Sitting in Los Angeles, California, I sometimes get the sense that the Jewish community’s primary connection to Israel is often centered on examining, exploring, and perhaps defending Israel in its conflicts with its neighbors. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. This presents challenges for a whole host of reasons, but for now, I am focused on one primary reason – reducing our relationship with Israel to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is missing out on the actual experience of Israelis. Of course, we should learn about the conflict, but our relationship with Israel should not be defined by the conflict.
Let’s look at questions in Israeli society. Let’s explore Israeli literature and learn from Etgar Keret. Let’s listen to Israeli music – from the spiritually infused music of Yishai Ribo and Hanan Ben Ari to the pop star Noa Kirel. Let’s watch Israeli TV shows like “Fauda,” “Tehran,” and “Shtisel.” What emerges is that Israel is a Jewish culture export machine.
While the pundits (including us) have been focused on the political implications of the Israel-UAE deal, a totally unrelated issue was causing a brouhaha in Israel. There were protests; there were debates; there was passion on both sides.
Here was the question: Should the popular show “HaYehudim Baim” be cancelled, or should it continue?
If you have not heard of the show, or if you did not know about this debate, don’t fret. The English language media did not cover this story so much, but you know who did? My amazing colleague Avi Posen.
Here’s a story of what’s going on in Israel beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This past week, around 1,500 mostly Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protested outside the Kan public broadcaster’s headquarters in Jerusalem. The protest was against the both popular and controversial satirical show “HaYehudim Baim.” Hebrew for “The Jews Are Coming,” the show aims to depict biblical and religious figures in a humorous way. The protesters decried the show; Herzlia’s city council member Elad Tzadikov said: “It is no longer possible to remain silent in the face of such blasphemy.” Just a week earlier, scenes from the show were removed from a website of the Israeli Education Ministry’s Tanakh program after complaints from ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset and activists. In response to the protest, Kan released a statement stating “ ‘The Jews Are Coming’ is a satire program, and that is how it should be treated. Freedom of expression and creativity are a top value in public broadcasting, as is self-deprecation. The right of protesters to protest is no less important.” Why are some Israelis protesting the show, while others are defending it?
What’s the Big Fuss About?
“HaYehudim Baim” is described on its website as “the series that goes back to the big (and small) moments of the Jewish people and brings to life the important (and less important) historical figures in the history of the Jewish people.” The show covers the entire spectrum of Jewish history, from biblical times to modern Israel, through various sketches in order to comment on contemporary Israeli and Jewish social, political, and religious issues. In 2015, the show won an Israeli Television Award for best entertainment show.
One of the first clips of the show to go viral — not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish world — was a scene about the development of traditions, this one focusing on the tradition of kissing a mezuzah upon entering a room. Other scenes cover famous biblical moments like the binding of Isaac and Moses and the Israelites. The show covers scenes from more modern Jewish history as well, like the Dreyfus Affair and the execution of Adolf Eichmann. In the opening credits of each episode, the screen reads “The program ‘The Jews Are Coming’ is a satirical show that includes satirical and humorous content. There is no intention on behalf of the creators of the show to offend. If anyone is offended by the content, we apologize in advance.”
Why Are Some Israelis Against the Show?
Although the show’s opening credits explicitly claim that it is not their intention to offend anyone, there is no question that the show is offensive to many Israelis. In a piece written for the Israeli news site Makor Rishon, Rina Nakonchani writes “the heroes of the Tanakh were human beings, they made mistakes, some even critical ones. But to present them as murderers, rapists and God haters? Enough.” In reference to the fact that the show is funded by Israeli taxpayer dollars, Nakonchani asks, “Shouldn’t content on the public corporation channel appeal to the general public?”
A member of Knesset from the right-wing Yamina party, Betzalel Smotrich, who attended the rally, wrote on Twitter that “humor and ‘fine satire’ also have limits. A channel funded by public money can not fund the humiliation of everything that is precious to millions of citizens who love and respect Judaism and tradition. The demonstration today marks the establishment of a large social movement of secular and religious people who are not willing to remain silent when Judaism is disgraced.”
Dvir Amior, the head of the Israeli youth group Ariel, which has about 15,000 members across the country, said at the rally “what is fueling this protest is the show’s attempt to take the Torah and present it while removing its holiness and spirit under the guise of comedy. We are in favor of connecting with all parts of the nation, including secular Israelis of course. However, ridiculing our tradition and humiliating all of our ancestors can’t be on our agenda. The Arab sector wouldn’t put up with what we are going through with this program.”
Rabbi Ronen Neubert, who is a leading rabbi within the Religious Zionist community said that “tasteless and offensive humor doesn’t have a place in public life, just as we wouldn’t accept similar humor against other groups in society – Muslims, Ethiopians, LGBT and others. This kind of humor can incite hatred against the religious and Haredi populations.”
Why Are Others Defending It?
In response to the protest against their show, the creators Assaf Beiser and Natalie Marcus responded: “We believe that the Tanakh belongs to all of us: religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Orthodox, Reform, smart or stupid. We all have the right to read it, to think about it, to love it or to be angry with it. Even more than that, the Tanakh is a gift to the Jewish people and to all of mankind. Every person has the right to read it and have dialogue with it.” Beiser and Marcus went on to write that there is more than one way to be Jewish, adding “there’s no such thing as ‘more Jewish’ or ‘less Jewish.’ We are secular Jews and we have a secular Jewish lifestyle. We’re not less Jewish or more Jewish than the Chief Rabbi, Sephardi or Ashkenazi.”
In response to those offended by the show, the creators added that they were sorry to anyone who was offended but that “this is how satire is. Sometimes it stirs the stomach, stings the eye and shakes the heart. Our goal is not to offend. Our goal is to be funny, entertaining and occasionally even thought provoking.”
Israeli comedian and screenwriter Gil Kopatch wrote a provocative response to the “HaYehudim Baim” protesters, asking “How small and weak is your faith that any small confrontation threatens your entire worldview? How weak is your educational system? Will any joke threaten to destroy everything you’ve built? Will the 3,000 year old Jewish library fall and shatter because of one funny punch line?” Writer Uri Mintz added in Maariv that the show mocks the secular left just as much as the religious right and that the show’s critics should watch it to see for themselves.
The Bottom Line
“HaYehudim Baim” has elicited strong emotional reactions within Jewish society in Israel because it cuts to the heart of how Jewish history and Jewish texts are experienced by Israeli Jews. For many, these texts and figures are viewed as a history like any other in which poking fun is a legitimate expression of free will. For others, satirizing the holiness of texts and certain individuals crosses a red line. Wherever you stand on this debate, you will find a peer who agrees with you and someone who thinks differently… and that’s okay.
(Virtual) Classroom Tips:
- Is it okay to make light of things we value as sacred within Judaism and Jewish history? If so, are there red lines that should not be crossed?
- If a show making fun of Judaism and Jewish history was made outside of Israel or was produced by someone who was not Jewish or Israeli, would the reaction to the show be the same or different?
- Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich demanded that “HaYehudim Baim” be removed from Kan, the publicly funded TV station, claiming that section 173 of the penal code establishes a criminal offense for stations that broadcast content that offends religious beliefs or feelings. Do you think that a show funded by taxpayer dollars should be able to offend large segments of the population? Why or why not?
- Show your students the following clips from “HaYehudim Baim” and ask the following questions (warning: some of the clips have inappropriate language): How did the show make you feel? Were you offended by it? Do you think the show crossed the line? Do you think this is a good way to learn about Jewish history?