[UPDATE: See first comment to this post. Maybe Østrem has lifted his boycott?]
Bob Dylan has his own official Website, of course, which contains things like lyrics to all his songs. But the leading (albeit unofficial) site for Dylan guitar tablature—for transcriptions of the music that accompany the lyrics—is, appropriately, Dylanchords.com (now Dylanchords.info, an “unofficial mirror” created in response to music publishers’ objection to tab sites). You can visit now to find the tabs on hundreds and hundreds of Dylan’s songs. That is, assuming you are not trying to access the site from Israel.
That’s right! A year ago, right after the flotilla raid, the site’s proprietor, a Norwegian-born musicologist and programmer named Eyolf Østrem, shut down his site to those trying to access it from Israeli IP addresses; they instead are told that they are being blocked “as a contribution to a cultural boycott of the state of Israel—a long overdue reaction to the absurd inhumanity that is demonstrated in its actions and that goes against everything that I and this site stands for.” It adds, “The boycott is not directed against individuals of Jewish descent or religion, but against the state of Israel and its actions.” (Thanks to my friend B.J. for pointing this out.) In a series of blog posts from around that time, Østrem expands on his decision. (Mr. Østrem: Get in touch, would love to chat!) Clearly Israel does go against everything he stands for. But his site? That is, Dylan? That is more dubious.
Østrem’s first post about the boycott was called “Neighbourhood Bully indeed,” a reference to “Neighborhood Bully,” a song off Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels. Written in the wake of Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak (an act widely condemned at the time and widely celebrated now), in it Israel is the titular neighborhood bully—except, of course, it’s not at all. Sample verse: “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/He’s the neighborhood bully.” The song is very obviously ironic, although apparently not obviously enough for Østrem.
In an essay about the song, contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg quotes a Dylan scholar: “Everybody felt it was preachy and had no subtlety, completely black and white. They said it’s a non-Dylan song. But it is a Dylan song. That’s the beauty of it. You have to deal with it as a Dylan song.” Adds Goldberg, “You have to deal with Dylan as a Jew and not as an ordinary, temporizing, self-conscious Jew—but a Jew with dangerous feelings.” Østrem, of course, fails to do this, to acknowledge that the man to whom he has devoted his site feels quite differently about the Jewish state. Indeed, click on Dylanchords’s link for “Neighborhood Bully,” and you are directed not to its tabs but to a blog post about it entitled, “Bob Dylan’s racist song.” (Østrem did tab it, though: Here it is.)
In fairness, “Neighborhood Bully” was 30 years ago. How does Dylan feel about Israel now? Does he, for example, join Østrem in his cultural boycott? Presumably no, given the concert he played in Tel Aviv last week.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.