Yaffa Yarkoni, a singer who entertained Israeli soldiers on the front lines for half a century and later reaped public censure for her outspoken criticism of the military's treatment of Palestinians, died Sundayof Alzheimer's disease in Tel Aviv. She was 86.
Called "the singer of wars," Yarkoni began singing for troops at army bases and on the front line before the 1948 war that led to Israel's founding. She was known to call a soldier's mother to assure her that her son was safe.
"Many soldiers sang her songs along with her that were steeped in a love for Israel," said Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said her music "made up the soundtrack of Israel from the days of settlement."
Among her hits were "Don't Say Goodbye, Say I Will See You," which tells of a soldier leaving his girlfriend for the battlefield, and "Road to Jerusalem," about soldiers bringing food to Jerusalem during the 1948 war for independence. Her songs were played on radio stations every year on the anniversary of Israel's creation.
A few days before Independence Day in 2002, when Israeli troops were sweeping through Palestinian towns and refugee camps in Israel's largest military operation since the 1967 Middle East War, Yarkoni shocked Israelis with harsh criticism of the troops, the government and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"When I saw the Palestinians with their hands tied behind their backs, young men, I said, 'It is like what they did to us in the Holocaust,' " Yarkoni told Israel's Army Radio. "We are a people who have been through the Holocaust. How are we capable to doing these things?"
Her words brought denunciations from government officials. Organizers of a Memorial Day concert canceled her performance after sponsors pulled out and ticket holders protested. An alternative tribute was held for her at a Tel Aviv theater under the banner "Artists salute freedom of expression."
Yarkoni later told an interviewer that she was tired of war. "For 51 years," she said, "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 was born on Dec. 24, 1925, near Tel Aviv, where she was raised by her mother after her father abandoned them. Her mother ran a cafe where Yarkoni and her brother and sister formed a musical group to entertain patrons.
A radio operator in Israel's War of Independence, Yarkoni made a name for herself singing the anthems of the Jewish underground militia that fought the British and the Palestinians before Israel became a state. In 1967 she sang at the Western Wall after Israel captured Jerusalem's Old City. In 1998 she received the Israel Prize for her contribution to the nation's music.
She is survived by three daughters, eight grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times