Eulenfisch - Limburger Magazin für Religion und Bildung
(c) Ami Bornstein

All is one – "Living together is possible."

An Israeli metal band preaches peace between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Kobi Farhi, the singer of the band 'Orphaned Land,' in an interview.

Die Frage stellte MATTHIAS CAMERAN

All those who hear about Orphaned Land for the first time and are unfamiliar with the heavy metal genre may be surprised that a message like yours finds its expression in this genre.

That's because many people have stereotypical notions about the metal community. Judgments are often based on appearance. The black clothing or skulls on T-shirts are just for show. The truth is, there's probably no music culture that is more peaceful and open. From personal experience, I can say that metal fans are a great example of how people from different backgrounds or religions can come together in friendship and harmony. I'm confident that even from a statistical perspective, heavy metal festivals are among the most peaceful large-scale events.

Considering the numerous contributions in the music press, it's not an exaggeration to describe your music as 'unique.' What sets Orphaned Land apart?

What sets my band apart is primarily the fact that we come from Israel and address themes related to history, religion, or current events in our region. Ultimately, we expanded the global metal scene by being the first band to incorporate the cultural background of the Middle East into our work. It didn't make sense for us to sing about Vikings or Nordic themes or wear boots when we walk in flip-flops.

Take our debut album 'Sahara,' released in 1994, for example. We were an Israeli-Jewish band that featured a mosque on the cover of our debut album. The lyrics included numerous passages from the Old and New Testaments, the five books of Moses, and the Quran. However, we did this not to provoke but because we genuinely engaged with the texts. Even though we come from Israel, our music offered opportunities for identification to Arabs and Muslims – and that indeed happened!

I believe that artists should reflect their own environment, the reality that surrounds them, and provoke thought with their works.

Let's talk about the environment in which you grew up and still live today. How would you characterize your hometown, Jaffa?

Jaffa is a very ancient city with a tumultuous history. It is even mentioned in the Bible, in the Book of Jonah. When the state was founded 75 years ago, Jaffa was an Arab-influenced city. When the majority of people fled during the 1948 war, it made sense for the government to turn Jaffa into a suburb of Tel Aviv. However, that's politics, not the social reality of the city, which is shaped by all three religions. Jaffa is like a small piece of Jerusalem.

I assume that this environment has had a significant impact on you.

Definitely. Jaffa had the most significant influence on my personality. I grew up listening to the synagogue, the call to prayer from the mosque, and the Christian processions on holidays. Often, I attended church on New Year's Eve, not because I was a Christian, but because it was a cultural part of my city. Jaffa is probably the city with the most holidays in a year because the festivals of the three religions are celebrated. As a child, I had friends of different backgrounds, and it was fascinating: the different languages, customs, and cuisines. The successful coexistence of cultures and religions, that's the positive side.

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a seamstress in a textile factory. The factory belonged to my family, and there were about 40 women working there: Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Muslims. I can still remember visiting the factory, running around among them. They spoke and laughed with each other. My grandmother had frequent contact with a seamstress named Yusra, who was Arab, even 30 years after the factory closed. They called each other on both Jewish and Muslim holidays.

These experiences have influenced my writing and, in a way, shaped me fundamentally. They have shown me that coexistence is possible.

Of course, there were also other sides. I grew up in a country where news of conflicts, terrorism, and innocent victims were almost an everyday occurrence. I had an uncle who was not as peaceful as my grandmother. He was a soldier. I seem to recall that he came home as a war veteran from the Yom Kippur War and started using hard drugs. At that time, there was no care for traumatized soldiers. Because of this fact, he had a completely different attitude towards Arabs. I remember an episode when I was a child sitting in a car with him. We passed a line of taxis, one of the Arab taxi drivers saw me and smiled at me, so I smiled back. After we turned the corner, he said to me, 'Don't forget, that Arab smiled at you, but deep in his heart, he wants to see you dead. He wants to kill you.' As you can see, I didn't grow up in a bubble where everything was rosy and peaceful. But in this harsh reality, I have experienced countless beautiful stories of coexistence that continue to shape me to this day.

Over time, one gains new experiences. Has the message of Orphaned Land evolved over the years?

The core of our message has always remained the same. I believe it has become more crystallized over the years. This is also because we've come to understand that the visual aspect of an album is very important. You can see this, for example, in the cover illustration of the album 'All Is One,' which features symbols of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The message can hardly be translated more clearly visually. It's also evident in the song titles, which were sometimes a bit unwieldy on previous albums. We wanted to make the album more accessible to listeners and chose concise titles like 'Brother,' 'Children,' 'All is One,' or 'Let the Truce be known.' In essence, the album represents the most extreme expression of our message.

