Nes and Stilla in the music video for "Harbu Darbu."
Nes and Stilla in the music video for "Harbu Darbu."

Why the No. 1 song in Israel represents a radical shift in Israeli pop music

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

In a country whose musicians are known for poignant reflections on conflict, it is somewhat jarring to see “Harbu Darbu,” a hawkish war cry, at the top of Israel’s music charts. 

 “The time has come,” say Ness and Stilla, “ to change the sadness — to anger,” which is why they wrote the song. Its title, “Harbu Darbu,” is slang borrowed from Syrian Arabic which, in Hebrew, means to destroy an enemy. The song has garnered nearly 3.5 million views and listens on Spotify and YouTube, and on terrestrial radio, where it has been showcased on Ido Porat’s New and Interesting radio show for Galgalatz (the popular IDF-run radio station), it is ubiquitous.

The artists’ call to change the national mood stands as a counter to the majority of songs playing on Israeli radio — which Shayna Weiss, a professor of Israel studies at Brandeis University, says tend more toward sadness than anger in times of conflict.

“Harbu Darbu” is just Ness and Stilla’s second song, and their bombastic calls for violence in Gaza against Hamas represent a sharp shift from their first single, “Tik Katan,” which was about partying with friends.

“There is no surprise that music serves as a reaction to or is a trigger of conflict,” says Edwin Seroussi, a professor of musicology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In moments of pain and conflict and violence, music [affects] our behavior and our emotions.”

Over the years, Israel’s leading musicians have penned mournful classics such as Naomi Shemer’s “Lu Yehi,” written for the Yom Kippur War, and “Shir Hareut,” which Sasha Argov wrote for the War of Independence. In light of those songs, “Harbu Darbu,” which tells Gazans to “wait for [bombs] to rain on you like a debt,” is a radical departure.

Weiss says that the “extreme politics” in Ness and Stilla’s song remind her of the “rally around the flag, Zionist anthem” type of music from the Second Intifada, such as “Tikvah” by Subliminal and Hatzel, which claimed, “the son of a bitch that can stop Israel has not been born.”

Additionally, Weiss went on to say, the song must be understood in the context of today’s Israeli youth, Ness and Stilla’s target audience, which, she points out, citing a recent study from the Israeli Democracy Institute, is “more right-wing than the general population. 

“They don’t really have a memory of the peace process, and they’re either about to serve, have been called up, or their friends have been called up,” Weiss said.

The song’s chorus is a roll call of the branches of the IDF’s military and its most famous battalions. “This song is for you,” they write in Hebrew in the pinned comment on the song’s YouTube video. “For the fighters, the armed services across the country who have been giving their heart and soul on our behalf for the past month.”

According to Weiss, “it’s very hard for an outsider” to understand the context of the title, “Harbu Darbu,” which is the type of militarized Arabic that Israelis are most likely to learn. “For a lot of Jewish Israelis, their main exposure to Arabic is through the IDF,” said Weiss. “In some sense, the Arabic they know tends to be militarized. So I’m not surprised that the phrase they’re using is, you know, a phrase that has military or destructive connotation.”

Just days after the song hit No. 1, Ness and Stilla performed it for IDF soldiers, and it has attracted many posts from IDF soldiers in the YouTube video’s comments section.

“We have been waiting for this song!” said one active reservist. “I have changed my sadness to anger and found great pride because of you.”

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Tani Levitt

Tani Levitt is an editorial intern at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @HateItOrLevitt.