as equals,” it read. “We wish for the cabinet to discuss this matter and come up with a comprehensive plan to fight crime and solve these murders. We wish for the police to have better guidelines and better tools to face these challenges. And we wish for the recognition and respect that is due to us, a not insubstantial part of the population.” Shafik Kabha would agree.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.