Shlomi Shaban performs onstage January 2024 (Lior Keter)

Matti Friedman: The Song of the Israel-Hamas War

In a deserted border town, I listened to the reigning genius of Israeli pop blast his songs toward Gaza.

If you’ve been reading The Free Press, you might already think of Matti Friedman as one of our columnists. He has written some unforgettable pieces for us from Jerusalem. He was also the subject of one of the best episodes of Honestly we’ve ever published. But today we are making it official: every month, and sometimes a bit more often than that, you can expect to read Matti’s singular voice in our pages. 

Matti is known for nonfiction books like The Aleppo Codex, an investigation into the fate of an ancient Bible manuscript; Pumpkinflowers, a memoir about the outpost where he served as an infantryman in the Israeli army; Spies of No Country, where a story about the birth of the Mossad serves as a window into Israel’s repressed Middle Eastern identity; and Who by Fire, about Leonard Cohen’s strange rock tour in the middle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

He’s been an AP reporter in Israel, and his essays about culture, politics, and history have appeared in The New York Times, Tablet, and Smithsonian magazine. In 2014, he wrote an essay criticizing the Western media’s descent into ideological activism and what this has meant for storytelling about Israel. It’s probably the essay I recommend most to those who want to understand what’s happened to the legacy press. Read it here.

Thanks to you, our subscribers, The Free Press can and does keep growing. And so you can expect to see us expanding our roster of regular columnists, bringing you reporters and writers with deep knowledge across new topics and across the world, all of whom share The Free Press spirit. 

We’re thrilled to welcome Matti. And we hope you enjoy his piece today about the song of this ongoing war.


ZIKIM, Israel — By the time the singer-songwriter Shlomi Shaban showed up at the border, the road crew had already set up two towers of speakers facing Gaza. The parents of one of the hostages seized by Hamas in the October 7 attack, a young musician named Alon Ohel, had the idea that their son would hear the songs and draw strength to hold on. 

They invited three of his favorite singers, one of them Shaban, to play here, at one of the deserted communities along the border, and of course he came. Performing for people engulfed by the current tragedy, like soldiers and evacuees, is what Israeli artists do now. 

When I asked one of the soundmen what volume level we’d get from the giant speakers, he said it would be “motherfucker.” Artillery thumps were audible across the border a mile away. A pillar of smoke rose from one of the ravaged Palestinian towns. 

I’m another fan of Shaban—the only genius currently active in Israeli popular music, in my opinion, though if you live far away and don’t know Hebrew you may have to take my word for it, because his gift is hard to translate. I came down to the border with him in a van from Tel Aviv, where he lives, because I think he’s written the song of this war and I wanted to ask him about it. 

Shaban, 47, writes lyrics that rummage around the Israeli mind with the dextrous, pitiless fingers of a neurosurgeon, and which are somehow both softened and sharpened by the sarcasm of a deadpan comic. His songs are powered by the fearsome keyboard talents of a child trained to be a concert pianist, and by the ongoing glee of his musical escape. 

One of the first Shaban hits I heard after he broke out in 2000 was “New York vs. Yehezkel,” a survey of young people leaving the country. “The problem with Israel,” one upwardly mobile guy on his way to New York explains in the song, “Everyone’s in everyone else’s ass.” No one who knows this country can argue with that, but the singer replies, “I’m pretty comfortable in everyone else’s ass, sitting at Yehezkel’s on the beach / New York vs. Yehezkel: Yehezkel it is.” 

That song helped introduce the Shaban tone, which combines an unvarnished view of his home with a deep attachment to the place, the language, and the people—the same sentiment, presumably, that got him on the van heading to the Gaza border to help the parents of a kidnapped kid, and which also led him to write “Canaan.”

Canaan” is too cerebral to be a pop hit. It doesn’t offer the communal uplift of  “Jerusalem of Gold,” the anthem of the 1967 Six-Day War. It has none of the militaristic fury of a hit like  “Harbu Darbu,” which most Israelis would probably say is the song of this war. But “Canaan” is the one that has been playing in my head, and it’s likely to outlast anything else now on the radio. 

The song opens with thirteen men lost in the deserts of the south, “in a column, their target unclear, low on weapons and water.” They’re not getting anywhere, and rebellion is brewing. The three main characters speak rough army Hebrew and are identified only by the first letters of their names, common military practice—J and C, who seem like junior officers, and M, the commander. 

It’s been thirty days and thirty nights, and J cracks. “They’re jerking us around,” he says to M, referring to some invisible authority at the top of the command chain, and now he “couldn’t care less whether the land is fat or lean, whether or not there are trees therein.” 

That’s when the listener recognizes the story. It’s that of the spies from the Bible, the ones sent to reconnoiter Canaan before the Israelite conquest, and who came back saying it couldn’t be done. 

M is Moses; the leader, J is Joshua, his deputy; and C is Caleb, one of the spies. All three are familiar from the story in the Book of Numbers. The group is unraveling. A real leader, C says, would know it’s time to give up. 

“It’s a long road to the promised land,” says Moses, trying to calm them, but Joshua retorts, “Promised to who?” Even if Moses gets them to the border somehow, everyone knows the higher-ups won’t let him cross: “They’ve got dirt on you, so you’re done / The brass never forgets.” The Biblical Moses, we remember, having led the Israelites through the desert to the edge of Canaan, is allowed to see the land but not to set foot there.  

