Dionysus in Zion

By Assaf Sagiv

The new Israeli youth culture dances to an ancient tune.

“The phenomenon exists in other countries as well, but it seems to be particularly well developed in Israel,” says Yoav Ben-Dov of Tel Aviv University. “The quasi-tribal organization of the crowds at the parties... has led to a situation in which the vast extent of the trance culture’s popularity in Israel is difficult to measure. Nevertheless, even in the city streets and along the highways of Israel, there are numerous signs of trance culture which are clear to anyone who knows the language (music heard from cars and stores, clothing and record outlets, announcements of parties, graffiti, the manner of dress of young people and so on), and are indicative of its penetration into various social strata and its widespread geographic appeal.”49
The rapid growth of the trance movement in Israel has been met with a surprising degree of acceptance, of which the most striking example has been the public outcry in response to police efforts to put a stop to it.50 Leading the protest are a number of politicians and media figures who have railed against what they see as brutal intervention in the right of Israeli youth to cultural self-definition. MK Avraham Poraz of the liberal Shinui party protested the “demeaning” treatment trance devotees have received from the police. In Poraz’s opinion, “drugs were never the reason for having the parties,” and therefore “we cannot tolerate having the police forbid parties at which this type of music is played.”51 “This is a battle for a person’s right to enjoy himself and to have a good time as he sees fit,”52 said then MK Dedi Zucker of Meretz, who also appraised the trance approach as “the most universal way of thinking, post-Zionist and individualistic.”53 High-profile encouragement of this sort has led trance advocates to mount a mass campaign against police pressure—exactly the type of public involvement they had sought to avoid—which reached its height in a massive “Give Trance a Chance” rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in August 1998. According to reports, nearly thirty thousand protesters attended.54
Intensive law-enforcement efforts have succeeded in driving much of the trance movement underground in the last year, and the massive Bacchanalia have given way to events of a more limited nature. Yet this has not meant a significant setback for the Dionysian revival. If anything, the return to nightclubs, where the movement first developed in Israel, has given it an even more intense character. The club culture, which in the last decade has expanded beyond Tel Aviv to all parts of Israel, has none of the dreamy innocence of the public raves. Nightclub operators have raised the precise and nuanced manipulation of the ecstatic experience to the level of a science. Many of these clubs are designed to foster a stunning audio-visual experience, triggering a state of physical excitement and cognitive confusion. The Jerusalem Post’s Leora Eren-Frucht offers the following account of the Tel Aviv nightclub scene: “The flashing strobe lights are blinding. A spooky-sounding tone—like a violin note held indefinitely—is soon overtaken by a frenetic thumping beat. The pounding electronic music either wears on your nerves or whips you into a frenzy—it’s hard to remain apathetic. The partyers... are jumping and gyrating, leaping and lurching in all directions.”55
The result is a kind of sensory overload, which charges the nightclubs with an overwhelming sensual energy that unites the participants into a single, pulsating mass, orchestrated by the DJ from his high altar. Sharon Freundlich, a disc jockey who goes by the name of DJ Choopy, describes the disc jockey’s achievement with pride:
The entire club is like a ball of fire. Like an atom bomb.... It’s as if you touched a thousand people all over their bodies, and you see all the blood flowing through them, and the sweat pouring from them, and they are completely yours.56

How did Israel become a hothouse of Dionysian youth culture? To begin with, it is not too difficult to find among Israelis under the age of thirty the same pessimism and dark apathy that characterize their American and European counterparts. In 1997, the young Israeli cultural critic Gadi Taub published A Dispirited Rebellion: Essays on Contemporary Israeli Culture, in which he analyzed the world of what he called Israel’s “dispirited generation.” He discerned in his contemporaries a feeling of “rootlessness and meaninglessness,” an anguish that derives from the fact that “we have no influence on all of the truly important things, that which will determine our destiny, in the most literal sense. They are above us and beyond us, and we can only sit here quietly, go about our business and wait for the knock on the door, the announcement on the radio, the signing ceremony on television, or the emergency draft call-up.”57
The depression and frustration that Taub attributes to Israelis in their twenties is felt no less by adolescents. “We are a screwed generation”—the battle cry of rock singer and teen idol Aviv Gefen—has been embraced enthusiastically by many younger people who, even as they enjoy a degree of prosperity and security unknown to their forebears, continue to show ever greater manifestations of nihilistic despair. Although some of this is a matter of bowing to the current international fashion, which has been promoted by a global, media-driven popular youth culture, there is nonetheless an element of genuine distress as well. Like their counterparts in London, Amsterdam and Berlin, Israeli youth feel the malaise characteristic of “late capitalism”: In a prosperous society which responds to all their material needs, they are condemned to live under the perpetual threat of apathy and ennui.
Still, the Bacchanalian impulses of Israeli youth are not solely the result of global trends. They are also the product of Israel’s own past, of unique historical elements which today act as a powerful catalyst for the Dionysian spirit. It is among young people that these forces most fiercely are felt, due to the intensity with which young people experience the current dissolution of traditional Israeli norms—a process in which youth themselves have played no small role. It was, after all, youth who always took the lead in shaping Israeli culture: The Zionist revolution itself was a rebellion of youth against the older, “exilic” norms, and it is the youth who have been at the forefront of every cultural development since then. In a society that adopted the modernist cult of youth from its very founding, young people serve as the heart which—to paraphrase Pascal—the head has trouble comprehending. At the same time, no other group is more sensitive to the most profound changes taking place in society, or is more capable of formulating a response to them.
This fact was particularly striking in the last two decades, when Israel’s cultural and political leadership underwent a series of demoralizing collective crises—including the war in Lebanon and the protracted deployment there, the Intifada, the Scud attacks during the Gulf War and the suicide terror bombings in the mid-1990s. It was under the pressure of these traumas that a sense of impotence began to take hold, a disbelief in the possibility of having an impact on political and societal realities. These sentiments left deep scars, especially among veterans of combat units. The fighters who had played cat-and-mouse with Intifada rioters in the territories and with Hizballah guerillas in Lebanon felt that they had personally suffered the consequences of the weakness of spirit demonstrated by the political leadership, and by the public in general. One result was the steady withdrawal of young adults from engagement in national concerns, and their retreat into the sphere of the exclusively private. The only two cases in recent years in which young people have turned out in substantial numbers for any cause—the mourning following the Rabin assassination, and the students’ strike in 1998—are remembered, in the final analysis, as efforts that produced no tangible results, and as such contributed even further to feelings of impotence. “My idea is that I have no ideas,” writes the young journalist Yair Lapid. “The trouble is that somehow or other, we have become convinced that no matter what we do, someone will always be there to stop us.”58
For the Israeli youth, whose world has been taken over by a sense of chronic passivity, the Dionysian promise of ecstatic self-abandonment offers a powerful temptation. The habits of Israelis between the ages of twenty and thirty—the often reckless search for adventure overseas, the attraction to Eastern mystical cults, the steady rise in the consumption of recreational drugs—are all examples. The fact that these symptoms are most frequently the province of recently discharged soldiers may well point to the central role played by the experience of military service. The conventional wisdom holds that the army matures the young Israeli, but the truth may well be the opposite: In many respects, the military framework forces upon the young Israeli just about all the discipline, order and duty he can handle. Once he escapes into civilian life, he feels an immense need for release, an overwhelming desire to “let go.” At times, one gets the impression that the typical freshly discharged soldier views his new civilian status not as representative of new obligations, but as a license for anarchy.

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