Clear Air and Plagiarism

I heard on the news this morning that the family of Naomi Shemer, perhaps Israel’s most famous song writer, is threatening to sue the city of Tel Aviv for using four words from the song “Jerusalem of Gold” in an ad campaign.

Tel Aviv, among other cities, signed an ecological treaty, and street ads all over the city carry the words avir arim tsalul ka-yayin – “city air as clear as wine”. One changed letter in Hebrew paraphrases the opening line from Shemer’s song: “mountain air as clear as wine”. The family claims this play on words violates copyrights. (For those who don’t know, “Jerusalem of Gold” is practically Israel’s non-official national anthem; almost every Jewish child around the world will recognize this song instantly.)

I had to smile. A couple of years ago it became known that Shemer confessed, in a letter, that the melody to “Jerusalem of Gold” is based on an old Basque folk song called “Pello Joxepe” that she heard a friend sing. Shemer says this was done inadvertently and the Basque song must have “subconciously” influenced her. Perhaps. But if you listen to the original song, as performed by Paco Ibanez, the similarity is glaringly obvious.

If I were the family of Naomi Shemer I would have been a little more humble and cautious before crying out plagiarism over this particular song…

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