Neighborhood Bully--a discussion on Israel and Palestine with Jewish Palestine solidarity activist David Rovics


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Wed, 10/18/2023 - 8:00am to 9:00am


The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He's wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He's always on trial for just being born
He's the neighborhood bully

This is one of the many verses in Bob Dylan's explicitly pro-Israel song, "Neighborhood Bully."  It's not one of Dylan's more metaphor-filled compositions, it has very little of his characteristic brilliant imagery, it just makes its pro-Israel point directly and clearly.  He recorded the song in 1983, while the blood was still drying on the alleyways of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, where Israeli troops had protected a fascist Christian militia as they raped and murdered three thousand Palestinians, mostly women and children.

Bob Dylan, that iconic songwriter known for being one of the most famous people on Earth and for penning such antiwar classics as "Masters of War" and such antiracist classics as "Only A Pawn In Their Game" is also an ardent supporter of Israel, at least according to my interpretation of his song lyrics (other verses in "Neighborhood Bully" make his stance much more obvious).

Dylan is far from alone as a person known for his otherwise progressive views who has extremely regressive views when it comes to the question of Israel, and the longstanding practice of apartheid enforced there by the state with the army in which Palestinians are not welcome, in which Palestinians have been dispossessed, at gunpoint, of 92% of their land (so far), with the rest of it under Israeli military rule.

Many people will point to Dylan's apparently contradictory political views and call that ironic.  How can a person who so eloquently supports equal rights for Black people in the US have such a blind spot when it comes to the blatant dispossession and oppression of Palestinians?  How can someone write such blistering verse in opposition to the American war machine, while at the same time (or technically about twenty years later) embracing the country that is the biggest recipient of US military aid?

Dylanologists might say his politics evolved over time.  As a bit of a Dylanologist myself, I'd argue against this theory, but I'm not actually going to write an article about Bob Dylan's politics, so I'll just leave that question there.  My point here is Dylan is not alone in having these obvious contradictions in his worldview, he's one of many.

But Dylan explains this apparent irony in his song, which is why I think it's such a good song, though I also find it so profoundly disagreeable.  Those who are bullied don't automatically or even usually become lifelong advocates for all of the oppressed people of the world.  More often, they lay low and try to avoid the bullies for the rest of their lives.  Perhaps just as often, they become bullies themselves.

From Genocidal Ironies, by David Rovics, on his "This Week With David Rovics" on Substack

Episode Playlist

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