Orientalism in Israeli Music


On Thursday, Sept. 22 in St. Mary’s Hall, the Music Department hosted Dr. Ronit Seter, a musicologist specializing in Israeli art music, for a presentation entitled “Israeli Classical Music: Crossroads between East and West.” Dr. Seter has worked at institutions such as the Peabody Conservatory at John Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she is currently an affiliated scholar at the Jewish Music Research Centre. Dr. Seter’s presentation dealt with the classification of Israeli music, as she explored Israeli music of the past and present and how perceptions of it have changed over time and through different political landscapes. Her overarching question dealt with the true constitution of Israeli music. On a basic level, she asked what it is and what it is not. It turns out that the answer is not as simple as it seems initially. Israeli music is truly a conglomerate of musical styles and ideas. This is because the occidental orientalist perception of Israeli music ignores the individual persons and identities that create Israel and the surrounding region.

Dr. Seter explained orientalism as the image of the Eastern world as an imaginary, often fantastical place. In our Western society, we see the East as what Richard Taruskin deems a “totalized Other.” That is, we tend to pigeonhole all of the rich artistic cultures of the East into one lump sum of creation. The same holds true for our classification of Israeli music. In the Jewish people of Israeli alone, there are several different communities with their own identities. Ashkenazi music and art differs heavily from that of the Mizrahi people. In the orientalist perspective, though, these are both seen simply as Jewish works. Similarly, we place Islamic art and culture in the same realm as Hebrew or Jewish art. The contrasts between the works, however, are stark. Arabic music is also often classified with Israeli music, as the two emerge from nearby regions. Thus constitutes the Western idea of Israeli music.

This perceived amalgamation of music transcends time as well as space. Dr. Seter cited Alexander Boskovich, born in 1907 in what is now Romania. Boskovich is widely considered an Israeli composer, as he embraces styles from his Orthodox Jewish heritage in his pieces, regardless of his birthplace. Later in his life, he resettled in Tel Aviv, thus unknowingly conceding to his label as an Israeli composer.

Dr. Seter attempted to summarize her argument by restating her initial question: What is Israeli music? In her journey through time, she found that she was truly unable to put a finger on a concrete definition. Israeli music is not simply one identity, as we in the Western world often view it. Rather, the concept of “Israeli music” encompasses the same people that inhabit the country or claim it as their homeland. The view of Israeli music as one single genre perpetuates the theme of orientalism, ignoring each of the individual styles and cultures that contributes to it.