Uriya Rosenman grew up on Israeli military bases and served as an officer in an elite unit of the army. His father was a combat pilot. His grandfather led the paratroopers who captured the Western Wall from Jordan in 1967.
Sameh Zakout, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, grew up in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Ramla. His family was driven out of its home in the 1948 war of Israeli independence, known to Palestinians as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe. Many of his relatives fled to Gaza.
Facing each other in a garage over a small plastic table, the two hurl ethnic insults and cliches at each other, tearing away the veneer of civility overlaying the seething resentments between the Jewish state and its Palestinian minority in a rap video that has gone viral in Israel.
The camera circles them. A guitar screeches. Zakout tugs at his beard, looks away with disdain. He’s heard it all before
The video, Let’s Talk Straight, which has garnered more than four million views on social media since May, couldn’t have landed at a more apt time, after the eruption two months ago of Jewish-Arab violence that turned many mixed Israeli cities like Lod and Ramla into Jewish-Arab battlegrounds.
By shouting each side’s prejudices at each other, at times seemingly on the verge of violence, Rosenman and Zakout have produced a work that dares listeners to move past stereotypes and discover their shared humanity.
Rosenman (31) said he wants to change Israel from within by challenging its most basic reflexes. “I think that we are scared and are controlled by fear,” he said. Zakout (37) wants to change Israel by overcoming its forebears’ traumas. “I am not emphasising my Palestinian identity,” he said. “I am a human being. Period. We are human beings first.”
At first viewing, the video seems like anything but a humanistic enterprise. Rosenman, the first to speak, launches into a relentless three-minute anti-Palestinian tirade. “Don’t cry racism. Stop the whining. You live in clans, fire rifles at weddings,” he taunts, his body tense. “Abuse your animals, steal cars, beat your own women. All you care about is Allah and the Nakba and jihad and the honour that controls your urges.”
He goes on: “Mix the stucco, Ahmed! You’ve always been good at that. Just don’t do an ‘Arab job.’ Don’t be sloppy.”
The camera circles them. A guitar screeches. Zakout tugs at his beard, looks away with disdain. He’s heard it all before, including that oft-repeated line: “I am not a racist, my gardener is Arab.”
Then Zakout, his voice rising, delivers the other side of the most intractable of Middle Eastern stories. “Enough,” he says. “I am a Palestinian, and that’s it, so shut up. I don’t support terror, I’m against violence, but 70 years of occupation – of course there’ll be resistance. When you do a barbecue and celebrate independence, the Nakba is my grandmother’s reality. In 1948, you kicked out my family, the food was still warm on the table when you broke into our homes, occupying and then denying. You can’t speak Arabic, you know nothing of your neighbour, you don’t want us to live next to you, but we build your homes.”
Rosenman fidgets. His assertive confidence drains away as he is whisked through the looking-glass of Jewish-Arab incomprehension.
The reaction to the video has been overwhelming, as if it bared something hidden in Israel
The video pays homage to Joyner Lucas’s I’m Not Racist, a similar exploration of the stereotypes and blindness that lock in the black-white fracture in the United States.
Rosenman, an educator whose job was to explain the conflict to young Israeli soldiers, had grown increasingly frustrated with “how things, with the justification of past traumas for the Jews, were built on rotten foundations”.
“Some things about my country are amazing and pure,” he said in an interview. “Some are very rotten. They are not discussed. We are motivated by trauma. We are a post-traumatic society. The Holocaust gives us some sort of back-way legitimacy to not plan for the future, not understand the full picture of the situation here, and to justify action we portray as defending ourselves.”
For example, Israel, he believes, should stop building settlements “on what could potentially be a Palestinian state” in the West Bank, because that state is needed for peace.
Looking for a way to hold a mirror to society and reveal its hypocrisies, Rosenman contacted a friend in the music industry, who suggested he meet Zakout, an actor and rapper. They started talking last year in June, meeting for hours on a dozen occasions, building trust.
We are not going to solve this in a week. But at least it is something, the first step in a long journey
They recorded the song in Hebrew and Arabic in March and the video in mid-April. Their timing was impeccable. A few weeks later, the latest Gaza war broke out. Jews and Arabs clashed across Israel.
Their early conversations were difficult. They argued over 1948. Zakout talked about his family in Gaza, how he missed them, how he wanted to get know his relatives who lost their homes. He talked about the Jewish “arrogance that we feel as Arabs, the bigotry”.
Walking alone in Jaffa recently, Zakout was approached by four Orthodox Jews. One of them, who had clearly seen the video, said he was sorry because he had been racist some years back but now felt ashamed. They hugged. “My Israeli friends told me I put them in front of the mirror,” Zakout said.
Rosenman said he understood Zakout’s longing for a united family. That was natural. But why did Arab armies attack the Jews in 1948? “We were happy with what we got,” he said. “You know we had no other option.”
The reaction to the video has been overwhelming, as if it bared something hidden in Israel. Invitations have poured in – to appear at conferences, to participate in documentaries, to host concerts, to record podcasts. “I’ve been waiting for someone to make this video for a long time,” said one commenter, Arik Carmi. “To show that we are two sides of the same coin. How can we fight each other when we are more like brothers than we will admit to ourselves? Change won’t come before we let go of the hate.”
The two men, now fast friends, are at work on a second project, inspired by the phrase: “Everybody wants to change the world. Nobody wants to change themselves.” It will examine how self-criticism in a Jewish and Arab society might bring change. It will ask a fundamental question: How can you do better, rather than blaming the government?
Zakout recently met Rosenman’s grandfather, Yoram Zamosh, who planted the Israeli flag at the Western Wall after Israeli paratroopers stormed into the Old City in Jerusalem during the 1967 war. Most of Zamosh’s family from Berlin were murdered by the Nazis at the Chelmno extermination camp.
“He is a unique and special guy,” Zakout said of Zamosh. “He reminds me a little of my grandfather, Abdallah Zakout, his energy, his vibes. When we spoke about his history and pain, I understood his fear, and at the same time he understood my side.”
The video aims to bring viewers to that same kind of understanding. “That’s the beginning,” Zakout said. “We are not going to solve this in a week. But at least it is something, the first step in a long journey.” Rosenman added: “What we do is meant to scream out loud that we are not scared anymore. We are letting go of our parents’ traumas and building a better future for everyone together.”
The last words in the video, from Zakout, are: “We both have no other country, and this is where the change begins.” They turn to the table in front of them, and silently share a meal of pita and hummus. – New York Times