Over the past two weeks, Tunisian singer and composer Noamane Chaari has been facing harsh attacks in his country for releasing a new song performed with Israeli singer Ziv Yehezkel.
Titled "Peace Among Neighbors," the song expresses hope for peace and coexistence between Arabs and Jews. It was recorded by the two singers in separate studios in Israel and Tunisia due to the coronavirus travel restrictions. Its lyrics were written by a Yemeni poet who wished to remain anonymous to avoid threats by extremists.
The song was an initiative and production of the Arab Council for Regional Integration (ACRI), which supports civil engagement across borders of conflict generally and Arab-Israeli rapprochement specifically, and of which Chaari is a founding member. Posted December 10, 2020 on the organization's YouTube channel, the song was also widely circulated on social media, both within Tunisia and in the broader region. Within one week of its posting, the song was viewed over 1.5 million times on various platforms.
The circulation of the song sparked intense condemnations in Tunisia from journalists, media figures, political activists and social media users, who condemned it as an act of normalization with Israel and accused Chaari of betraying the Palestinian cause and offending millions of Tunisians. Some called on him to apologize, urged musicians and their syndicates to ostracize him, demanded that the courts prosecute him, and even called for his execution. Measures against him were indeed taken, including his firing from his job with a Tunisian government-owned television channel.
In response, ACRI and Tunisian artists launched a defense and solidarity campaign for the singer. They affirmed that art should be separate from politics and that there is nothing wrong with Chaari's action.
Chaari, for his part, said that his aim in recording the song was to promote peace and tolerance among peoples and religions. Noting that in the past he had also performed for Palestinians in Ramallah and used music to promote national reconciliation within Libya as well as Tunisia, he stressed that he is not interested in politics, and believes that art and music transcend borders and boundaries of nationality and faith. As for the attack on his initiative, he said that it came from dubious and benighted elements that want to thwart peace.
The hostile response to Chaari reflects a broader, longstanding social trend in Arab countries whereby artists who engage with Israeli fellow artists in any way face condemnation, ostracism, and incitement to violence. In another recent example, Egyptian actor and singer Mohammed Ramadan was recently attacked as well as suspended from the musicians syndicate merely for having been photographed with Israeli singer Omer Adam at a rooftop party in Dubai.
This report reviews the assault on Chaari and measures that have been taken against him, his reaction to the uproar over the song, and reactions by Tunisian artists and social media voices in his defense.
Noamane Chaari: The Song Is Meant To Promote Coexistence And Stop The Bloodshed; Art Does Not Recognize Borders Or Distinctions Of Faith
In a December 12, 2020 interview on the Tunisian radio station Mosaïque FM, Chaari said that the purpose of ACRI, which produced the song, is not to promote the Arab-Israeli political process but rather to promote civil peace and tolerance among all the region’s peoples and faiths. He stressed that he had not been paid for recording the song, and added, "The political aspect of normalization does not interest me. Artists believe in forming ties with people, regardless of their religion and nationality."
In a December 17 interview with Emirati website Al-'Ain Al-Ikhbariya, Chaari stressed again that the purpose of his collaboration with Yehezkel was to promote coexistence, a noble goal leading to the establishment of the principles of peace. He added that the project had been launched in February 2020, and was originally meant to involve many high-level artists of all faiths - Christians, Jews and Muslims - but that the Covid pandemic had kept him from realizing this plan in full.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, he said that it was vital to promote it through culture, since this would bring better results. In the past, he added, there were inciting and violent songs that promoted extremist ideas and brought no benefit. "Therefore, I decided to sing with [Yehezkel], a Jew of Arab origin, whose father is Iraqi and mother is Moroccan, in order to show the world that art recognizes neither geographical borders nor religious [distinctions]." He noted that Yehezkel was a man who believed in peace and coexistence, and that, even though they had not met in person, they had "met in spirit." He explained: "I do not ask any artist about his faith. Moreover, the Tunisian constitution guarantees the freedom of religion." He stated further that art could be useful in mitigating conflict and stopping bloodshed, and mentioned that he had always had warm relations with his Jewish neighbors in the Sfax area.
As for the objection to his project in Tunisia, he said that it was voiced mainly by elements in the media "that wished to distort [the initiative] without understanding anything about the philosophy of peace," elements "that tried to place obstacles and keep the notion of peace from reaching large sectors of the public." He noted that many artists around the world, and even imams, had welcomed his initiative.