Echoes from the Hebrew Bible and prayers are common in Israeli pop music in a way that would seem strange to American ears outside the quarantine zone of Christian rock. But Shaban goes further here, punctuating the verses of “Canaan” with a haunting nigun—a wordless Hasidic melody, a return to a diaspora sound that the old Zionist anthems would never have considered. Neither would they have considered the heresy of the last verse, where the great Moses is reduced to thinking there may be no Canaan at all, that Canaan is just a state of mind, and muttering to himself, “I’m a wandering Jew / I was born to just pass through.” The video, featuring the rapper Ravid Plotnik and the ultra-Orthodox performer Shuli Rand, is set in an interrogation facility. 

The song presents Jews lost in the Middle East, pursued by unseen enemies and tortured by their own history. It questions the success, even the premise, of their quest for a homeland. If “Jerusalem of Gold” was about the magic of returning to a place, “Canaan” is skeptical that you can ever get there—or that any real problem will be solved if you do. 

All of this speaks to our dark, existential moment. So does the way the song hints at how the very landscape here feels tenuous, as the tremendous forces arrayed against Israel insist this is actually an Arab state called “Palestine”—a threat whose potency registers for those of us who live here in a way that outsiders can find hard to grasp. There’s unintentional poetry at work here, too, as the name Palestine originates in the Roman effort two millennia ago to conquer Judea and erase its name after crushing a rebellion by Jews who were raised on the stories of Moses and Joshua, the mythic figures who’d once led the conquest of an older place called Canaan. 

The intimate dialogue of soldiers that we hear in “Canaan” doesn’t come from Shaban’s own experience. He hasn’t been to war himself. The imagery, he told me, “is drawn from things I collected from people I know, or simply from being Israeli.” 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been speaking to friends in the army reserves now returning from the war in Gaza, including a tank officer whose elbow was pulped by a sniper round, and another who spent five weeks blowing up tunnels, and who had an engineer next to him crushed to death by a chunk of falling concrete. My impression is that they have faith in the military command and none in the government. Our leaders don’t know where they’re going but the soldiers are moving ahead street by street, one friend in an infantry unit said, and getting there. There seemed to be less a geographic destination than victory, or at least something that wasn’t defeat. They all think we must keep fighting. You could imagine them having a conversation like the one in “Canaan.”

A reservist plays guitar at a staging point near the Gaza border on December 14, 2023, in Southern Israel. (Alexi J. Rosenfeld via Getty Images)

Given the eerie force with which Shaban’s lyrics seem to describe the war, it’s remarkable that the song came out a year before it started. And “Canaan” was actually written two years before that, during the first Covid shutdown, when Gaza was dormant for a time between the small Hamas wars that defined Israeli life in the years before the big one erupted. 

In the van to the Gaza border, Shaban told me that he wrote the words and melody one night when his two kids were sleeping, the streets of Tel Aviv emptied by the pandemic, the apocalyptic atmosphere serving as potent creative fuel.

I first heard him play “Canaan” in the summer of 2021 at a memorable outdoor concert at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem—memorable because midway through the show Hamas launched a rocket barrage at central Israel, on the coastal plain to the west of where we were sitting, and everyone swiveled around in the plastic seats and saw the Iron Dome interceptions in the night sky. Cell phones started ringing and part of the audience hurried out, but no one called off the concert, and Shaban stayed behind the piano. He told me he didn’t notice the rockets. It was a moment hard to imagine anywhere but here.

The seed of the song, he said, was the Simon & Garfunkel line from “Bleecker Street” (1964): “It’s a long road to Canaan.” He heard it years ago and always knew he’d write his own song with that line, but in Hebrew, which seems to me less like translating the words than like helping them hatch from the shell of the English. “Canaan” was released in the fall of 2022.

This is actually the second time that Shaban has written the soundtrack for an Israeli conflict before it happened. The first was in 2014, when his song “A Practice Run for Waking Up” became inseparable from a war in Gaza that summer—a limited war which now seems, well, like a practice run. In that song, a soldier wakes on the battlefield looking for his mother, cradled by a woman who may or may not be her; a girl runs from a mosque; “darkness gathers but doesn’t fall,” an apt evocation of the dread that can hover over life here; “the sky is painted vanilla, the horizon charred,” which is exactly how I remember that summer. 

I asked Shaban if he thought a kind of prophecy was at work. He said no, and it seemed like a moment of miscommunication between a journalist and an artist. I interpreted the songs as being about our country and its wars. But he sees his subject primarily as the human soul, and the country and its wars as his palette. The songs, he said, were about “a different kind of existential crisis, one more internal.” But he also acknowledged that the artist’s intention might not matter much once the song is out in the world. 

In 1967, “Jerusalem of Gold” was also performed before the war in which Jerusalem was captured. This suggests that the truth of a given time is there before it’s apparent to most of us, and that an artist or a prophet is like that device that some Israelis invented a few years ago: the one that distills moisture from the air and makes water you can drink.

On the Gaza border, the crew used a crane to hoist the speaker stacks into the air and increase the range. The area was still dangerous, and the audience was small. Shaban sat at his keyboard in front of a photograph taken of Alon, the hostage to whom the show was dedicated, at some happy moment before he was snatched from his life at 22. 

When the volume reached motherfucker, it drew two Humvees of reserve infantry, middle-aged guys in dusty uniforms, one with a heavy machine gun on his shoulder. They stood quietly and listened, and I saw a few tearing up before they were called back into Gaza. Alon’s parents sat in the first row and cried. They believe in music. Their son is somewhere to the south. They can’t reach him, and neither can all of our armed forces, but the song was on its way.

Read Matti Friedman’s previous work for The Free Press here.

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