Interview: Hip Hop King Ari Lesser And Israel Apartheid

Last time around, I didn’t want to listen to Ari Lesser’s clip Boycott Israel. I was disappointed. I’d thought he was a good guy when I listened to his previous hip hop holiday clips. I figured he had succumbed to the other side.

I preferred not to hear the details.

But then I considered the (Facebook) source. I knew my friend Ruti would not have posted an anti-Israel clip, because we are like-minded souls. I gave in. I put my work at Kars for Kids aside, took a deep breath, and clicked the play button. Ari’s clip was a wow. It was visually stunning, the lyrics profound, the insistent beat of the melody, compelling.

I Trust You

I surprised myself by reaching out to Ari for an interview and was even more surprised by our instant rapport during our phone conversation. I told him I’d run my piece by him before I ran it. He said, “No need. I trust you.”

He was eloquent and deep and fun to talk to.

Three days ago, Ari put out another cool new clip like his previous hit, produced on behalf of the organization, Here is Israel. This time, Ari reached out to me, to tell me about his new clip Israel Apartheid.

It was time for another phone call. I spoke to Ari last night.

V: Your video came out two days ago, just ten days after the death of Nelson Mandela, who fought against Apartheid in South Africa. Was your video a response to his passing?

Ari Lesser: No. We were planning to release it a week before but we got held up. It was just a coincidence. I wrote the song this summer actually, I guess early fall, and then the music sort of gradually came together at the beginning of winter and I filmed it in Cleveland a month ago. That’s when the video editor started working on it and it all came together a few weeks ago, so no. Mandela’s death was just a coincidence.

V: I see there is no mention of Mandela in your song lyrics. Was this purposeful?

Not Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

Not Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

Ari Lesser: The song was really just to show—like I said Mandela’s death had nothing to do with this, it was just coincidental—it was really just to highlight the ways that Israel is just different than South Africa and South African Apartheid. I was just comparing the regime: that we’re really nothing like that regime, you know what I mean?

V: You talk about baseless hatred. Can you talk about that a bit?

Ari Lesser: I think that the situation in Israel is very complex and that the term Apartheid is very incendiary. I looked it up. Clearly the definition refers to South Africa so you can’t use it loosely—you can’t apply it to other situations. It’s a very black and white term and it’s straightforward what it means.

The situation in the Middle East the way I see it is much more complex than that. To use the term that way doesn’t help the situation. It doesn’t help Jews and Muslims and has no place in constructive dialogue. It’s used in a very baseless painful way, you know what I mean?

If you want to have a conversation with someone you don’t start by calling them names. It’s destructive. It’s not to say that all of Israel’s actions are perfect, of course not, there are certainly issues. It’s a complex issues and I don’t claim I have the answers there but to label it Apartheid is very, is oversimplifying a complex issue, and the purpose of the people who use that term is to create animosity against Israel. The purpose is to generate anger and hatred among those who are misinformed about Israel.

Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

V: Do you think people have a responsibility to bone up on Israel before they make claims they can’t support?

Ari Lesser: I think many people have been misled because of people who try and spread that sort of claim. They‘ll focus on a very specific issue. They’ll focus on the separation wall or on one issue and compare it to something bad elsewhere. They’ll find similarities to just about anything bad in any country.

And the thing is it’s not that way in Israel. Apartheid was about disenfranchisement along racial lines which you can see is not the case in Israel. Arabs are a large part of the Israeli population. There’s a huge difference between S. Africa and Israel.

So if you can make a campaign to show the differences between these two countries, you can show this. Like on the college campuses: it’s not that they overtly hate. They get sort of swept up in these activities and one viewpoint that is pressed home is the hatred of Israel.

You could look at the issue the other way, at the oppression of Israelis because of all the hatred and terror directed at Israel from surrounding countries. It’s not that the students are anti-Semitic; it’s just that they’ve been misinformed.

The vast majority of people?  They just don’t know. We just don’t know. There’s so much information out there, it’s impossible to sift through everything. You could go through all the anti-Semitic literature and it would take your whole life and never reading anything else and you’d never get through it all. It’s like the Torah; you could spend your whole life on it and never get through it.

Ari Lesser in Israel Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

Ari Lesser in Israel Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

That’s why it’s so important that you put out the other side of the story in a way that is accessible, for instance in a song like this. Stuff they’d otherwise never read about. I’m not going to fault them for not knowing, but I’m going to try to inform them about the bigger picture.

V: What would you say to the people who say that Arabs in Israel without Israeli citizenship, such as those in Judea and Samaria, don’t have equal rights to those with Israeli citizenship?

Ari Lesser: It’s a catch 22. If you want to say, ‘Oh it’s not fair they don’t have citizenship,’ so are you going to say the whole West Bank should be Israel? And if not, are the Jews in the West Bank going to have the same rights as the Palestinians? I’m not going to say which way is right, but it doesn’t seem logical.

V: What about the Arabs in Gaza? Should they be able to move freely between Gaza and Israel? You talk about the war on terror, the separation wall, and common sense. Are you aware of the fact that the PA leadership says it won’t allow any Jews to live in a Palestinian State? Do you see a distinction between this separation of peoples from that of the Israeli separation wall? Is the PA desire to exclude Jews from their future state a form of Apartheid?

