Ari Lesser would relish the chance to perform his song “Boycott Israel” at the headquarters of the United Nations, where the world body routinely churns out anti-Israel resolutions. Or at the next meeting of the American Studies Association, whose members voted last week in favor of an academic boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.
The 27-year-old hip-hop and spoken word artist writes in his song (see video, below), which has garnered more than 140,000 hits on YouTube since it launched two months ago, that people can “boycott Israel if you think it’s just/ but unless you have a double standard you must/also boycott the rest of the nations/ with allegations of human rights violations.”
“If you judge Israel, judge others too,” Lesser said in an interview with Jewish Week, pointing out what pro-Israel supporters believe is the fundamental unfairness and hypocrisy of efforts to boycott Israel: that the Jewish state, above all other countries, is being singled out. In the song, he includes 40 countries whose human rights records leave much to be desired, including North Korea, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and even the United States. “Don’t pick and choose to pick on the Jews,” Lesser raps in the catchy chorus, “just pick up the newspaper and read the news.”
“I could have included probably every country, but there’s a limit,” Lesser said after he opened for Moshav late last month at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “My point is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But you have to be consistent if you are sincere. And Israel isn’t perfect. But there are many countries doing things that are much worse, and where are the UN resolutions against them?”
Lesser was commissioned by the pro-Israel advocacy organization Here Is Israel to write the song as a way to help counter the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which is especially strong on college campuses around the country. He related a telling story about an experience he had while he was attending the University of Oregon. A teacher said he was changing the name of the course from “Israel-Palestine” to simply “Palestine.”
“Every Jewish student dropped the class but me,” Lesser said in a subsequent phone interview. “I knew if I left, the class would be completely one-sided. The thing is that the issue isn’t black and white. It’s a complex one. If you’re Jewish, that doesn’t mean that you should think everything Israel does is right. You should challenge everything.”
As for those involved in the BDS movement, Lesser said, “I think the majority of the people are good people who think they are doing something that will make the world a better place. But those behind it are not fair and balanced and it is often driven by anti-Semitism.”
In a song about Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who often ranted that he wanted to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, Lesser rhymes that we should “fear God, not Ahmadinejad.”
Lesser says his views about the coarseness of some hip-hop artists’ work have changed. About Eminem he said: “He’s a great storyteller. But there’s a lot of profanity. I used to think it was really funny. But now it’s a little grotesque. I try not to curse anymore, but it’s OK, if it’s used properly. If they’re sprinkled in for no reason, it’s a waste.”
Lesser, a baal teshuvah, said he became religious about seven years ago after studying psalms in Safed, the city in northern Israel known for its connections to Jewish mysticism. He is also a vegetarian. “It grosses me out to eat the flesh of other creatures,” he said. “Since I was little, I didn’t like to kill things. Even a spider, I would catch it and let it go outside.”
As a musician, observing the Sabbath is difficult, he said, because his main source of income is weekend music festivals.
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“It wasn’t like giving up one day out of seven,” he said. “It was more like one day out for three. I was nervous, but soon I saw that I was making more money observing the Sabbath than I was before.”
Lesser said while he looks chasidic, he doesn’t like labels and considers himself “a child of Israel.”
He said it is hypocritical of America to criticize Israel in terms of its treatment of Palestinians, when America massacred Native Americans. He includes America in the “Boycott Israel” song, and cites its ill treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Lesser said he’s been influenced by Bob Dylan, who is known for his socially conscious lyrics and whose 1983 song “Neighborhood Bully” is a strong defense of Israel.
Lesser, who is based in Cleveland, has a humorous streak, which he comes by honestly as his family runs a monthly humor magazine called The Funny Times. The humor comes out in songs like “The Hippie Song,” which includes the rap, “I was taught to love and not to hate/learned Republicans are bad and God is great.” He also has a catchy song called “Kosher Rap,” which lists forbidden animals he doesn’t eat, like scorpions and snails.
While he said he loves music, Lesser stresses that his priority is Torah study. And the questions he most frequently gets have nothing to with Israel, politics, his long hair or his wildly energetic dance moves.
“After shows, people ask me how I am able to memorize all the lyrics,” he said. “I even have one song that is 15 minutes long. Baruch Hashem [Thank God], memorization is not something I ever had to worry about.”
Ari Lesser’s music is available at his website arithemc.bandcamp.com.