Dionysus in Zion

By Assaf Sagiv

The new Israeli youth culture dances to an ancient tune.

Yet despite the supposed spirituality of the “rave” experience, it has remained devoid of anything that can be called an ideology or a vision. The ecstatic state for which it strives is not indicative of a “higher” consciousness, and serves no end other than itself. It is entirely private, and suggests no connection with the concerns of public life.31 Thirty years after the emergence of the idealistic counterculture of the 1960s, that movement’s most striking features—license, drugs and music—have been harnessed to a diametrically opposed ideal: That of disengagement from society. Unlike the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s, the youth culture of the last decade is gripped by the same emotional alienation characteristic of post-modern culture. Generation X—as the phrase coined by author Douglas Coupland implies32—has long given up on any hopes of effecting real change in the world, and hides instead behind a hardened pose of apathy and cynicism. “Nothing can be sacred,” writes sociologist Ryan Moore of the prevailing mood. “All styles are exhausted the moment they are born, and, all other things being equal, one does, says and feels nothing.”33
This feeling of despair and apathy is not only the product of disillusionment, of disappointment with fantasies of changing the world. Paradoxically, it is also the result of material satisfaction. Today’s Western youth live for the most part in a world of plenty which caters endlessly to their needs. Today’s capitalist society has identified the young as the ideal consumer class—possessing an abundance of leisure time, an insatiable thirst for new stimuli, and money to burn—and has learned to attend to their tastes and preferences, to cultivate them doggedly and to respond quickly and expertly to their demands. The market not only provides a constant flow of new products and services but also works tirelessly to create the need for these products and services. Encouragement of the young consumer’s desire for immediate and boundless gratification has become a necessary condition for the system’s own survival—and the youths have played the role of willing accomplice. Never has there been a generation so aware of its own “needs”; nor has the satisfaction of those needs ever been so readily available.
In his 1843 work Either/Or, Soren Kierkegaard described the results of such excess, in his depiction of the “esthetic” type whose life is geared solely to the satisfaction of his appetites.34 Such a person, contends Kierkegaard, lives his life in an “unmediated” way in the present, always enjoying the moment. The categories which form his world are not those of good and evil, but of satisfaction and frustration, pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering. The most immediate threat he can sense is that of boredom, which he seeks to escape through the pursuit of new experiences. But in the end, after he has become aware of the unbearable monotony of his existence, he is no longer able to escape from despair—“Despair over himself, because he no longer believes in himself.... Despair over his human nature, because he no longer believes that any sort of self is possible for him.... Despair over life, because all his tomorrows will be the same as today.”35 More than a century after Kierkegaard, the same idea was voiced by the rock artist Iggy Pop, in a manner representative of the prevailing sentiment of our day: “They say that death kills you, but death doesn’t kill you. Boredom and indifference kill you.”36
According to Kierkegaard, the way out of despair lies in pursuing a life of ethical commitment. Post-modern youth culture has chosen a different solution: Addiction to the ecstatic experience. The feelings of alienation and disconnection that Gen-Xers have developed in response to a reality they feel has no room for them have led them to channel their energies into the passive euphoria of the trance. As Yaron Tan-Brink describes it:
For youth in Thatcheristic Britain, Reaganistic America, materialistic Japan and even in Intifadistic Israel, there were no longer any Sixties dreams about struggling against a corrupt establishment and changing the world.... All they wanted at this stage was to change their own impossible personal lives. Naiveté gave way to cynicism, hope to despair. Probably the only thing the world’s youth collectively decided to do was to cut out and dance until all the crazy people got sick of their money and their wars.37
This tragic element gives the new movement its authentic Dionysian hue, which was absent from the utopian dreams of the 1960s. Like the ancient devotees of the god of wine and fertility, today’s youth display a fundamental lack of faith in man’s ability to shape his own future. The Dionysian impulse, as Nietzsche wrote long ago, flourishes and feeds upon the sense of nothingness:
The Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: Both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint.38

The new Dionysian revolution, which was born in Ibiza and quickly spread throughout the Western world, found fertile soil in the Jewish state. The speed with which it caught hold, and the enthusiasm with which it was received among Israeli youth, were phenomenal. The ecstatic gospel was brought to Israel by backpackers who had been caught in its spell at the wild beach parties in Goa or on islands off Thailand, and immediately found a waiting audience among Israeli fifteen- to twenty-five-year-olds.
One expression of this wave was the sudden popularity in Israel of the drug ecstasy. “A very intensive drug culture has developed in Israel in recent years, even by world standards,” claims Yoav Ben-Dov of the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science at Tel Aviv University. “We are talking not only about a tremendous growth in the number of users.... Drug abuse is connected with widespread societal phenomena, and appears today as a unifying and identity-defining factor among different groups of the youth population, and not only in a criminal context.”39 Unlike heroin or cocaine, ecstasy is perceived as a “soft” drug, and this has allowed it to reach a growing market and to become the “lifeblood” of nightclubs throughout the country.40 “The pills are a hit with the youth, and are given out primarily at schools and parties,” noted Yaron Tan-Brink and Tal Ariel-Amir in Tel Aviv.41 Similarly, Itzik Nini of the Allenby 58 club in Tel Aviv reports that the drugs have “come on strong over the past five or six years, and every year they get stronger.... Sometimes it really seems like someone poured large quantities of ecstasy into the country’s water supply and made everybody happy.”42
Today’s Dionysian youth culture finds its fullest expression, however, at the “raves,” enormous trance gatherings held out in the midst of nature. “Mass trance parties... are the form of recreation preferred by Israelis of all walks of life and of all ages,” writes journalist Felix Frisch in Ma’ariv.43 Whereas the influence of Israel’s flower children in the 1960s was limited to a relatively small, if vocal, group of Tel Aviv bohemians, the current trance culture has captured a far wider audience, drawing clientele from across the spectrum of ages and social backgrounds, bringing together people from widely divergent sectors of the Israeli public who previously had little or nothing in common culturally.44 As the Tel Aviv weekly Ha’ir reports:
Trance cuts across ethnic and economic classes. Whoever took part in one of the raves last summer surely noticed an amazing thing: That everyone was there. Druggies from India and greasers from the suburbs, girls from development towns with their tank tops and platform shoes dancing alongside buttoned-up BA students. This is the true power of the rave: It creates an unstoppable surge of humanity. At the raves there is no fighting, no arguments; the atmosphere is saturated with love. Trance helps people erase their brains, to lose their ability to think—that is its purpose.45
It would be hard to overstate the extent of the “trance” phenomenon in Israel. In the last few years, this country of six million has become a major focus of the global rave culture, in certain respects surpassing even Britain, Holland and Germany. Trance music has become a major Israeli export—a fact expressed in the number of Israeli recording artists who have gained worldwide recognition in this area, including names such as Astral Projection, Indoor, Sandman (Itzik Levi), Chakra and Oforia (Ofer Dikovsky). “It seems we got the biggest trance scene in the world (per population),” enthuses Amit Eshel in one of the Internet sites devoted to the subject, a claim confirmed by a survey of world media.46 “Trance Casts a Spell over the Youth of a Worried Israel,” proclaimed a New York Times headline last October,47 while the French television channel ARTE reported that trance in Israel has become “a mass movement” and aired an interview with the head of a British record company specializing in trance music who reports better sales in Israel than in his own country.48

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