As stated, the circulation of the song sparked intense and pointed criticism against Chaari, and even resulted in his suspension from a weekly music program aired on the state-owned Wataniya TV. Tunisian journalists and some major television and radio stations took part in the attacks on him, calling him a “traitor," urging to ostracize him, and even implicitly calling to kill him.
During Chaari's December 12 interview with the Tunisian radio station Mosaïque FM, the interviewer, well-known media figure Hadi Za'eem, asserted that performing alongside an Israeli constituted “a major provocation of Tunisians, Arabs, and Muslims,” and asked Chaari if he felt he was criminally liable. When Chaari replied in the negative, the interviewer noted that the Yemeni lyricist had remained anonymous “because they knew the poem he wrote would get his head chopped off,” and then asked rhetorically, “So what shall be done with the head of the one who sang it?”
For an excerpt from the interview with English subtitles, click below:
On December 18, 2020, Chaari appeared on Channel 9’s nighttime talk show “For Night Owls Only,” and was lambasted by the host and panel members, who accused him of offending Tunisians and betraying the Palestinian cause, and even of abetting Israel's murder of Palestinians. Chaari, for his part, rejected the accusations and stood by his actions. After he refused to comply with the host's repeated demands to apologize for the song, the host threatened Chaari that all Tunisian artists would from now on boycott him.
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For an excerpt from the show with English subtitles, click below:
Tunisian media activist Khalifah Shoushan told the Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily, “There is no acceptable justification for singing with an Israeli artist, whatever his origins. This is a condemnable act of normalization with the Zionist entity, and those who engage in it violate the Tunisian consensus.” He added, “We are waiting for a response from the Artists Syndicate, and for the Tunisian parliament to pass a law criminalizing normalization with this brutal [Zionist] entity.” 
Shortly after the release of the song, a statement appeared on a Facebook page purportedly representing the Tunisian Syndicate for the Musical Professions, a constituent of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), harshly condemning "the disgraceful conduct of the one called Noamane Chaari… which constitutes normalization with the Zionist entity and a betrayal of the Palestinian cause." It added that "any use of art by some Tunisian artists to justify singing in Israel or with Israelis constitutes normalization with the Zionist occupier, which we will never accept under any excuse…" The statement urged Tunisian authorities to investigate Chaari and ban him from working for three years. It also called on artists to refrain from collaborating with him, threatening that any artists who does so will face similar sanctions. It urged all parties in the Tunisian parliament to unite in passing a law criminalizing all acts of normalization with Israel.
The Music Syndicate’s purported statement
Two days later, news reports indicated that the Tunisian Artists Syndicate — also identifying as part of the UGTT — announced that Chaari's professional license had been suspended.
It should be noted that no official page or Web site affiliated with the UGTT, including those of the Syndicate for the Musical Professions,  published any statement about Chaari, nor did they disown the statements attributed to them. But several Tunisian and pan-Arab social media platforms promulgated the information anyway.
Meanwhile, the pro-BDS "Tunisian Campaign against Normalization with Israel and for Resistance against It" and the "Tunisian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel" issued a joint statement calling Chaari a traitor and his action "a new provocative gesture of normalization," and accusing him of insulting the intelligence and sentiments of the Tunisian people.
Intense criticism of Chaari was also voiced on social media. In a December 12 Facebook post, Tunisian political activist Al-Mo'ez Al-Haj Mansour accused the artist of recording the song for Israeli money, writing: "[This is] normalization in return for money. Israeli money is infiltrating the Tunisian art scene… Did Noamane Chaari sing with an Israeli singer to bring peace, or did he do it for pay? Can the General Prosecutor and the Financial Analysis Committee conduct an in-depth investigation into the finances of this minor artist, Noamane Chaari? There is talk behind the scenes about considerable funds flowing from Israel and the UAE to prominent Tunisian figures in order to enlist their support for the Deal of the Century and [their help in] pressing the bankrupt Tunisian government into submitting to American political dictates and agreeing to normalize relations with the Zionist entity."
A December 13 post on the "Tunisians against Normalization" Facebook page said: "Noamane Chaari does not represent Tunisia or the Tunisians. #Normalization is treason."
Twitter user Rafika Mas'oudi wrote: "Noamane Chaari, who wrote [a song] with a Zionist… does not represent me. Shame on him. I will not append a photo of the pig."