The subsequent release, 'Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs,' is based on the same message. However, it primarily reflects the experience that we change over the years, that we grow, and the years pass, but nothing around us changes. Following Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which he wrote after Socrates' execution, the lyrics ask why nothing changes. We, Orphaned Land, change things – on a small scale. But of course, we can't perform miracles, and when you look at the recent events in Israel and Gaza, you can also understand that we are too small to make a significant impact. However, what remains is hope. It's not hopeless. But in terms of human actions, one must acknowledge that nothing changes – that is a very depressing realization.

Therefore, our latest album is a step back into self-reflection because we feel that not much has changed since Plato. People know more about Kim Kardashian than about Plato or other 'unsung prophets.' This is a significant problem and very depressing. And I think our next album will be even more depressing – albeit with the same message. Because the small miracle will continue to happen when we take the stage. We remain true to the message. We cannot and should not ignore what is happening to us as humans, as citizens of this region, as parents of children. Our message is in the world, and it will endure even after we are no longer here someday.

As it is roughly stated on the album, "you can kill the Messiah, you can kill the prophet, but you can't kill the message.

Exactly, that's how it is. Look at history. There are many people who, like Jesus Christ, may not be considered Messiahs, but they were Messiahs or prophets in their own way. Take, for example, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, or Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. What they all have in common is that they were assassinated. They tried, to continue with the allegory, to free their people, the people from the cave. That means there is redemption. There is heaven on Earth. Heaven on Earth is possible. But it starts with you and me. The problem is that people are afraid to leave the cave. They recoil from the light. As it says in our song 'The Cave': 'One can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. But one cannot forgive a man who is afraid of the light.'

The work with myths and traditional narratives is a consistent concept in your work.

Absolutely. We enjoy projecting mythological stories onto our contemporary times. Take, for example, the song 'Brother' on the album 'All Is One.' It's about Isaac and Ishmael, the biblical brothers, the sons of Abraham, who are considered the forefathers of all Jewish and Muslim people. However, we project this narrative onto the present conflict. It shows that the conflict began 4000 years ago with the question of which child was with Abraham on the mountain. Therefore, the song says: 'The lord blessed us both but we still fight and claim that kid on the mountain – what was his name?' But yes, working with myths and narratives is a recurring element in our works.

That's right. Like your album 'Mabool,' which is based on the ancient flood myth. What other sources contribute to the concept?

Until today, 'Mabool' is probably our most magical album. As you mentioned in the prelude, it opened up our career outside of Israel and the Middle East. It's actually celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. At the time we were working on the album, I was personally very interested in the various flood narratives; I read many of them back then. For the songwriting, I used the biblical version as a template. Instead of Noah's three sons, we created the three sons of Seven. The background for this came from an experience my friends had. As teenagers, they experimented with séances - out of boredom and a quest for adventure. They reported that they were communicating with a spirit or something like that. This spirit revealed to them that they were the three sons of Seven: one of them was Jewish, another Muslim, and the third Christian. They also received the symbols, the lion, eagle, and the Star of David, which later made their way into the song 'Birth of the Three.' I extracted all this information from the notebooks my friends kept during the séances.

I decided to link the flood myth with this crazy story and, based on this new 'Mabool' narrative, reflect on what is happening in our days. The album is about three heroes, a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian, who go into their communities and try to deter people from their evil deeds, showing that peaceful coexistence of all religions is possible. They fail, and as a consequence, the great flood covers the land.

Exactly one month ago, on October 7th, the world witnessed the failure of peaceful coexistence in an unimaginably horrifying brutality. How did you experience the events near your place of residence?

It was half past six in the morning, and I was brushing my teeth. Despite it being the Sabbath, I was already awake; that's how it is when you have children. Suddenly, we heard the sirens. I initially thought there might be no practice or drill on the Sabbath, wondering if it could be a false alarm. Then, however, I heard the explosions in the sky. It took me and my family completely by surprise. Shocked, we ran together to the nearest shelter. We had about one and a half minutes for this; further south, when the sirens wailed, sometimes you have only ten seconds. The shelling seemed to last an eternity; they were firing like crazy. We didn't think such an attack was possible. It was a holiday, and at that time, we knew nothing about the massacres. We had no idea about what was happening at the Nova Festival grounds, that possibly 3,000 armed terrorists had infiltrated villages. Only later in the day, around evening, did we start to get a sense of the extent of the attack.

The events leave one speechless and in shock. When did you feel that people in your surroundings were able to talk about it?

