MAY 5, 2011
In April, the southern Israeli town of Sderot hosted its eighth annual French film festival, which was an achievement more impressive than it sounds. Sderot is a small town, and it is also a poor one; it has only 20,000 residents, many of them immigrants from former Soviet Asian republics.
But Sderot’s biggest challenge may be the missiles. For the past ten years, not long after the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, Hamas has launched thousands of Qassam missiles over the border from Gaza, barely a mile away. Qassams are typically homemade—70 pounds of steel inserted with nails and bolts, as in the bombs used in suicide attacks. When a strike is imminent, a calm female voice announces over loudspeakers, “Color Red, Color Red,” giving residents 15 seconds to run to one of the many shelters around town.
Some two-dozen residents of Sderot and the surrounding area have been killed in attacks over the past decade, and hundreds have been wounded. But the rockets’ true threat is their ability to terrorize. Much of Sderot’s middle class has left. Thousands of residents have been treated for trauma; a generation of children suffers from stuttering and bed-wetting. Sderot, then, is Israel’s nightmare—the anti-Tel Aviv. Here there is no pretending you can avoid the siege.
After the Gaza war of 2009, the assaults became less frequent, but missiles still fall intermittently. When that happens, the Sderot Cinematheque moves screenings to a smaller theater with thicker walls and a steel roof. Invariably, attendance declines, sometimes for days or even weeks. Still, Benny Cohen, the Cinematheque’s director, insists on running the theater as though it were in Tel Aviv. For him, the Cinematheque is part of Sderot’s battle for survival, and so he is constantly devising new projects and inviting foreign directors to town, such as the Coen brothers, who are coming to Israel for all of one day this month. His next big event is a film festival about peripheral areas around the world. “It’s the only free festival in Israel,” he says proudly. “You must come—it will be a real celebration.”
Sderot has long had a history of improbable cultural vitality. “It looks like a dump, but there’s so much creativity here,” says Laura Bialis, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles who moved to Sderot almost four years ago. “Every teenager I met seemed to want to be a rock singer or an actor.” She decided to make a film about Sderot’s rock musicians, and fell in love with one of them, Avi Vaknin, who proposed to her in an air raid shelter. “There wasn’t a Qassam attack,” she explains. “Avi was just being dramatic.”
The guiding spirit of Sderot’s rock scene is Chaim Uliel, whose band, Sfatayim (Lips), brought Moroccan music into the mainstream in the late 1980s and nurtured a generation of local musicians. They went on to found bands like Tipex (White Out) and Knesiyat Hasechel (Cathedral of the Mind), which created a fusion between Western rock and Sephardic ethnic music. Don’t just mimic Western trends, Uliel urged his protégés, take the music you know from the synagogue and the home.
Two years ago, however, Uliel left Sderot and moved to a town near Tel Aviv. The news was so shocking that the country’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, devoted the cover of its weekend magazine to an interview with Uliel, “the symbol of Sderot.” Uliel explained that he’d tried for years to turn Sderot into a center for Israeli music, but no one had offered help. He spoke bitterly of how Israeli society treated Sderot like a poor relation. Would the government, he asked, have allowed Tel Aviv to be under rocket assault for years before launching a military operation?
Living under constant threat of death is hardly Sderot’s fate alone, people in town remind me. The Galilee was hit by a month of rockets during the 2006 Lebanon war. Hamas’s reach now extends beyond Sderot; almost all the recent rockets from Gaza were directed at Beersheba and Ashkelon. The question of Sderot’s long-term viability on the Gaza border is also the question facing Israel: Can a modern Jewish state continue to thrive beside Hamas and Hezbollah, and, perhaps, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?
Nearly everywhere I went in Sderot, I saw signs of its vulnerability and of its resilience. The government is adding a fortified room to every apartment and house in town. Scaffolding covers squat apartment blocks, and cube-like structures are being affixed to red-roofed private homes. “The message to residents is, ‘Get used to it, Qassams are your future,’” says Bialis, who has since moved to Tel Aviv. Many shelters I saw were painted with cartoon murals—the work of New York graffiti artists who came to lift morale. In a playground, long concrete tubes painted to resemble caterpillars double as shelters.
In recent years, dozens of religious, Zionist families have moved here to strengthen Sderot. There’s also Migvan, an “urban kibbutz” of 20 families. Migvan’s founder, Nomika Zion, calls Hamas a “terrible regime,” but she opposes Israel’s siege of Gaza and believes that Israel must reconcile with Hamas. “There are pragmatists in Hamas,” she insists. If we were speaking in Tel Aviv, I would dismiss this as the kind of naïveté that has alienated so many Israelis from the left. But living on the Gaza border, Zion reminds me why the Israeli left is so moving: How else will we survive in the Middle East without hope?
After a year, Uliel returned to Sderot. The municipality offered to fund a center for Moroccan Jewish culture, and he is once again nurturing musicians. A new generation of aspiring stars rehearses in Sderock, a combined music center and air raid shelter.
I met Uliel recently in one of the town’s few decent cafés. With his black hair combed back in a wet wave, Uliel—now in his early fifties—still looks like a teenager. He remains pessimistic about Sderot’s chances for a cultural renaissance. When the Qassams stopped falling on a daily basis after the Gaza war, he notes, government subsidies and foreign donations declined.
One of his students, Ran, a guitarist, drops by. Ran began his singing career at age seven, in a choir started by Uliel. Now he plays in a band called Red Out, a play on the “Color Red” alert. “Why didn’t you choose a Hebrew name?” asks Chaim. “The name has a connection to Sderot,” Ran points out, a little defensively.
I ask Ran what it’s like to grow up in Sderot. “Some of my friends are a little crazy,” he admits. “It’s hard for me to write happy music.” But he insists that the siege has invigorated his generation. “Sderot has freed us in a way,” he says. “It’s much easier for my generation to talk about emotions, to write songs with intensity. And here you’re part of a musical tradition. I’ve grown up being taught and encouraged by some of the best musicians in Israel. It’s much better to be a young rock musician in Sderot than in Tel Aviv.”
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.
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