Several commenters on the Facebook page of the Mosaïque FM radio station threatened Chaari with violence. One user, named Makram, wrote: “My position is that we should grab him, give him a good lesson, and beat him to death.” User Tarek Cheriaa wrote: “He’s a traitor according to both the shari'a and national law. [The punishment is] execution.” Others called for artists to boycott Chaari. Social media user Marwa Louati commented, “Any artist who works with an Israeli should be suspended from all artistic activities, just like they did to [Egyptian singer] Muhammad Ramadan. No to Normalization.” Seif El Mouldi wrote: “Go to hell, and rot there. You and all the traitors like you. [Skull and crossbones emojis] O poor, beloved Palestine.”
Facebook user Mongi Mechani remarked: “May God reject you, you traitor, you criminal. You collaborate with the racist criminal Zionist entity that slaughters the Palestinian people, crushes their hopes, destroys their homes and has besieged them by land, sea and air in Gaza. May God curse you until Judgment Day.”
However, the following days showed that Noamane Chaari has Tunisian sympathizers as well as detractors, including within the musical profession. Beginning on December 16, ACRI released a series of audio and video statements by leading Tunisian singers in which they expressed solidarity with the embattled artist. These included Bassam Farza, 'Imed 'Aziz Madhioub, and Alia Balaid. Bassam Farza said, "I fully back and support my brother, friend and colleague, the singer and composer Noamane Chaari. What he did was completely natural. Art has always been separate from politics and political matters. Art is a message. His song is a very beautiful message. Bravo to him." 'Imed 'Aziz Madhioub also tweeted: "You remain a great artist. I stand in solidarity with you, my dear brother."
Other artists supported him as well. Chems Eddine Bachaa wrote: "Art and music are the universal language… I support my friend and colleague, producer Noamane Chaari, and denounce this smear campaign against his artistic work." Singer and musician Minou commented: “I fully back and support my brother and friend… Noamane Chaari.” Vocalists Sahar and Walid Saadaoui made similar statements.
Social media users also expressed solidarity with Chaari. Mariam Abdallah wrote, “The unjustified attack on Noamane Chaari is an ugly crime against freedom of expression. Artists are the mirror that freely and creatively reflects society in all its different views and shades of opinion. Silencing this voice blots out the cause of civil society, [leaving] only backwardness and ignorance.” 'Amr Al-Humaydi commented: “I don’t know why the language of peace always sets [people] off and prompts them to attack and reject straight away. Especially when incitement to violence and schism that goads peoples and neighbors into [entering] a losing battle, attacking their neighbors and waging war all meet with encouragement and glorification.” Abu Abrar Al-Sana’ani wrote: “This musician deserves to be known as the musician of peace, without peer.”
 Facebook.com/almajlisal3arabi, December 10.
 See e.g., Facebook.com/hatem.aboumaya; Facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=189025152860166&id=110955227333826.
 On this affair see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9089 - Egyptian Journalists: There Is Nothing Condemnable About Having Friendly Relations With Israelis – December 15, 2020.
 Mosaiquefm.net/ar, December 12, 2020.
 Al-ain.com, December 17, 2020.
 It should be noted that Tunisian singer Eman Al-Sharif, who participated in the show and in the attacks on Chaari, herself preformed before Israeli tourists less than a year ago.
 Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), December 13, 2020.
 Facebook.com/sbmmtunis, December 16, 2020.
 Kifache.com, December 18, 2020.
 See e.g., Twitter.com/babnet_Tunisie, December 19, 2020; Twitter.com/ajplusarabi/status/1338951970988544000, December 15, 2020.
 Boycott4pal.net, December 15, 2020.
 Facebook.com/1840742972856470, December 12, 2020.
 Facebook.com/ 102605905065515 December 13, 2020.
 Twitter.com/rafikaposte, December 13, 2020.
 Facebook.com/mosaiquefm, December 12, 2020.
 Facebook.com/Zoom.Tunisia, December 12, 2020.
 Twitter.com/thearabcouncil, December 17, 2020.
 Facebook.com/imed.aziz.50, December 15, 2020.
 Facebook.com/chamseddinebachaa, December 16, 2020.
 Twitter.com/thearabcouncil, December 22, 2020.
 Facebook.com/mosaiquefm, December 12, 2020.