The Disgruntled Dylanologist

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Neighborhood’: The World’s ‘Bully’ Pulpit


Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man,

His enemies say he’s on their land.

They got him outnumbered about a million to one,

He got no place to escape to, no place to run.

He’s the neighborhood bully.

Written for his 1983 Infidels album, “Neighborhood Bully” is often cited as a defense of Israel’s volatile foreign policy. With a long history of angst and, as recent events have suggested, a good dose of antagonism the subject of the song, much like the man who wrote it, is pure Dylan.

But whether you believe Israel is bullying the Palestinians, or that Hamas is the harasser, the intent of this grunt is to be neither incendiary nor seditious. The only person I am siding with is myself; the only insight I offer is an interpretation of a song that, I would argue, is just as relevant today as when it was penned over a quarter century ago.

On the surface, this rather straightforward 11-stanza narrative could be construed as a litany of the events that have confronted Israel over the last six decades. Considering the following:

‘Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad,

The bombs were meant for him,

He was supposed to feel bad.’

Given the topical nature of Dylan’s songwriting, the lyric is literal (albeit volatile) reference to Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant near Baghdad on June 17, 1981. A place where, as the song suggests, bombs could very well have been built for use on Israel.

Yet despite the seemingly obvious political underpinnings of the song’s subject matter (historical facts are evoked, sides are taken, battle lines are drawn), this is not a political song. Or more to the point, we cannot be sure exactly whose ‘politics’ Dylan is extolling since he never actually utter the word, ‘Israel.’

As a result of this notable omission, Israel and Palestine can, and have, both laid claim to the song as a defense of their actions. In fact, “Neighborhood Bully” was cited in 2001 in the Jerusalem Post as a “favorite among Dylan-loving residents of the territories.”

You can see how such confusion could occur. Take the line”

He got no place to escape to,
no place to run.

On one hand, Dylan is referencing the fact that for the last 6000 years the Jews have been forced to be a nomadic people lest they be persecuted, punished and put to death for their beliefs.

So the line is a defense of Israel, right? Not so fast.

Were a member of Hamas, one of the Gazan militant groups controlling the Gaza Strip, to ruminate over the exact same line, his interpretation would be decidedly different.

He got no place to escape to,
No place to run.

This may be metaphorically true for the Jews, but it is a literal truth for the inhabitants of Gaza. Water to the west, Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south—the citizens of Gaza are literally trapped by geography.

But “Neighborhood Bully” isn’t just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As expected considering its author, the song works on another, more universal level.

And while the world’s focus may now be turned on that particular conflict, couldn’t the tenets the song examines—condemnation, survival, an ardent belief structure—apply to all conflicts?

Last week, the U.N. approved a resolution intended to resolve the Israel-Gaza conflict. But the US—the parental figure to whom the world is now looking to sort out this whole sordid schoolyard skirmish—abstained from the vote. And when the world then turned to the Obama transition team, they copped out, too, claiming that perhaps it would be best to let the ‘kids’ work it out.

The problem, of course, is that Israel and the Palestine aren’t ‘kids on a playground.’ The ‘neighborhood bully’ motif is just that—a motif. What’s happening in Gaza is real; the lives of thousands are at stake. And if you buy into Book that both sides rather fervently ascribe so, too, does the future of the world. And since one of those countries can destroy a lot more than some enchanted garden paradise in the desert sand should they chose to, perhaps a little parental intervention might not be such a bad thing.

Whether his intention or not, Dylan has always used his songs as a de facto ‘bully pulpit’—a place from which he can cast out demons and comment on the topics that confront not only him, but those topics that confront us all.

The fact that his songs are not only prophetic but that each of us can read our own point of view into them is the real insight here, not which side Bob may or may not have been on at the time of his profession.

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,

He’s criticized and condemned for being alive.

He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin,

He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.

He’s the neighborhood bully.

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January 12, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , | Leave a comment