israel360 interviewed CJP president Barry Shrage about two of his favorite subjects, Israel and Bob Dylan. Specifically, we took a close look at Dylan’s 1983 somewhat obscure song, “Neighborhood Bully,” a track that while rarely, if ever, performed live has stood the test of time as a favorite of those who love Israel.
israel360: Before we jump into the song, you’ve been a Dylan fan for a long time. What about his music resonates with you?
Barry Shrage: Well, “The Times They Are A-Changin.'” It was the anthem of the whole student movement. It was so important in defining all kinds of things, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, “Masters of War.” There was hardly anything that he wrote at that time that I didn’t pay close attention to. The lyrics were important. And then when he went electric, it changed so much about what was happening in the folk movement and in so many other ways, but it’s kind of an anthem for my younger days.
israel360: So we’ll ask this rather sheepishly, but you know Dylan never says “Israel” in “Neighborhood Bully.” Are you 100 percent positive that he’s talking about Israel? Asking for a friend…
Barry: You have to be stupid to not see this is…and in fact, the critics of Israel, if you go to the websites and you Google “Neighborhood Bully,” you’ll see various comments from people who are, in fact, our enemies saying that this is a terrible song and an insult to the Palestinians and etcetera. I mean, they understand what it is.
israel360: My friend thanks you for clearing that up. Can you give me a little historical perspective about 1983 and Israel and what might have led to Dylan writing this song?
Barry: I think there were a number of things that were happening; there were always ongoing attacks on Israel. In 1967, Israel was the heroic country for the whole world. In 1967, I was on campus and very active in the anti-war movement, but me and all of my friends in the anti-war movement, mostly Jewish, of course, were cheering Israel’s tanks on because we understood that Israel was about to be destroyed and that Israel’s existence depended on being able to fight that war. So there was the ’67 war, then there was the ’73 war, where Israel was almost completely destroyed. They were this close to destruction. And after the ’73 war, interestingly, the world turned against Israel. Not because anything had changed in their relationship with the Palestinians, but because of the oil boycott. In other words, most of the world’s turning against Israel had nothing to do with morality as you would expect, it had to do with money and oil and the world’s thirst for oil in the aftermath of the Arab oil boycott. So there was already a great deal of hypocrisy involved in what was going on with Israel. But then at one point, Israel even then was worried about the development of a nuclear capacity, and you see this in the song. Israel bombed out the Iraqi bomb factory, as it says in the song, with good reason. And you can imagine. Forget about the Iraq war and what that would have been, but if you consider simply the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait, which everyone believes we should have intervened in and stopped Iraq from doing that and from becoming a major power. If they had had nuclear weapons at that point, the history of the world would be totally different. So, Israel did the world a favor and yet they were roundly condemned by everybody for the attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility.
israel360: Dylan opens by saying “he’s got no place to escape to, no place to run, he’s the neighborhood bully.” Obviously, this is a cynical tone that he adopted that he keeps throughout the song. And it’s a very angry song. From what you know about the song, and you’ve listened to the song quite a bit, where was his head when he wrote this?
Barry: Well, it’s hard to say where he was religiously at that point ’cause he was going through various phases, but he obviously was…well, let’s start with this. The song is not just about Israel, it’s about Jewish history. When he says he wanders the earth an exiled man, he’s not talking about Israel, he’s talking about the history of the Jewish people. And when he said he has no place to run to, no place to go, it’s sort of a reference to the Holocaust. In other words, when the Jewish people are in trouble, they literally have no place to run to and no place to go. And in part, that was the rationale for Israel’s creation, in addition to being the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. So he’s sort of referencing that feeling of being excluded and having one last stand. But Israel, also having no place to run to, no place to…the day they were created, the Arab world said, “We’re gonna throw you into the sea.” The entire Arab world was dedicated to Israel’s destruction on the very first day it was created. So, having your back up against the sea, that was quite literally the way Israel felt at that time. And then of course things changed and Israel became stronger and you can think about it in different ways but he’s reflecting that beginning. And even though you wanna say that Israel has growing military might, which is the case, they are outnumbered about a million to one. When you count up the number of enemies that they potentially have, it’s certainly huge and Israel’s population remains in spite of its growth quite small in relation to the number of people who claim to be their enemies.
The song is not just about Israel, it’s about Jewish history. When he says he wanders the earth an exiled man, he’s not talking about Israel, he’s talking about the history of the Jewish people.
israel360: It’s amazing how Dylan can take an issue as broad as the diaspora and condense it to this one line or these lines that I love. He says he’s seen his family scattered, hounded and torn. He’s on trial for just being born. Is that 3,000 years of Jewish history pretty much in a nutshell?
