‘It’s a moral issue,’ Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik says of new pro-Israel anthem

In interview with JI, Ondrasik discusses new single 'OK,' which reckons with the terror of Oct. 7 and the antisemitism unleashed in its wake

John Ondrasik’s music career took off more than two decades ago when his song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” became the unofficial anthem of 9/11 first responders. 

Under his stage name Five for Fighting, Ondrasik has since been nominated for a Grammy and saw his single “100 Years” go platinum. He’s also made a habit of creating politically conscious music focused on global events. With his most recent single “OK,” released on Friday, the Los Angeles-based songwriter turned his falsetto to the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks and their aftermath on the world stage.

The dirge-like ballad is the first time a mainstream American artist has addressed the attacks in Israel. A corresponding music video offers a powerful illustration of the somber message described in his song: “This is a time for choosing / this is a time to mourn / the moral man is losing.” 

“The fact that nobody was saying anything — nobody in the arts, in Hollywood, were saying anything — just kind of stunned me and made me angry,” Ondrasik told Jewish Insider on Monday. His recent political songs (though he prefers the term “moral” to “political”) include a 2021 song focused on the consequences of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, and a 2022 song about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (For that one, he recorded a music video with the Ukrainian Orchestra at a bombed-out airport outside Kyiv.)

The “OK” video begins with a clip of concert-goers at the Nova Music Festival in southern Israel before transitioning to footage of Hamas terrorists paragliding into the festival. Before Ondrasik starts singing, the video is overlaid with audio from a speech delivered by New York City Mayor Eric Adams at a pro-Israel rally soon after the attacks: “I’m gonna give you four words. We are not alright,” Adams said, while describing the atrocities of Oct. 7. “We are not alright when right here in the city of New York we have those who celebrate at the same time when the devastation is taking place.”

“I kept coming back to that speech and saying, ‘It seemed really brave,’ but it really shouldn’t be brave,” Ondrasik said. “Isn’t that what everybody should be saying? Why is that brave?”

The music video cycles between clips of the massacre (it begins with a word of caution, warning of “disturbing” images), video of protests in the West cheering the Hamas attack and news headlines documenting the rise of global antisemitism since October. It also includes clips from Capitol Hill: One shows Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) declining to respond to a reporter asking her to condemn the attacks, and another shows the now-viral testimony of university presidents speaking before a congressional panel. 

“It’s not even really about Hamas and the evil actors. It’s about the rest of the world,” Ondrasik said. “That’s why it’s so depressing when you see these institutions in the media, in academia and in the halls of Congress that are Hamas sympathizers — or in some cases propagandists.” 

Ondrasik is not Jewish, nor has he traveled to Israel. (A planned trip in 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic.) But he argued that that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for speaking out on this issue. 

“I don’t think one has to be Jewish to stand for Israel and fight against the evil that is Hamas,” he said. “It’s also very disconcerting to see so many Jewish people not speaking up, especially in the arts. But yeah, where are the non-Jews? I just think it’s a moral issue.” 

The relative silence from many in the music industry has surprised Ondrasik. He said he understands the fear of artists who worry they’ll be attacked for weighing in, but he doesn’t think that absolves them of the responsibility to do so.

“They’re scared for their families. They’re worried about fan safety at concerts, assuming they’ll probably be protested if they say anything,” he said. “I’m hoping that the song is a little permission, because, again, it’s cliche, but each voice, each person that says something makes each one of us safer, makes each one of us stronger and makes the world a little better.”

He recalled walking in Manhattan on the day of the Concert for New York City in 2001, a benefit concert that supported 9/11 first responders. One of the sights from that day stayed with him as he witnessed the antisemitism that has emerged in recent months.

John Ondrasik

“I remember after 9/11, walking down Seventh Avenue before the concert for New York, seeing the posters of those who are missing, and just being heartbroken that those folks are not going to — they’ll never see their loved ones. But can anybody imagine ripping those posters down?” asked Ondrasik, who played at the concert. “Seeing stuff like that, and then our colleges run amok with antisemitism, that was certainly shocking and scary.” 

The 2001 concert, held at Madison Square Garden, featured dozens of performers and was organized by Paul McCartney and other British artists who wanted to honor those killed in the United States on 9/11. Ondrasik said he sees an opening to do something similar now to honor those murdered on Oct. 7 in Israel, where Israeli artists have in recent months released scores of songs inspired by the attack and the country’s resilience.

“After 9/11, the iconic musicians in the world came to America. Paul McCartney — it was his idea. They performed to provide healing for the country, and to call out this evil act. So why not now?” he asked. “I’m hoping that we can do something because music transcends in a way other things don’t. It also keeps the focus on a public that has a very short attention span.”

The music video for “OK” ends on an uplifting note, with images of people who have taken a stand to support Israel and oppose terrorism and antisemitism. Its final clip shows a DJ playing at the site of the Nova festival in front of posters of the Israeli hostages. 

“I started looking for images of conscience,” Ondrasik said. “I take no joy in doing these things. But I kind of feel an obligation to say something. And that’s why I’m just so stunned that so many others that have a much bigger voice than mine have remained so silent. But hopefully, hopefully, that might change.”

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