Ari Lesser: One of the first comments on my video is from a guy in Gaza who said that even though he doesn’t agree with everything I’m saying Semitic people should be able to live together. We should get along. Jews and Arabs are actually living peacefully together in many parts of Israel.

I thought that was pretty cool. He was saying to me that I’m not part of the problem; I’m part of the solution to this conflict.

S. African Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

S. African Apartheid (Youtube screenshot)

V: With your last video, Boycott Israel, I recall that some people had a problem with the title, including, at first, the organization you work for, Here is Israel. People thought that your listeners might get the wrong idea from the title. But you did it on purpose to draw in the boycott people searching for that term on Google or Youtube. I liked your gambit, after I got used to the idea. How did Here is Israel feel about the title “Israel Apartheid?”

Ari Lesser: Someone told me they noticed on Youtube that of the suggested videos posted on the page alongside my clip, every other video was in support of BDS, so it’s working, my clip’s in the mix. Youtube doesn’t know the difference. They don’t know they’re feeding it to the same people who are working against that philosophy, who are against Israel and pro-BDS. Yeah. I think Here is Israel is okay with it now (laughs). They saw how it worked out the last time around.

V: You got a little coarse with the language here, mentioning sex and taking a dump. I was surprised at that. I was a little concerned about my kids listening to the clip as a result. Does the use of these words represent an emotional response to the baseless claims about Israel and Apartheid? Did you realize you were using language that might not be kid-appropriate here? Who do you see as your audience?

Ari Lesser: People attach different levels of associations to these terms. I’ve talked about rapes and murder and so forth. Sex and taking a dump? That’s small stuff.

This is really directed to college students, so I want to grab them. A little bit of language like this will draw them in.

Israeli democracy (Youtube screenshot)

“Look at the whole region you’ll see only,
Israel is truly a democracy” (Youtube screenshot)

I don’t have to draw in my fan base. They’re very religious. I don’t need to convince them.

I’m trying to reach people who are outside of my media world, because those are the ones for whom it is actually relevant, you know what I mean? Like when I did the one with the boycott, my friends were shocked, they said, “What’s going on?” until they watched it. But I’m definitely cleaned up my language from what it used to be before I was religious.

It was actually a crime in S. Africa for a white person and a black person to have sex. Yeah. Well that’s where it’s roaring, on college campuses.

Anyway, these subjects aren’t really kid-friendly, you know, Apartheid and racism. Kids aren’t gonna get it anyway, these are complex issues. So I’m not really worried about them, they aren’t my target. The images too, of blown up buses and police brutality, and beating up on each other and so forth. I wouldn’t want to have my kids seeing those images either, but that’s the reality, that’s what’s out there.

Youtube age restricted the Boycott Israel video. I think there’s much much worse out there so I think it’s a bit hypocritical, a bit strange, considering this new one, Boycott Israel was actually a little bit educational, but maybe the age restriction was because we were showing images from stuff that’s going on, stuff that’s out there, prison brutality and so forth.

V: I loved the split screen effect of the four Ari Lessers alternating lines. Did that take awhile to get right?

Ari Lesser: I filmed the whole song wearing different outfits and let them play around with it. That was really the film editor.

"They had segregation of transportation Buses, bus stops, trains and train stations" (Youtube screenshot)

“They had segregation of transportation
Buses, bus stops, trains and train stations” (Youtube screenshot)

V: What would you say the mood of this piece is? It seems serious to me, and maybe a bit angry, perhaps despairing. How would you describe your state of mind as you composed this piece?

Ari Lesser: It is a bit angrier, because like the last one, I’m like sort of a little bit, um, I guess I was just looking around the world and it’s almost like there’s so many catastrophes you can’t even take it all in.

With the boycott, you see, the boycott is the effect, and the cause is the people that are calling Israel an Apartheid state. They’re saying Israel is the evil state. So I think I’m very strongly against that claim because it’s the cause of the boycott.

Whereas the boycott really just showed the double standard of the BDS movement, Apartheid is really outright not correct information, you know what I mean? It’s not what’s going on.

Here’s the thing, you can’t tell someone boycotting Israel is wrong, because they can boycott whatever they want. They can boycott Walmart, you know what I mean? But if you say Israel is an Apartheid state that’s just wrong because you’re ignoring important aspects of what Apartheid really was. Boycott is like my opinion. It seems like a double standard to me whereas Apartheid is just not a valid comparison.

Ari Lesser (Youtube Screenshot)

Ari Lesser (Youtube Screenshot)

V: What’s next for Ari Lesser?   

Ari Lesser: Well, you know I’ll hopefully know more when I receive more feedback. I get a lot of opportunities and a lot of adventures come out of this stuff and I’ll know more within the next few days about making more videos.

I’ll just keep making music and loving what I do. Baruch Hashem. I’ll keep on with it. I love helping my people.




Varda Epstein

A third-generation-born Pittsburgher on her mother’s mother’s side, Varda moved to Israel 36 years ago and is a crazy political animal who spams people with right wing political articles on Facebook in between raising her 12 children and writing about education as the communications writer at Kars for Kids a Guidestar gold medal charity.