Neighborhood Bully. The heart of the matter


By Joost Nillissen

Approximately nine years ago Tony Attwood wrote a distasteful commentary on Neighborhood Bully.

I use the word ‘distasteful’ partly in jest, of course, as Mr Attwood claimed there was something distasteful about this song. Everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” (Somebody said that, I forgot who). Mr Attwood’s article elicited 21 comments, all in different colors and shapes, but none to the point.

Being a Jew, Bob Dylan has a bond with Israel. He once considered settling in a kibbutz, he celebrated his sons Bar Mitzvah there. He has visited often. So he felt the need to stand up for Israel and write a song. Any song on Israel is going to be controversial, depending on where you stand, so Dylan knows he has to stick to the facts. And he does. He is not pointing any fingers, not blaming anyone, he is just telling us what Israel is up against.

Nobody can disagree with the facts Dylan states:

His enemies say he is on their land, they’ve got him outnumbered, he’s got no place to run, he just tries to survive, he’s supposed to lay down, not to fight back.

There is a lot to say about ‘being on their land.’ It could be the Westbank that Israel conquered during the Six-day War, but it is really all of present day Israel. It’s no secret that its enemies want Israel to be wiped from the face of the earth. What we in the West cannot possibly understand is how it feels to be outnumbered ‘a million to one’. Israel is a tiny country and could be wiped out in no time. It could and the enemies are working on it. That’s a fact.

He’s been driven out of every land, he’s wandered the earth, seen his family scattered, hounded and torn, always on trial for just being born.

The history of the Jews. For two thousand years, after the total defeat at the hands of the Romans and the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem, they have wandered the earth. Always on the run, never welcome in any golf club or University in any country. That’s a fact.

Israel takes preventive measures, knocks out a lynch mob (The PLO in Lebanon) and        destroys a bomb factory (in Syria). What would you do if your neighbor is planning to wipe you out? Really. You can approve or disapprove. But it’s a fact.

Dylan points out that the chances the bully will make it are slim, if he lives by the rules the world makes for him. We are so full of ideas of how Israel should behave and act, while nobody sees or understands that the bully has his head in the noose, a gun at his back and that a license to kill him has been given out to every maniac. Even today, as then, politicians and imams are on record calling for Jewish blood. That’s a fact.

‘The rules the world makes for him’ refer to the United Nations with their silly resolutions. Let me quote Abba Eban, ambassador to the United Nations from 1949 till 1959:

“If Algeria introduced a resolution claiming the earth is flat and that Israel flattened it, it   would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”

Now we come to part that rattled Mr Attwood’s cage, the part he says is untrue. He’s wrong.

Well, he got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side

If you live in Israel (like I have for 30 years) you will know that Israel has ‘no allies to really speak of’. Europe is disinterested, uninformed and often simply hostile. In Israel today they shrug their shoulders. The European Union, a messy collection of opinions and hollow phrases, has become irrelevant.

As for the United States… Well. Dylan wrote this song in 1982-83, when Israel was involved in Lebanon ‘wiping out the lynch mob’ (Yasser Arafats PLO). It was ten years after the last war, the Yom Kippur War, when the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked together on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. That war was in its fifth day and Israel was losing ground. It was about to be wiped of the face of the earth. Heavy casualties. Nixon was unavailable, incapacitated by the Watergate scandal and Vietnam. It took a phone call from the Saudi’s to Henry Kissinger telling the US to get involved because the conflict was about to get totally out of hand and they feared it might turn global, maybe even nuclear. The Saudi’s threatened with an embargo on oil to the USA. Only then did Nixon send help. It was in the nick of time. That’s a fact.

Next Dylan points his arrows at the hypocrites and pacifists who pray and themselves would not hurt a fly. The bloodshed must cease. They wait for the bully to be butchered in his sleep. But don’t forget, Dylan says, every empire that ever enslaved the bully is gone. The Pharaoh’s, the Roman Emperors, the Babylonians, they’re all gone. The Jews and their religion survived.

Not only that, they made the desert flourish, they took the crumbs of the world and created wealth, and they used that wealth to make the world a better place, with their countless inventions in numerous fields, such as health, agriculture, intelligence, technology, to name but a few. That, too, is a fact.

So to summarize, Dylan is talking facts and takes Israel’s side, which is his right. It doesn’t mean Israel has not made some terrible mistakes, but that goes for everybody in this conflict. That’s not what this song is about. It’s about the facts that Israels enemies and its so called allies seem to forget.


The original review of “Neighborhood Bully” is available here.  The original title of the review was simply the name of the song.  I’ve changed the title (as I have done for many of the reviews on the site over the years) having reading Joost’s article in the hope that it might make the view that I was trying to express in the original a little clear.  The article itself has not been changed.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


  1. Though debateable, the saying is often attributed to Voltaire….

    Dylan is not afraid to offer points of views that some might object to ….after all, he comes from a Jewish background and knows full well of their suffering…the ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy he often questions….ie, my article on

  2. I think Tony nailed the problems with this song first time round, and while Joost makes some interesting points, I’m not persuaded.

    The song is lazy musically and lyrically. To me it feels half-hearted, as if someone asked Dylan to write it and he reluctantly agreed, not really very convinced himself. Outnumbered? Yes, of course. Arguments about land? Yes, that’s the heart of the issue. But then the song loses focus and credibility. For example, the line about Israel having ‘obsolete weapons’. Really? Of all the things one could legitimately say about the situation, this is way off target. Israel’s military is one of the most sophisticated in the world.

    Plenty of Jewish people have mixed feelings about Israel – and I suspect Dylan does too. I just don’t think his muse was functioning very well that day.

  3. Thank you, David. “Obsolete” is indeed the one word I had trouble with. Being Dutch, I had to check my dictionary, but that didn’t help me further. So I figured it something to be that get’s lost in translation.

  4. If you know the history, Israel did have to scrounge for weapons and use inferior weapons when they were first attacked. They used old percussion rifles, small caliber .22s, anything they could find our have mailed to them by friends in the U.S. They even resorted to dropping glass bottles of seltzer water as bombs from small planes. The line “Time running out, time standing still” is a reference to Israel as the link to Bible prophecy. Peter Himmelman, Dylan’s son-in-law, has also written a similar song. It’s titled “ “Maximum Restraint”

  5. I agree with Joost, and it’s a very good analysis of an unusual song in some ways, but always a powerful one…

  6. In 1948 when Israel was fighting for its very life the weapons were definitely obsolete.

  7. I am reading through the comments. what is most alarming is how far back they go and the repetitive thought. Why is so offensive that people that there are people who support both Israel and the right to self determination? Learn the actually history of it all. Not the one sided propaganda narrative.

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