We - maybe the whole country - needed ten days to be able to talk about it. Nobody can remember such an event, even though many are descendants of Holocaust victims or survivors. The shock still runs deep. My wife cries repeatedly. We are not the same since then. Nothing is as it was before.

It's not just the attack itself that leaves deep wounds; it's the barbaric way in which they treated unarmed people, women, children, elderly people - some of them Holocaust survivors. They didn't attack soldiers, which is bad enough because I abhor any form of violence; their victims were innocent people. What they did to people - I don't want to go into further details - is almost incomprehensible. We could never have imagined that people are capable of doing such things. As a Jew, this triggers deep-seated traumas from the past, which we thought we had overcome. We always told ourselves that we now have a country, that we no longer have to endure persecution or pogroms, and then you wake up one morning, and all of this happens again.

Now a lot is being talked about Israel and our government. I can certainly tell you that we actually strive for peace and security. Of course, there have always been and still are people with different opinions - extremists - in Israel as well. But we are exhausted from our own history, from being persecuted, killed, and fighting. It is demoralizing that, unlike people in Switzerland or New Zealand, you cannot find peace within yourself. It is a terrible feeling to know that there are people calling for your elimination or extermination, to know that you are being blamed for the world's problems. I feel that what has happened, as well as the retaliation by the IDF, has given antisemites worldwide a reason to rise up again. Demonstrators at a pro-Palestinian protest in Australia chanted 'Gas the Jews.' In Paris, houses where Jews live and synagogues in Turkey are sprayed with Stars of David. We are not talking about the year 1939, but the present. This makes me think about the reasons how all of this could happen.

Jews are not the only ones who have fought wars. Jews were not the greatest conquerors or colonizers on Earth. It seems to me that Jews still have the dubious privilege of being accused and persecuted in such an unjust way. I'm not talking about Jews in Israel. I'm talking about Jews in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, everywhere. They are still afraid to wear their Star of David necklace because they could be attacked.

The historical roots of antisemitism reach deep into the past, a past that you also incorporate into your songs.

Yes. One of the reasons is the religious perspective, that Jews see themselves as the chosen people of God. This favoritism and the associated self-perception breed envy. Look in the Bible; it is full of stories about the preference of one son over all others and the trouble that arises from it. If you understand God as a father, this motif already appears with Cain and Abel. Similarly, in the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, the latter goes with his mother into the desert after being expelled from home. The conflict between Jacob and Esau and later Jacob's favoritism towards his son Joseph. It's also evident that people don't learn from these stories and that these actions on a small scale have far-reaching consequences. If we apply this to the Jewish self-perception of being chosen by God, the question arises: What is so special about Kobi that he is chosen as a Jew and Matthias is not? Is Kobi more talented or more beautiful? We can see that we both look good (laughs). We are both educated. So why should I be one of the chosen and you not? I think this creates a situation where, for example, the 'non-chosen' want to show that the 'chosen' are not better and have been unfairly singled out.

Since we can freely discuss everything, I would look for another reason in the New Testament, where Christians see themselves as the chosen ones, the true children of God, as they see Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and salvation can only be achieved through him. Similarly, with Islam, it acknowledges Moses, Abraham, or Jesus as prophets, but in Mohammed, it sees the last prophet. Subsequently, Muslims make the same claim as Jews or Christians before.

So, I think one source of antisemitism can indeed be found in the fact that there is no equality within Judaism. When I say this, I by no means want to justify the persecution of Jews. It's more of a psychological consideration of the tension in the relationship between the 'chosen' and the 'non-chosen.' It seems somewhat racist to me when I say that I am chosen and you are not.

Furthermore, there is the harmful narrative that has been influential in our church for centuries, which places blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus.

That's right. Jesus lived and died as a Jew. His goal was to reform Judaism. He didn't hesitate to criticize the priests and fight against wrongdoing. He certainly made enemies among the Jews with his actions. But the Romans were the ones who passed judgment on him. And he ended up on the cross.
It's all very complex. I truly believe that Jews don't deserve this. I believe that the victims of the massacre on October 7th didn't deserve it - just as the innocent Palestinians don't deserve to die now.

It's no secret that you've always taken a clear stance against any form of militarism and military violence. How do you view the IDF's intervention in Gaza?

