​jerusalem: searching for subculture in the holy city

We head to Jerusalem to look into how a generation of young Israelis are creatively responding to the conflict of the city.

by Felix Petty
04 September 2015, 5:42am

By the time the second Palestinian uprising had ended in 2005 the city of Jerusalem was on its knees. Almost 6000 people had died, the majority of whom were Palestinian, and the Israeli economy was in decline as tourists deserted a city that had become a shorthand for division, death, conflict and the intractable nature of religious-nationalist politics.

The city had also recently elected a right wing, orthodox Jewish mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who clashed with the city's gay and lesbian communities, its creative class, and its nightlife, even its history. In response, waves of Jerusalemites, stuck between two many rocks and too many hard places, fled to Tel Aviv or abroad, unable to carve out a life in a city of division, tension, and prejudice.

The uprising started after a visit of then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, to the Al Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount, the holiest site in the city for both Jews and Muslims. On Temple Mount stands the Dome Of The Rock, its glimmering golden dome a beacon at the centre of the city's religious conflict. As you walk round the city it's unavoidable, always there, always present, a constant reminder of the city's past, and what that past signifies. Because of course, Jerusalem has a lot of past, but does it have a lot of future?

Jerusalem was divided in 1948 into Arabic and Jewish halves, and though Israel occupied the eastern half, along with Gaza and the West Bank, after the 1967 war, this division has left a permanent faultline down the middle of the city. Crossing over into East Jerusalem you're unlikely, outside of the ultra Zionist settlements, to see many Jews. There's a deep, cultural division through the heart of the city, a division that doesn't need a wall to be enforced.

Conflict, it's commonly supposed, breeds art out of the places politics can't reach; Northern Ireland had the Falls Road murals, George Best, The Undertones; divided Berlin forged Krautrock and Techno; The Spanish Civil War moulded Hemingway, Lorca and Picasso; the segregated American south produced rock and roll, the blues and soul. But Jerusalem, it could be argued, is unique in that its fracture has no easily recognisable cultural symbol, no shining artistic light that condenses the cultural-political division into a creative vision. It's there, visible, in the city's rocks; its changing architecture crafted and re-crafted by waves by waves of occupiers and liberators, the place names that've been changed and edited to rewrite history, but what sound and literature and vision sums up the current situation?

Jerusalem is a city of polarities, the place where east meets west. Is it an enclave or an outpost? Are its residents interlopers or natives? Citizens or outsiders? Settlers or returners? How do you just live in a city like this? Is it even possible to just live in a city like this?

Throughout this turmoil though, Jerusalem has maintained its own unique cultural identity, even if it's been largely ignored; the Jerusalem underground has fed off of the city's tensions and histories and nestled itself precariously between the warring factions of the city. Tel Aviv might've risen as the epicentre of liberal Jewish society and Jerusalem might've all but been ignored -- the only journalists who come to the city cpme to cover conflict, not culture -- but culture, like weeds in your garden, survive, no matter how hard you try to kill them.

At one time, in the 1900s, the British mooted Uganda as a homeland for the Jewish state instead of the more volatile Mandate of Palestine. A bar in downtown Jerusalem, Uganda, takes its name from this brief and forgotten proposal. It was one of the few clubs that managed to survive both the Second Intifada and the growing political conservatism of the city. It became a refuge, a meeting point for city's disaffected, rebellious outsiders; a scene so small and hermetic that it began to ferment a unique blend of cross-cultural pollination that forms the 'Jerusalem' scene.

I'm here in Uganda, at 3am, for the debut of a new Jerusalem based techno label, Confused Machines. The night is part of Frontline, a week of events in the city celebrating the unique and often ignored narrative of its musical life. Uganda is small, you could maybe squeeze 100 people inside, but the dancing is hardcore and free, hidden behind the curtained off windows separating the club from the alleyway outside. Two guys from the label spend four or five hours playing relentless, slithering techno on drum machines as a crowd of young Jerusalemites, many with the grown out hair and beards synonymous with youth free of the buzz cuts of compulsory military service, drink and smoke into the early morning. Nights like these scream of a political escapism in a city where it's almost impossible to escape the political.

Frontline started five years ago, curated by Gilly Levy, a 28-year-old born and bred in the city, as a part of Jerusalem's Season of Culture, a wider effort to try to rethink the city in more positive terms, to not leave its narrative to its religious-nationalist elements, to present a more positive picture of the creative, musical youth who don't necessarily agree with their government's actions, and dream of and try to create a more progressive future.

Frontline is a once-a-year celebration, spread over four nights, highlighting the breadth and diversity of the city's youth; its dance scene, its experimentalism, its pop culture, its political commitment. Frontline serves a purpose as a coming together of a community under pressure from all sides, a chance for all the city's outsiders to briefly shine in the spotlight, to show what culture the city's conflict breeds. "Everything becomes a response to what you see around you," Gilly explains, when asked of the city's musical ethos, "The conflict dominates the city, it's torn between nationalism and religion, and in between those two forces there's this small group of us who feel the threat from all sides. And because we're so small no one gives a shit about us, about our culture -- we're an extreme minority in this city. And everyone who finds themselves in that situation shows a lot of solidarity to everyone else who does too. We don't care if you start a band where one guy is playing the violin and the other is doing video projections because everyone here is fused together out of necessity. There aren't scenes here in the plural, you cant be like oh 'I'm going to be part of the metal scene, or I'm going to be part of the hip hop scene, or the visual art scene.' There's one scene here, and everyone's part of it."

