Why Israeli soldiers can't dance in public

A hugely popular YouTube video has landed a group of Israeli soldiers in serious trouble. Read our Observer's take on the controversy.


A hugely popular YouTube video has landed a group of Israeli soldiers in serious trouble.

Joel Schalit, an Israeli writer based in Berlin, sent us his view on the controversy.

The location is unmistakable. In an empty, shuttered street, the sound of a muezzin rises forth, calling worshippers to morning prayer. Judging from the sun-bleached stone apartment buildings, we are somewhere in the Middle East: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, perhaps even Syria. The slow filing of heavily armed men, wearing military uniforms, to the centre of the street, confirms the suspicion. As the soldiers get closer, nervously pointing their American rifles in the air, it becomes increasingly clear who they are. They are Israelis, patrolling a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank. The Biblical city of Hebron, to be precise. 

All of a sudden, the troops drop to their knees.  The muezzin predictably falls silent. The young Israelis look at each other, as though they are in a hostile foreign place, unable to predict what will come next. The expectation is that their patrol is about to get fired on by hostiles. Instead of gunfire, however, we hear the opening strains of ‘Tik Tok', the satirical, 2009 hip-hop-inflected electro hit by American singer Kesha. The subject matter? A beautiful young hipster reflecting on what it means to always be the life of the so-called party. 

Standing up, the soldiers retire their weapons, and fall into formation. Not to march, but to dance, and that they do, in a surprisingly rehearsed manner. Performing faux-pirouettes, clasping each other's hands in ironically suggestive ways (the boys have to compensate, as there are no girls present,) the choreography evokes classic musicals ranging from The Wizard of Oz to East Side Story. Eventually, the soldiers return to form, morphing back into hardened combat troops deployed in a war zone. Pointing their weapons aloft, they eye the buildings around them for terrorists, and walk off into the distance. 

Posted on YouTube by "Delirium838" 5 July 2010.

Generating almost as much commentary as it has viewers(the copy of the video viewed for this article has logged 300,000 views already since it was first posted on YouTube last weekend), the controversial performance has refreshingly incurred the wrath of the Israeli military, who are reported to be considering prosecuting two of the troops involved. The reason? Although Israeli sources have not disclosed the specifics, the location of the performance definitely has something to do with it. Very few cities in the occupied West Bank have the kind of political significance that Hebron has. Events like these are about as incendiary as they get.

Holy to all three faiths, Hebron's best-known residents, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried in the city's legendary Cave of the Patriarchs. Home to 163,000 + Palestinians, and an estimated 500 Jewish settlers (most, if not all of whom are religious fundamentalists), the ancient city has been a site of recurring violence between both sides, including the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians (and wounding of 150) at the Cave by Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Jewish settler. Frequently subject to curfews imposed by the Israeli military and repeated property seizures by settlers (often, though not always, with the tacit support of the Israeli army), Hebron is often held up as the paradigm of the excesses of military occupation and religious colonialism.

The video's defenders have been quick to point out that it is innocent, as it is an imitation of a similar scene on the popular Israeli comedy show Eretz Nehederet (Beautiful Country), which, ironically, is not exactly uncritical of Israeli sacred cows. The only reason why the video has been misunderstood as negative, it has been argued, is because of a lack of proper context on the part of foreign viewers. The difficulty with this argument is that, irrespective of what the intentions of the soldiers in the video actually were, context trumps whatever naiveté might be ascribed to them.

This context is not one of unfamiliarity with Israeli TV, but one of a sympathy towards the feelings of Palestinians, for whom such savvy is meaningless. Even if they did know what programme these soldiers were imitating, so what? Their interpretation would still be the same. Take, for example, the symbolic freedom of movement enjoyed by these troops, in contrast to Palestinians, who are often subject to Israeli military curfews and roadblocks, and directed to use Palestinian-only roads. Under conditions of military occupation, one party has more freedom of movement than the other. Expressing this hierarchy through dancing is one thing. Framing it as though it is a party is another."