How can these barbaric murderers hiding behind civilians in tunnels be held accountable? It's simply impossible. It's a hopeless situation. I don't know how to act. Simply doing nothing is not an option, nor is entering into negotiations with Hamas. It does not hide its goal of destroying Israel. How can you make peace when you reach out and someone cuts off your hand? Or if you know that they will kill your children and your wife, how can you make peace with them?
I also think that the Palestinian people are victims of these people. They have done nothing for a better life in Gaza, nothing for the well-being of all the people there. They built tunnels and bought weapons. They don't care who dies. I have many Palestinian friends and I am sure that there are countless peace-loving Palestinians. The people, whether Israelis or Palestinians in Gaza, want to lead a normal life - with their families, going to the beach with children, playing there. Nobody wants to die.

Very depressing given what has happened and what is happening.

I see the problem and the responsibility with the leaders, the governments and those in power. As we allegorically address on our album “Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs”: as soon as there are leaders who are able and willing to make peace, they are murdered. This is incredibly depressing!
In these moments, as in these days, hope can become a very, very small spark, a tiny light - but it exists. Nietzsche essentially said that hope is a curse because it prolongs suffering. As the years go by - I'll be 50 in two years - you really have to fight resignation and cynicism because you realize that people don't want to get out of the cave. The only thing I can do is write songs. My only option is to just keep going. Because the idea of ​​peace, my conviction and the message of Orphaned Land will live forever - even if we no longer exist at some point. Who knows, maybe our songs or lyrics will be the soundtrack of a peace movement. We have to keep believing that it is possible! Even if everyone else has failed before, we have no choice but to keep trying. The alternative is that we resort to barbarism and kill each other.

Do you feel like your efforts are being set back a lot? How are you as a band dealing with the situation?

Yes, we feel deeply setback. Currently, Orphaned Land has shrunk to a small beacon of hope. After October 7th, we posted on our social media channels that we stand with our Israeli compatriots. We even emphasized that we do not oppose the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, 2000 fans have unfollowed us and labeled us as hypocrites, double-tongued liars, supporters of apartheid and genocide. It's a terrible feeling to be treated this way by your fans. They don't even allow you to mourn in one of the biggest, if not the biggest tragedy in this country. But it is what it is. If we want to stand with the people in times of mourning, we do it. As artists, it's not about saying things that you know will please your fans. You have to tell the truth, express how you feel. In the past, Israeli fans have also left us because we have clearly articulated our position on Israeli politics. When fans leave, ultimately it's their loss. Nevertheless, it hurts a lot when people say they've followed our work for 20 years, and now we've disappointed them. And all because we didn't post "Free Palestine" messages. What can I do in that situation? I can't simultaneously engage in a debate with 2000 people on the internet. It's impossible. Those who want to leave can leave. Others will come. The songs are here forever. Who knows, maybe in 200 years, they will be the soundtrack to the victory of peace.

A Jewish author, Tomer Dreyfus, has shared on a YouTube podcast show that since the attacks, he finds it impossible to talk to his family, relatives, and friends in Israel. How do you perceive the situation within Israel?

Even before October 7th, it was impossible to communicate in Israel. Israel was divided into two halves after five elections. I believe that Netanyahu's regime literally destroyed Israeli society. During his 25-year tenure, he and his subordinates managed to establish a narrative in which all leftists were considered traitors - sometimes not even seen as Jews. I am an openly declared leftist. It was impossible for me to argue against Netanyahu without losing fans. Nevertheless, I did not give up. I always follow my heart, whether it's about internal Israeli issues or the current Israeli-Gaza war. But even before, it was impossible to have a dialogue within Israel. It felt like we were on the brink of a civil war in the last five years. Leftist protesters were attacked, and the left-liberal opinion was suppressed.
The war has dealt a final blow to the leftist movement. While it was difficult to advocate for left-wing positions before, it is now impossible. There is no room left for a liberal discussion. People whom I knew were leftists are now talking about completely wiping out Gaza. The traumatic experience of the barbaric attack has turned people's heads and fundamentally changed them. Each in their own way. And I don't believe we will ever be the same as before.

What do you think, does the escalation help Netanyahu politically on the domestic front?

Before this escalation, his poll numbers were plummeting. After this judicial reform, people finally began to understand what kind of person Netanyahu is. But even now he doesn't take responsibility, he's never done that before! I think this will hurt in the long or medium term and that this will reinforce the downtrend. Assuming the war against Hamas is won and it disappears from Gaza, no one will give it credit for what it has achieved. He's at the end of his career, which I'm very happy about. I can't wait for him to leave us alone.

Are you afraid that someone even more radical will follow him?

Already now, a part of his government consists of extremists. But I believe that support for these positions will be lacking in the future. Perhaps there is commitment during times of war, but not in the long run. On the other hand, it can be observed that extremism and extreme political positions are on the rise everywhere. This is currently happening in Holland, Italy, and Germany as well. Therefore, it's ultimately difficult to predict what will happen. Hence, I think that globally, we are not on a good path. The fear of a third world war is back. The problem is: humanity doesn't learn from history. We don't learn from the tragic events in our history.

