JERUSALEM — Yaffa Yarkoni, a singer who belted out wartime songs only to become a critic of the Israeli military late in life, died Sunday after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 86.
Yarkoni went from entertaining soldiers as a wartime songbird to criticizing the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians during their uprising last decade. After chiding the military in 2002, Yarkoni was branded a traitor by soldiers’ families, received death threats and had a gala tribute to her career canceled. A group of artists held an alternative event to support her freedom of expression.
The furor arose when she made comparisons between an Israeli military operation in the West Bank and the Holocaust.
“We are a nation that went through the Holocaust. How can we do things like this to another nation?” she told Israel’s Army Radio.
In an interview she gave to The Associated Press following those remarks, Yarkoni said she was tired of war, of dead young men and heartbroken mothers.
“I am tired. For 51 years I am singing about Israel all over the world, telling stories about how it was before — the first war, the second war, every war. War, war, war. They call me the singer of wars. I don’t like this name. I want to be the singer of Israel,” she said.
Yarkoni’s songs tell of Israel’s pioneering days following the 1948 war that led to its creation, a war in which she served as a radio operator. For years, the khaki-clad Yarkoni was a fixture at Israeli army bases as she entertained soldiers, and many of her songs became classics that still resonate with Israelis and are performed at remembrance day ceremonies.
In 1998, she received the prestigious Israel Prize for Hebrew song.
“While the Israel Defense Forces conquered enemy positions, she conquered the soldiers’ hearts,” said President Shimon Peres, who called for a moment of silence in Yarkoni’s memory.
Yarkoni faded from the public stage over the past decade, and in the end, her powerful music obscured her contentious statements. Upon word of her death, tributes from Israeli politicians across the spectrum poured in, and her music filled radio airwaves.
“Many soldiers sang her songs along with her that were steeped in a love for Israel,” said Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“One of the greatest Israeli singers … Yaffa Yarkoni’s songs made up the soundtrack of Israel from the days of (Jewish) settlement,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
In a statement, her family said Yarkoni would be buried alongside her husband at a Tel Aviv cemetery. She is survived by three daughters, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.