Barry: I think of Jewish history being something positive. I think of all the culture that we represent. I think of all that we’ve created. I think of preserving our families. I think of curing diseases and science and all those other good things. I certainly understand it’s more than just that, and yet we have seen our people hounded and torn and not so long ago. The Holocaust is not a million years ago. It’s not the expulsion from England in the 13th century or the expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, or on and on and on. But you can certainly see history in those terms and the preservation of the Jewish people in the land of Israel is part of what the song is about.
israel360: This song was written 35 years ago and we all know Israel turns 70 this year. This song was written halfway into Israel’s modern history. And from the song you would think that Israel is a really tough place to live. He writes, “There’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back and a license to kill him is given out to every maniac.”
Barry: For a lot of these lyrics, things have changed a lot, but the level of hypocrisy in the world, that has not changed.
israel360: Dylan has described himself as spiritual and a believer, but I’m not entirely clear what he believes in. He converted in the late ’70s to Christianity. It sounded like evangelical Christianity. But he rejected the term “born again” and actually he said in an interview that he didn’t want to be called that. He was into his own thing. In the mid-2000s, he was doing fundraisers for Chabad and he sounded like he had gone back to Judaism. This was written at a time when he wasn’t identifying as Jewish. Was he doing this for the Jewish people? Or was he doing this because he saw the injustice?
Barry: You know, you can never really define Bob Dylan. I mean, he’s the joker in his own songs and in his own lyric. He’s always playing himself and playing off against Jews. You don’t know, but obviously this song was heartfelt. Now, whether this came from an evangelical Christian place, a Christian Zionist place, it could be that last scene which you’ll get to at the end. Who knows what that means about the Jewish people and their future? But the hypocrisy that he saw clearly, that’s what comes through to me. I don’t care what he was believing, but the characterization of the problem, which by the way has nothing to do with a need for there to be a Palestinian state or for justice for the Palestinian people, nothing to do with any of that. It’s just this sense of the raw hypocrisy in the world that doesn’t seem to be willing to give the Jewish people even an inch of ground in which to create and be and live.
israel360: When Dylan was interviewed about it in Rolling Stone in 1983, the reporter asked, “Are you expressing your support for Zionism? Is this about Judaism and Zionism? And are you supporting the government of Israel?” And he said, “It’s not really about that.”
Barry: It’s obviously about France. You can tell, right? Dylan is always slightly hidden. He’s like any author really. If you say, ‘What’s that novel really about?’ They’ll never tell you because in a way it is part of their imagination. You don’t have to defend it in those terms if it is part of the creative imagination process that any artist is part of.
israel360: Let’s get to the song’s rather strange ending. It ends on a troubling note. It’s not hopeful, it’s more like Armageddon is coming. He says: “Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill. Running out the clock, time standing still.”
Barry: Well, that could be an evangelical thing really, that the world is about to end. And, of course, the end of the world will take place at Armageddon in the land of Israel and all the rest of that. So I think it could be a reflection of that, but there’s also two existential factors. One is that our enemies keep saying, “Hey, we waited out the crusaders and we’ll wait you out. We’ve got forever. And we’ll never let you live and you’ll never have a peaceful day. So we’re just gonna continue doing what we’re doing and wait it out.” Now, history takes strange turns and if you look at what’s happening in the Middle East today, who knows what will really end up happening? Hopefully, a peaceful solution and a two-state solution to the troubles in the land. But until our enemies turn in a different direction, it’s gonna be hard to see that coming. The Jewish people, the state of Israel, the citizens of Israel, they’re not standing on a hill, they’re actively working in every possible way to defend themselves.
israel360: So could we say the times are sort of a-changing?
Barry: Sort of changing. Look, the Jewish people weren’t put on earth to be the greatest military power on earth, or simply to survive. In my view, the Jewish people are on earth precisely to make the world a better place. And if we end up having to defend ourselves day in and day out, it’s really a tragedy. You know, there’s a part of the song that says: “Now his holiest books have been trampled upon. No contract he signed was worth what it was written on. He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth. Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health.” And I hope, and I believe, that Israel and the Jewish people will be remembered forever for curing polio, for making a major impact on every field of medicine and technology and health, for making it possible for us to have cell phones and smartphones and technological advancement. And also someday, I often think that if the world let us alone to be what we really wanna be, we would have cured cancer a long time ago. We have tremendous intellectual talent. The influx of Russian Jews, which we thought were gonna be a burden, ended up bringing huge resources of technology. All of that can be turned, should be turned to the health of the world. And then we could be what it says in our Torah we’re supposed to be, a blessing for all the nations of the earth.