By Tony Attwood
There is something distasteful about Neighbourhood Bully, despite Dylan’s assertions that it is not about Zionism. Maybe it is not. Maybe it is just about the state of Israel. I would always appreciate that one is not the other, but still…
The point is that if you are going to write a song in praise of something it is best either to be romantic, or to evolve a scene of pastel colours, and soft tones. If you want to be tough, be selective in what you say. If you get into hard facts it is always going to be difficult if you slip up at any point and say something that is palpably untrue.
In Neighbourhood Bully there’s eleven bouncing rocking strophic verses all fixed on three chords. It gives you a sense of power and certainty. You want to say, wow, yeah, let’s go and get them. Except, except…
Take the opening. “His enemies say, he’s on their land”. Yes, when speaking of the state of Israel, most of the world, and United Nations Resolution 242, say that the land Israel took during the six days war should be returned to the countries from which it took the land. Long term occupation is not acceptable.
So Dylan’s got it right there. People do say Israel is on their neighbours’ land. Equally most people with a semblance of a balanced view of the world acknowledge that the Six Days War was not started by Israel, and that Israel showed extraordinary military ability by knocking out all their neighbours so quickly.
But where does that get us? Simply to an argument that says that Israel has made matters worse for itself by continuing the occupation, and that had it worked out a settlement within the first year, it would not still be fighting. Can’t prove it of course, but it is an argument.
What has all this got to do with “Neighborhood Bully”? Simply that by invoking a line such as “on their land” in the second out of 55 lines of a song, Dylan invites us to get involved in such debate. The song continues by telling us how badly off Israel is, how everyone is against Israel, and then we have….
Verse six, which opens with the classic, “He got no allies to really speak of,” and we think simply of the United States of America, and are reminded of the fact that 40% of Israel’s budget is spent on defence – an insane level of expenditure which can only be maintained by the financial contribution of the USA.
This is not to attempt in a few lines to have a serious debate about Israel, but to think about the song. If Dylan really wants to make a statement about Israel, then putting that line in is catastrophic. For the neutral listener it destroys the song in one simple line – and we still have five and a half verses to go.
Back on the political front, in writing this I am of course aware that the US also gives extraordinary levels of aid to Egypt, following the Camp David Accord, and I’m aware of the corruption and insanity of the many Arab regimes – indeed I have lived part of my life in one of the Arab protagonists against Israel, which at least gives me a little insight.
But I repeat this is not the main thrust of my problem with this song. It is the point I made at the start. If you are going to do a political song, you don’t have to be balanced (no such song ever is), and your facts don’t have to be inclusive (ditto). But you have to avoid lines which are just so incredibly wrong that they bring the whole song down and make those who don’t believe dismiss what you have said.
Think of “Times they are a changing”. It brings us all together, and joins everyone. “Neighbourhood Bully” just pushes people further apart.
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