Ariel Zilber, one of Israel’s most revered singer-songwriters, is 70 years old. Many believe it’s about time he got a lifetime achievement award from ACUM (the Israeli version of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers)—and he almost did. But the planned award fell through at the last minute due to Zilber’s political beliefs, deemed by many to be too radical.
It all started less than a week ago, when the singer Noa turned down her ACUM award because of the group’s decision to award the big prize of the evening to the controversial Chozer B’Tshuvah star. She said she objected to Zilber being honored, arguing that granting him the award would give legitimacy to his many extreme public statements. For starters, that includes his support of Rabbi Meir Kahane, as well as his statement advocating for the release of Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer (a statement he now denies). Following public pressure from Dalia Rabin, the daughter of Yitzhak Rabin, ACUM soon decided to downgrade his “lifetime achievement award” to a “prize for contribution to music.”
Since no one disputes Ariel Zilber’s major contributions to Israeli popular music, ACUM’s decision sparked an immediate cultural and political firestorm, with many defending Zilber’s right to the lifetime achievement award. Interestingly, not only right-wing politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett, and Minister of Culture Limor Livnat protested the decision—so did many others who believe in art, music, and, most important, freedom of speech.
“Lunatic, primitive, weird, racist – he’s all that; but he should have gotten a lifetime achievement award in music because he simply made music,” wrote Alon Idan in Haaretz. No one denies the greatness of Zilber’s music, which holds that special and instantly recognizable quality even today, when he’s more rabbi than rock and roll, and when his new lyrics convey messages that many of his old fans firmly oppose.
Zilber, too, felt the debate was about freedom of speech, claiming he had been thwarted by political motives. When he got up on stage last night to accept his downgraded ACUM prize, he said, “I would return the award, but I cannot ignore the love that I have received from the public in the past few days. I would disassemble ACUM and found a new organization that maintains that everyone in this world is entitled to their own opinion.”
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.