David Ben-Gurion once remarked that Israel, far from being a light unto the nations, would be like all the other states once it had prostitutes and thieves, exhibiting its normalcy through its vice.
On Wednesday, Israel is taking another step into the community of regular nations with the debut of Playboy Israel, an all-Hebrew glossy monthly complete with nude photos of Israeli women, sports, style advice, political interviews and a mission to mentor Israeli masculinity.
“I’m proud to see Playboy Israel embark on its mission to play an important role in strengthening freedom of speech, freedom of choice and freedom of the press,” Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said in a message prerecorded for the magazine’s Tuesday launch party at the Brown Hotel in Tel Aviv, which aptly features a blown-up Playboy cover from April 1970 featuring “the girls of Israel,” as part of its regular decor.
“I am equally pleased that so many of the core values of the magazine are also the core values of the country and the society that has so graciously invited us to be a part of its cultural landscape,” he said.
Despite entering a declining market for printed media, Playboy Israel CEO Daniel Pomerantz says he is confident that the magazine, with its strong brand recognition, will succeed.
“Playboy has been very successful all around the world, even with all the changes in the industry,” Pomerantz – an immigrant from Chicago, where Playboy is based – told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “We’ve done our market studies, and we know our audience, and what we found is, there’s a very high interest in this particular magazine.”
Pomerantz, formerly a lawyer, said he had noticed on prior visits to Israel that the Playboy brand was popular on all sorts of products, even though there was no magazine.
“When I went back to Chicago, I said, ‘Why isn’t there a Playboy in Israel?’” Mentioning his observation to lawyers from Playboy with whom he was friendly led to meetings and eventually plans, alongside his aliya, to found the 30th international branch of the magazine.
“We’re reaching a point in Israeli life where we no longer see Israel as a house, but as a home; not just a refuge from the dangers of the past, but a place to build our future, and part of that means fun and fashion and debate on serious issues and all the things that Playboy stands for,” he said.
He hopes to build on the model of the magazine in its heyday, which included serious articles on sexual freedom, individual liberty and politics.
The first version of Playboy to be read from right to left features not only racy photos of reality television star Natalie Dadon, but also an in-depth, five-page interview with Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter. He joins influential Middle Eastern figures like Ariel Sharon, Rabbi Meir Kahane and Yasser Arafat, all of whom have been featured in the American version of the magazine.
Yet the market for magazines and printed soft-core pornography has been hard-hit by the Internet. Even the original Playboy has seen a spectacular loss in its profitability. In the first half of 2010, its circulation dropped by a third, and a $27 million quarterly loss led Hefner to buy back the company, taking its stock off publicly traded markets.
Just last week, analyst Charles Sizemore wrote in Forbes that Playboy was “transitioning from its adult media businesses into licensing and brand management,” a factor that may contribute to Hefner’s enthusiasm for the continued international franchise of the product.
“Licensing only accounted for $62 million of its $135 million in revenues last year, and the magazine continues to lose money,” Sizemore wrote.
Pomerantz is banking on the fact that in a small country, a big brand will sell enough magazines to keep the enterprise afloat, or that the magazine will strengthen the brand enough to make other merchandise profitable. He intends to promote the brand through regular parties.
Even before its debut, the magazine caused a stir among both religious groups, which objected to the magazine’s immodesty, and some feminists, who disdained its objectification of women.
Interestingly, though, the magazine chose a woman, Neta Jakobovitz-Keidar, to be its editor- in-chief.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a magazine with quality content, with deep interviews and color articles,” said Jakobovitz-Keidar, who edited and wrote for Internet portal OnLife prior to her new post. “There’s a woman standing at the head of this magazine, overseeing everything that goes on. Whoever opens the magazine sees the Playboy standard.
“It’s a mentor for men, but I’m sure that there are plenty of women who will find us interesting,” she added, noting that in the US, more than 20 percent of the readership is female.
“There’s room for both the sexes.”
Asked whether she was concerned that it entrenched stereotypes of masculinity, she replied, “No, it has everything men like. Men don’t just like women. Whether it’s sports or intellectual challenge or indepth articles or style, I believe there’s room for everyone.”
The magazine’s first playmate, Marin Teremets, a 30- year-old, Ukrainian-born, New York-raised choreographer who moved to Israel four years ago, says she doesn’t feel objectified by her place in the magazine.
“It’s kavod,” Teremets said at the launch on Tuesday, using the Hebrew word for honor.
“I don’t have a problem with showing beauty,” she continued, “whether it’s a bird or a flower or a woman or a man, or whatever it is, it’s beauty, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Especially this magazine, where they give so much respect and so much pride in a woman’s body, it’s in no way objectifying it in a bad way.”
In the late 1980s, a shortlived Israeli run of the sleazier Penthouse Magazine failed.
Yet even Teremets is unsure how the magazine will fare in the modern marketplace.
“We live in the 21st century, everything is on the Internet,” she said. “I don’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper. But I know that the market of magazines is different from newspapers. People still buy magazines.”