Richard MatherRichard Mather writes and edits for Israel News Online. He has also written for the Jewish Media Agency, Poetica Magazine, Drash Pit, Voices Israel and Chabad Lubavitch’s Holiday Times Magazine. He lives in Manchester, England.
On October 27, it will be exactly 30 years since Bob Dylan unveiled his brilliant up-tempo Zionist anthem, the ironically-titled “Neighborhood Bully” on his Infidels album.
Probably written during the 1982 Lebanon War and recorded in the spring of 1983, “Neighborhood Bully” is a passionate defense of Israel and her foreign policies. I have it on good authority that it is a favorite among Dylan fans in Judea and Samaria.
For those who are not familiar with the song, do not be misled by the title. The phrase “neighborhood bully” is an ironic allusion to the accusation that Israel is an aggressor. The real bully, says Dylan, is the international community which has a “noose” around Israel’s neck. Another bully is Islamism, the ideology of “maniacs” who believe they have a “license to kill” Jews.
The song enables Dylan to take a swipe at anti-Semites who condemn Israel for simply “being alive” and he castigates so-called pacifists in the West who expect Israel to simply “lie down and die when his door is kicked in.” He also celebrates Israel’s remarkable contribution to medical science in which “sickness and disease” are “turned into health” but he laments the fact that Israel’s achievements are overshadowed by anti-Semitism.
“Neighborhood Bully” is also something of a Jewish history lesson. Within 11 verses, Dylan refers to the descent into Egypt, the Babylonian exile, the “trampling” of holy books by the Nazis and the Six-Day War. There is a clever reference to the fierce battles that took place in late 1947 and early 1948 when the Yishuv/Israel fought the Arabs using “obsolete weapons.” And there is a superb and acerbic rebuttal of the United Nations which condemned Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981:
"He destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad:
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad".
What is particularly intriguing about the song is that Dylan does not differentiate between the State of Israel, the ancient Israelites or the Jews driven out by the Romans in 70 CE. It’s as if the Book of Genesis, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the modern-day Islamic terrorist threat are happening at the same time to the same people.
"The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully."
But Dylan takes this poetic conceit even further. As well as conflating time and space, Dylan makes this personal – literally. The Jews – whenever and wherever they are – are bound together so tightly that they are “one man.” This man, who was exiled from Judea by the Roman Army, is now told that he doesn’t belong anywhere, not even in his historic homeland:
"Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run."
This single individual or corporate personality can perhaps be interpreted as the third patriarch of the Jewish people: Jacob, ancestor of the Israelites. According to Jewish tradition, Jacob experiences many personal struggles both in the land of Israel and out of it, which foreshadow the trials and misfortunes of the Jewish people as they fight for their dignity and their inheritance.
But, argues Dylan, the Jewish people have essentially triumphed over history by returning to Eretz Israel, even if the rest of the world is hostile to that fact. “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone,” he sings. Egypt, Rome and Babylon have all perished but the Jewish people live on and have made “a garden of paradise in the desert sand.”
But will Israel survive, he asks, if anti-Semitism and terrorism continue to undermine the morale and security of the Jewish people?
In the end, the answer is “Yes.” Israel will survive because it is a miraculous nation. The enigmatic final verse hints at Israel’s closeness to G-d. Israel is “standing on the hill”. Not just any hill, but the hill, which is probably an allusion to the Temple Mount, the place where God chose the Divine Presence to rest and where G-d gathered the dust used to create Adam. It is also the place where the Third Temple will be built, thus ushering in the Messianic era. As it says in Isaiah 2:2:
"And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains, and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it.
Dylan’s paean to Zionism surprised (and angered) many of his fans, but the song was really a natural outflowing of his Jewish heritage and his love for Israel. Dylan considered moving to a kibbutz in the early 1970s and he has made several trips to Israel, both personal and professional.
According to Meir Kahane, the American-Israeli rabbi whose ultra-nationalist views about Israel outraged many liberals, Dylan attended several meetings of the Jewish Defense League in the 1970s. And in a 1971 interview with Time Magazine, Dylan made positive comments about Kahane. “He's a really sincere guy,” said Dylan. “He's really put it all together.”
Dylan converted to born-again Christianity in the late 1970s but he never forgot his Jewish roots and his songs continue to be soaked in imagery from the Tanakh.
In the early 1980s, it was alleged that Dylan had returned to Judaism. Indeed, he was rumored to be studying with Chabad Lubavitch and had recorded an (unreleased) album of Hassidic songs. Even today, Dylan refuses to clarify his religious beliefs.
It is even harder to determine whether Dylan still stands by the sentiments expressed in “Neighborhood Bully.” At one point in his career he seemed to distance himself from the song, but Dylan has always been enigmatic and enjoys ridiculing journalists who question him about the messages in his music.
It’s also worth noting that he has defied the BDS movement by playing in Israel.
Whatever his political views, “Neighborhood Bully” remains an authentic expression of one man’s outrage over the way Israel and the Jewish people are slandered by the press, the public and politicians.
And for the record, it is one of my favorite (and most-played) Dylan songs.