To generations of Israeli fans, Yaffa Yarkoni has been "the Singer of the Wars." Whenever troops marched into battle, they could be sure Yarkoni would follow. Clad in fatigues, she raised spirits at the front with her rousing renditions of patriotic songs.
So it seemed natural for Army Radio to interview the iconic singer in her home a few days before Israel's Independence Day this month. Once again, Israeli troops were at war, this time in the West Bank, where they were sweeping through Palestinian towns and refugee camps in Israel's largest military operation there since the 1967 Middle East War.
But this time, Yarkoni offered no words of encouragement. Instead, she bitterly criticized the troops, the government and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an anguished tirade that shocked her interviewer and enraged many Israelis. "When I saw the Palestinians with their hands tied behind their backs, young men, I said, 'It is like what they did to us in the Holocaust,' " Yarkoni said. "We are a people who have been through the Holocaust. How are we capable of doing these things?"
Her words were deemed so offensive that the union representing the nation's performing artists called off a planned tribute to Yarkoni that had been in the works for two years. The head of the union said it was forced to make the move after members of the public flooded its offices with complaints and returned tickets purchased for the event, and after sponsors canceled their financial support.
Government ministers denounced Yarkoni. The town of Kfar Yona canceled her performance at a Memorial Day event to honor Israeli soldiers who have fallen in battle. Youth movements declared a boycott of her music. The septuagenarian received so many hate calls, her daughter said, that she is now too frightened to appear in public.
At a time when many Israelis believe that they are locked in a battle for their existence with the Palestinians, Yarkoni's remarks, and the backlash against her, have stirred a debate here about freedom of speech and the nature of patriotism.
"What happened to Yaffa Yarkoni," said Naomi Chazan, a left-wing member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, "exemplifies the fact that in the current climate in Israel, anything that is not the official line is considered treachery or betrayal."
Yarkoni is not the only public figure who has come under attack recently. Yossi Beilin, the dovish former justice minister, found himself the target of a boycott effort this month. A group of 43 professors and instructors at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba signed a letter protesting Beilin's scheduled appearance to lecture on Jews in the 21st century.
Instead of being invited to lecture, said Dr. Arieh Zaritsky, a geneticist who was one of the signatories, the former Cabinet member should be standing trial in Israel for helping draft the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I think he is a criminal," Zaritsky said.
Beilin did deliver his lecture, and a stream of university professors took to Israeli radio and television talk shows to denounce what they said was an attempt to stifle academic freedom.
But Zaritsky denies that those who opposed Beilin's appearance are against free speech.
"We wanted to save Ben Gurion University from the shameful appearance of a person who has demonstrated, to say the least, a lack of judgment," he said.
In a poll published Friday, the Israeli daily Maariv found that at a time of threat, large segments of the Israeli public are more interested in unity than free speech.
Asked whether journalists who criticize the army's current operation in the West Bank and the government's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip harm national security or strengthen democracy and the country, 58% of those polled said they harm national security. Asked whether it was appropriate to cancel the performance honoring Yarkoni after she spoke against Israel's policies in the territories, 55% said it was.
"It's not only Yaffa Yarkoni or Yossi Beilin," wrote Maariv analyst Hemi Shalev of the poll's results. "Fifty-eight percent of the public, a stable and definite majority, believes that journalists who criticize [army] operations or government policy 'harm state security.' No more and no less, and very, very scary."
It is one thing, Shalev wrote "to believe in the colossal failure of Oslo or the need to take measures against the Palestinians with a strong hand and powerful arm, and another thing entirely to accuse anyone who thinks otherwise of something akin to treason. This is a slippery slope."
Yarkoni declined to be interviewed for this story. Her daughter, Orit Shohat, said her 77-year-old mother is too distressed to speak. But Shohat said Yarkoni, who has not previously made political statements, has no regrets about the comments she made.
"They interviewed her just after she saw the pictures from the Jenin refugee camp," Shohat said. Her mother was shocked by footage of the large-scale destruction carried out inside the camp during a battle there between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, Shohat said.
"She spoke from the heart. And she says she would say it all again. But there is a patriotic mood now, and nobody is supposed to say anything except how well we did in Jenin, how wonderful we are and how we are the most moral army in the world. If you say something else, you are an outcast."
Writing in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, commentator Eitan Haber pleaded with his countrymen to come to their senses.
"Yaffa Yarkoni tripped over her tongue," Haber wrote. "She spoke words of terrible folly . . . but the ganging up on her says more about us than it does about her. We are a hysterical country. We have lost our brakes and run off the rails."
Yarkoni served as a radio operator in Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and began her career singing the songs adopted as anthems by the Palmach, the Jewish underground militia that fought the British and the Palestinians in the pre-state days. In 1967, after Israel captured Jerusalem's Old City, it was Yarkoni who sang "Jerusalem of Gold" in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. And on Israel's 50th Independence Day, in 1998, she was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for her contribution to the nation's music.
But in the Army Radio interview, Yarkoni said this was "the worst Yom Hatzmaut [Independence Day] I can remember. I have never seen things more dismal or black. I feel we are at the edge of the abyss."
She still remembers, Yarkoni said, how soldiers would clamor to board trucks headed for the front in previous wars "because we knew it was a war of existence. Today, what are we fighting for? Are we fighting for territories? For what?"
She said she understood the Israeli reserve soldiers who have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, and revealed that one of her sons-in-law is among them. If the situation in Israel continues to deteriorate, she said, she might think of sending her grandchildren abroad to live.
"I don't want to put them through what we have been through, what my children have gone through. These are traumas," she said. "And until when? How long? What can you explain to them? That these are our enemies? To create more hate?"
What Yarkoni said was nothing less than "blasphemy," said Reuven Rivlin, the minister of communications and a member of Sharon's rightist Likud Party. Rivlin said he will no longer attend her performances but does not believe in organizing boycotts against her.
And the minister said the boycott of Beilin by the Beersheba University professors and lecturers was wrongheaded.
"The professors went too far," he said. "I believe that Beilin is wrong, I disagree with him, but both of us are ready to give our soul and body to the existence of Israel. Each believes that the other is bringing the country to disaster, but Beilin is not doing what he is doing to go against his country. I respect him and I respect his ideas."
Rivlin worries, he said, "that the gap is becoming unbridgeable" between the Israeli right and left. "It takes a lot of nerves, a strong spirit to continue the debate even though the other side sometimes annoys me."
Shohat said she is disappointed that few Israeli artists have risen to her mother's defense. Gidi Gov, a well-known pop singer, announced that he was quitting the Israeli Union of Performing Artists, the group that canceled its evening of tribute to Yarkoni. Moshe Tene, manager of the Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv, announced that the theater would hold its own tribute to Yarkoni on May 15. But few others have spoken out publicly in her support.
"I'm already receiving phone calls from artists who want to perform," Tene said. "But I'm also receiving phone calls from people who say they will never set foot in my theater again. People are growing less and less tolerant. This happened to Yaffa last week, to Beilin the week before. People and their opinions are being boycotted. Artists are afraid."
Gov said that he was not scheduled to sing at Yarkoni's tribute but that he will certainly attend the Tzavta evening to show support for the singer.
"She sang to the soldiers in every war," he said. "Her songs are the songs from my childhood. She is an elderly woman now, and she said what she thinks. Maybe many Israelis think the same way, although they would not say it in these ways. But it doesn't matter to me what she said, it matters to me that she had no protection."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times