In any case, I hope that we will have a better government. However, this government would need to be in power for at least 20 years because it will take time to repair the social damage. If the damage can even be repaired. For a long time, I didn't perceive the problem within Israel as being so extreme because I was traveling a lot before the COVID-19 pandemic and focused on the task of promoting understanding between people in the Middle East. During the pandemic, I was appalled by the state of society. It got to the point where Netanyahu's regime was attacking everyone outside of its circle: the police, the army - no one was safe. Anyone who didn't stand unconditionally with him was branded as a leftist, even those who were actually completely on the right. The worst part: people followed this narrative. It was depressing and hopeless.

In a German television documentary from the show "Rockpalast" on WDR in 2018 about Orphaned Land, you were wearing a hoodie with the illustration "All is One" - just like you are now during our conversation. Do you currently wear it when you leave the house?

(Long pause) Let me tell you the truth, Matthias. I don't wear it outside these days. That's the sad truth.
Yesterday a fan wrote to me whose two children serve in the army. He doesn't even know where they are deployed, whether in the north or in Gaza, because they don't let him know. “I sit at home, listen to your songs and cry all the time. But when a song comes on where you sing Arabic, I have to skip the song. Look what they did to me: my two children are at war. I am a man of peace who believed in coexistence and now I can no longer even hear or accept the Arabic language.”
It's hard to wear the sweater on the street. But at home, I wear it there. Because that's me. This is Jaffa. This is my Jaffa. This is my “Orphaned Land” and I have to believe in it!
Without Hamas or Hezbollah, I'm sure there will be people out there who will stand up one day. And we will do it – for our children, grandchildren.

This hope can also be read in the title of the recently released live album “A Heaven You May Create”. This heaven seems unreachable at the moment. Do you still see a perspective for the future?

The world of coexistence, peace, and brotherhood comes to life every time we step onto the stage. It happens when we play in Istanbul. It happens when we perform in Berlin, with an audience composed of Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists, gays, lesbians, heterosexuals. For two hours, we become a family. Hope remains briefly tangible.

An exit from the eternal cycle of violence – not only in Israel and Gaza - will only be possible through a change in our education system. To stay in line with the theme of our album "Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs": the only way out of the cave is to educate people about the world outside. Because a significant portion of what we learn in school is not essential for life. I was not taught how to engage in dialogue, how to listen to someone, how to resolve problems or conflicts with adversaries – but I was taught math for twelve years. What use is trigonometry in the current situation? Why weren't we taught philosophy? Why are the toys we play with as children weapons? Why do we play video games at the age of five where the only way to progress is by killing everyone? We have already normalized violence in the minds of our children; we have normalized war. However, I fear that these changes in education and upbringing will never happen because, fundamentally, politicians are not interested in a society that asks questions and has learned to resolve conflicts without weapons.

That is the only way out of the eternal cycle, but I do not see these changes coming.

Do you already have an idea of the direction your next musical project with Orphaned Land will take?

I think our next project will likely be a studio album. On this album, I will continue to stay true to our message, but I will delve deeper into my melancholy about the lack of humanity and my frustration with people's unwillingness to leave the cave. If we are interested in finding a solution, we need to address people's complacency and indifference. Hoping for changes in the education system will be in vain. As for how the album will sound, I don't know, but it will probably be somber. Most likely, I will wait until the war ends and gather myself first, process the past, before I start writing.

You are planning to celebrate your band anniversary on a major European tour next year. Given what is happening worldwide, are you concerned about your safety? Are you considering postponing the tour?

Honestly, we don't know what to do right now. Some band members are indeed afraid. We don't want to take an unpredictable risk. We have many disappointed fans, and maybe one of them wants to harm us. We don't want anyone to witness violence at one of our shows. We have a concert planned in Lyon. A Jewish woman was nearly beaten to death there, and swastikas were painted on her door. That makes me think. I've asked the tour organizers to talk to local authorities about what security measures the police can take.

My wife doesn't want me to go on tour. You know, before I had children, I would have gone on tour no matter what could have happened. But it's not like that anymore. I'm a father, and I don't want my children to become orphans. I don't want there to be more orphans.

We're still waiting to make a decision. Cancelling the tour would hurt me a lot because of the moral damage we would suffer. We want to try to keep the flame of hope alive, no matter how small it may be. If we are forced to cancel the tour, it would be a continuation of the disaster that began on October 7th. I don't want fear and terror to prevail over us.