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A Venerable Voice in Israel Is Muted After Questioning Army's Actions


JERUSALEM — To generations of Israeli fans, Yaffa Yarkoni has been "the Singer of the Wars." Whenever troops marched into battle, they could be sure Yarkoni would follow. Clad in fatigues, she raised spirits at the front with her rousing renditions of patriotic songs.

So it seemed natural for Army Radio to interview the iconic singer in her home a few days before Israel's Independence Day this month. Once again, Israeli troops were at war, this time in the West Bank, where they were sweeping through Palestinian towns and refugee camps in Israel's largest military operation there since the 1967 Middle East War.

But this time, Yarkoni offered no words of encouragement. Instead, she bitterly criticized the troops, the government and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an anguished tirade that shocked her interviewer and enraged many Israelis.

"When I saw the Palestinians with their hands tied behind their backs, young men, I said, 'It is like what they did to us in the Holocaust,' " Yarkoni said. "We are a people who have been through the Holocaust. How are we capable of doing these things?"

Her words were deemed so offensive that the union representing the nation's performing artists called off a planned tribute to Yarkoni that had been in the works for two years. The head of the union said it was forced to make the move after members of the public flooded its offices with complaints and returned tickets purchased for the event, and after sponsors canceled their financial support.

Government ministers denounced Yarkoni. The town of Kfar Yona canceled her performance at a Memorial Day event to honor Israeli soldiers who have fallen in battle. Youth movements declared a boycott of her music. The septuagenarian received so many hate calls, her daughter said, that she is now too frightened to appear in public.

At a time when many Israelis believe that they are locked in a battle for their existence with the Palestinians, Yarkoni's remarks, and the backlash against her, have stirred a debate here about freedom of speech and the nature of patriotism.

"What happened to Yaffa Yarkoni," said Naomi Chazan, a left-wing member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, "exemplifies the fact that in the current climate in Israel, anything that is not the official line is considered treachery or betrayal."

Yarkoni is not the only public figure who has come under attack recently. Yossi Beilin, the dovish former justice minister, found himself the target of a boycott effort this month. A group of 43 professors and instructors at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba signed a letter protesting Beilin's scheduled appearance to lecture on Jews in the 21st century.

Instead of being invited to lecture, said Dr. Arieh Zaritsky, a geneticist who was one of the signatories, the former Cabinet member should be standing trial in Israel for helping draft the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I think he is a criminal," Zaritsky said.

Beilin did deliver his lecture, and a stream of university professors took to Israeli radio and television talk shows to denounce what they said was an attempt to stifle academic freedom.

But Zaritsky denies that those who opposed Beilin's appearance are against free speech.

"We wanted to save Ben Gurion University from the shameful appearance of a person who has demonstrated, to say the least, a lack of judgment," he said.

In a poll published Friday, the Israeli daily Maariv found that at a time of threat, large segments of the Israeli public are more interested in unity than free speech.

Asked whether journalists who criticize the army's current operation in the West Bank and the government's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip harm national security or strengthen democracy and the country, 58% of those polled said they harm national security. Asked whether it was appropriate to cancel the performance honoring Yarkoni after she spoke against Israel's policies in the territories, 55% said it was.

"It's not only Yaffa Yarkoni or Yossi Beilin," wrote Maariv analyst Hemi Shalev of the poll's results. "Fifty-eight percent of the public, a stable and definite majority, believes that journalists who criticize [army] operations or government policy 'harm state security.' No more and no less, and very, very scary."

It is one thing, Shalev wrote "to believe in the colossal failure of Oslo or the need to take measures against the Palestinians with a strong hand and powerful arm, and another thing entirely to accuse anyone who thinks otherwise of something akin to treason. This is a slippery slope."

Yarkoni declined to be interviewed for this story. Her daughter, Orit Shohat, said her 77-year-old mother is too distressed to speak. But Shohat said Yarkoni, who has not previously made political statements, has no regrets about the comments she made.

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