It's this smallness, this seclusion, that's bred the uniqueness you find here, and which Gilly has unearthed for Frontline. It's hard to talk of a Jerusalem sound, because there isn't one; it's a Jerusalem mindset that unites.

Everything here becomes political, it's unavoidable. Just the simple fact of some of these bands sharing stages together, can paradoxically become shows of unity that only heighten your awareness of the fractures the city's society suffers from. One night of the festival, in a packed, downtown bar, sees Palestinian folk artists share a stage with a Mizrahi Jew, Barak Cohen, who formed a band after he was beaten up by police when he was overheard listening to Arabic music by a neighbour. Operating within this context, the actual music can feel secondary to simply asserting your desire for expression, and the fact that your desire for expression can exist. Being in a band here, creating something, is about a reaffirmation of human spirit, rather than as a desire for success. This isn't a city you go to to 'make it', to make loads of money and become a star, it's a city you're stuck in and have to find a way to live in. "Music is a kind of medicine for us," Gilly suggests. These bars and clubs, their dancefloors and stages, the movement and meeting of bodies, are cures for an "ill reality".

"The city is full of violence and anger," Gilly continues. "You go to downtown Jerusalem, there's military on the streets, there's all this tension, and I think people realise that life's too short, that the whole thing is bullshit. What's the point of trying to be a megastar, follow a trend and get popular when you live in this situation?"

This is reflected in the festival's programming, which is decidedly uncommercial. Frontline is not a showcase in the way The Great Escape or South By South West are showcases, stuffed full of global A&R guys with expense accounts, two phones and sales targets to meet.

The festival is largely situated in The Hansen, the city's old leper colony, which is now a multi-use arts events space (gentrification will come for us all, even the lepers). The first band to take to its temporary stage are 60 Reebo, who Gilly found rehearsing in the depths of a basement near the city's old bus station. Their singer, Mickael Meresse, grew up in a secular household before converting to Orthodox Judaism. His band fuse his new love of religious scripture with heavy metal and avant-garde noise, as he moshes and dances around the stage he struggles to keep his yarmulke on his head.

"Since The Temple was destroyed," Mickael explains, "Jews haven't had their own music, because the music of the Jews came from The Temple. So Jewish music became what people heard in France, or Eastern Europe, and married Jewish words to it, and we are just sort of doing the same with metal."

60 Reebo may be the most obvious example, but a lot of people in Jerusalem talk of music in spiritual terms, as against the simplicity of the pop song, as if something so simplistic has no place in a political landscape so complex; they speak of music as spiritual not necessarily as something religious but as a form of ritual, a coping mechanism, and even if it the music at times may take on the form of the pop song, its performance within this context causes it grow into something more amorphous and harder to grasp.

Frontline is a festival that makes few obvious choices in its line-up, if only because there are few obvious choices to make when drawing from Jerusalem's current musical life, and also, partly because the city's creative life, is at times so temporary, it's a hard place to carve out a career, a place where eventually, everyone moves on, to Tel Aviv, or abroad.

Adi Kum, is one of those. She was born and raised in Jerusalem and found a home in the city's punk scene, before moving to Tel Aviv, and then onto Berlin, where she started an electronic project under the name Dane Joe, mixing dark minimalist beats with gothic moodiness. She's back to debut a new EP at the festival.

"Any town that has so many things that oppress you is going to give rise to an underground scene to channel that anger." She explains of her early days playing in punk bands in the city. "After a while it felt like we were always performing to the same forty people, you know, it's a really small scene, and you look out and everyone else there is also in a punk band too, and you just end up going to each other's concerts. Which is why I ended up deciding I had to go to a bigger city, because how long can you do that for?"

"I don't like what's happening here. This city is so heavy, so fucking heavy. But I'm proud of my friends, for organising this festival, for fighting for it, for really trying to make something happen here despite all the bullshit that surrounds you when you live here. I was sick of screaming. There are so many depressing things happening in this city, that it's hard not to be suffocated by it."

The ultimate question when living in this city is then, simply, how do you live in a city when you are surrounded by so much oppression and so much history? How do you build a sustainable creative community when people are forced out by politics they don't agree with and can't change? And when global opinion stereotypically paints all Israeli's as somehow complicit in these politics too.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is the elephant in the room throughout the festival. In a city where every conversation, especially as an outsider, quickly becomes about politics, it's something rarely broached. Because, for these young Israelis trying to forge a creative life in this city, they are trapped not only between all of the city's, country's and region's warring factions, but also between the wider global perspectives on the conflict. How do you get the world's attention when the world is trying its hardest to ignore to you? 


Text Felix Petty
Photography Noam Chojnowski

Dane Joe
Adi Kum
60 Reebo
felix petty
gilly levy