Guest Blog: Avital Raz on My Jerusalem

My Jerusalem is a solo performance derived from a song. A politically-charged tale of a drunken one-night stand, infused with stories of growing up in the turmoil of 1980s Israel. To learn more about the show, click here.

In this blog post, Avital Raz shares the story of her song – why she created it, why it caused so much controversy, and why it’s relevant now more than ever. 

Please be aware that the recommended reading age of this post is 18+

In 2012 I wrote a song called ‘The Edinburgh Surpriseʼ. It describes a drunken sexual encounter between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man.

I grew up in west Jerusalem in the 1980s. My childhood was shadowed by political events happening around the country: the first Intifada, the military response to it, the radicalisation of the Israeli right that led to Yitchak Rabin, the first Israeli prime minister who dared to speak to the PLO, being murdered by a right-wing Jew in 1995.

If leftist Israeli women (yes, there is an Israeli left, believe it or not!) dared to speak out against Palestinian occupation they were often reviled as ‘whores of the Arabsʼ. In this song, I tried to explore what happens when the more vulnerable gender belongs to the occupying nation.

I was inspired in part by a short story in Hebrew by the wonderful Alona Kimchi called ‘The Berlin Diariesʼ in which a young Israeli man is visiting his mentally ill sister in Berlin. Heʼs obsessed with the idea of “screwing a German woman”… really laying into her, “likroa la tatachat veligmor la al hapartzuf” (“to rip her ass apart and come on her face”). He thought “one Jew fucking one German would be like fucking the results of history – splatter his fine Semitic sperm all over the 3rd reich and sing Ave Maria. Always better to humiliate an individual” says Alon in the story, “Nations donʼt crush as easily.”

In my song, unlike in Alona Kimchiʼs story, the encounter is mostly a pleasant one that ends with a feeling of love, or at least friendship. “As he walked me home we were silent, we were walking hand in hand, And I know we both felt a sweet sadness thinking about our common land.”

I performed the song many times and it sparked up some controversy. I expected right-wing people and puritans not to like it, but I was caught off guard when it was criticised also by some Palestinians and feminists on twitter. After performing it in a few Gaza benefit concerts in the UK, I was asked to screen the music video in an event in London that was raising money for hearing aids in Gaza. Two female Palestinian poets who were supposed to read said they would boycott the event if my song was played, so it wasnʼt. I donʼt know if this was because of the strong language and nudity or for another reason.

When making the video I wanted to translate the slogan “Fucked in the ass for peace” into Hebrew and Arabic. I struggled to find an Arabic translation. People made suggestions, but when I checked them they translated back as ‘disgraced for peaceʼ and ‘dishonoured for peaceʼ. Feminist Palestine supporters on twitter told me Iʼm perpetuating the stereotype of the Palestinian rapist. When I argued that the song isnʼt about rape, I was told that the female character admits to being “too drunk to care” and therefore she did not consent.

The song proved to be like a guava. Lots of people loved its unabashed honesty, some people hated it for being not PC. The Herald Scotland said it was “likely to be the most compelling thing you hear all year”. I felt compelled to keep performing it and, a few years later during an artist residency with Lancaster Arts, I started developing it into a one-woman show.

The show is called My Jerusalem and it uses this song broken up and interspersed with stories of growing up in the the turmoil of 80s Israel. It too has proven controversial since its development last year as a WorksAhead commission with hÅb /STUN + Contact in Manchester, Arts Council Englandʼs support and mentoring from Peader Kirk.

When performing it last year in Sheffield where Iʼm now living, in one month I was both called an ‘Israel-hating antisemiteʼ by The Jewish Chronicle (a paper I had never heard of till I found my name and photo published with a list of other supposed antisemites), and a ‘Zionist racistʼ by someone who wrote to Migration Matters Festival: “For an Israeli to entitle her play ‘My Jerusalemʼ is itself a political statement and one that omits the fact that another people, namely Palestinians, also lay claim to that city.”

This was not at all my intention. In fact the name of the show is a quote from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who slapped me, aged 16, on the bus in Jerusalem for being dressed immodestly and who ends her monologue with “this is my Jerusalem, not just any old town”.

The person who wrote the complaint letter was so intent on hating me, they mistook this Ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman for a Muslim one (despite her speaking Yiddish) and claimed “This juxtaposition of modernity against Arab traditionalism is a well worn racist theme in Zionist discourse”.

Lots of people have their own Jerusalem. Christians, Muslims, Jews, William Blake…. Itʼs a place heavily laden with peopleʼs projections. This show is about my experience of Jerusalem. A tale of child abuse, defiance and coming of age within a rigid society where religion and the military-dominated.

The contentious subject of Israel and me as an Israeli telling my narrative brings up powerful emotional responses and preconceived ideas in the UK. It seems that some people find it hard to see the grey and feel compelled to stick to black and white; abuser and abused. Can we go beyond the blame game and really see each otherʼs all too vulnerable humanity?

With the escalation in violence after Trump declared Jerusalem to be the Jewish capital, questions of antisemitism in the Labour Party, rising levels of awareness of the Palestinian cause and the negative feelings towards Israel and Israelis that often accompany it, this performance feels very timely.

The show combines live music with storytelling and projected images. Itʼs a nuanced exploration of the politics of division, from internal checkpoints and separation walls to gender norms. A work about my ethnicity, gender, racism, and the underlying fear that perpetuates it. Can we surmount divisions imposed by occupation? Can we go beyond slogans and really see each other?