Eurovision: Not the time for inside jokes

The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation’s Eurovision teaser wins few likes.

KAN TEASER video: ‘Eurovision 2019 – The Musical.’ (photo credit: screenshot)
KAN TEASER video: ‘Eurovision 2019 – The Musical.’
(photo credit: screenshot)
What really got me was the appalling English, which conveyed instantly, “We don’t give a rat’s ass,” providing the clearest unintended metaphor for the Israeli national character.
I refer to the Eurovision teaser released last Friday by KAN, Israel’s Public Broadcasting Corporation, that rocked social media immediately – and not in a good way. Considering the brevity of modern attention spans, it is far too long, clocking in at over four minutes. So, truth is, 99% of potential viewers won’t get past the initial 30 seconds.
It is also really bad. Well, okay, it’s kind of funny in spots, in that way your kids’ talent show can be funny – inadvertently, a little cringe-worthy. Initially, I was sure it was a parody put out by some art school kids with time on their hands, until I saw the early online reactions, which tended to extremes.
Some were offended, deeply, by what they saw as the trivializing of antisemitic tropes. Others saw comic genius in the same clip, self-parodying in that uniquely Israeli way some of our less appealing traits, and those ascribed to us by many in Europe and elsewhere.
Specifically, there are two moments in the video that in my view say it all. And it is important to note that the target audiences for the clip are tourists arriving from abroad for the Eurovision Song Contest, as well as those unable to make the trip who may view it online. It is a bonanza opportunity to present the complexity of Israel to many millions of people, in a cultural context.
Hosting Eurovision is a marketing boon for any country, attracting tourists, media cohort hungry for content, and the opportunity for exposure to hundreds of millions of television viewers in Europe and globally. Since its founding with seven participating countries in 1956, Eurovision has grown to include more than 40 competing nations, many having joined from central and Eastern Europe following the decline of communist control.
Everything is controversial when it involves Israel, including sport and culture. Last year, the first stage of the Giro d’Italia cycling race – one of the top sporting events in the world – was the focus of much angst. It wasn’t just because of the usual litany of concerns regarding the “occupation,” inequality, etc., but more importantly, because it messed with a sacred European tradition of always starting the race on the Continent. This is heresy tantamount to taking the Champagne from Champagne, Bolognese from Bologna, or Parmesan from Parma.
Eurovision is an opportunity to “normalize” Israel in the eyes of the world, particularly Europe. It is not a time for “inside jokes” that only we “get.”
A critical reality check that the creative talent on this production overlooked: Israeli humor does not translate well. It is very culture and context-specific. In order to reach a broad range of cultures, it is important to understand them.
THE CREATIVE team clearly thought it clever to select certain controversial issues and attempt ironic levity. They failed, utterly.
Lucy Ayoub, an Arab-Israeli, and Elia Grinfeld, a Russian-Israeli, both journalists, take us on a Disney-esque odyssey – replete with cheesy melody – through the complexities of modern Israel, with an attempted “light touch.”
Of numerous bad lines, the worst: While leading Eurovision tourists to a cashier, they nod knowingly to the visitors and chirp this doozer: “Most of us are Jews but only some of us are greedy.”
Just. Not. Funny.
That is beyond tone deaf, particularly today, when Jews in Europe, North America and beyond are subjected to some of the most violent antisemitism, in words and deeds, since the Holocaust. It’s just not funny. It’s not, as KAN seems to think, about “owning” the negative perceptions others have about Jews. It’s ham-handed, dumb and damaging.
And then there’s just the plain sloppy and inexcusable, which actually, is the most revealing of the attitude and approach underlying this creative venture.
While showing off the many glories of Tel Aviv, burly Elia gestures broadly at the background panorama of our “lovely bitches.” Yes. He said “bitches” instead of “beaches,” as many Israelis do, which is sort of cute.
What isn’t cute at all is the subtitle that was translated by someone with less-than-competent English skills. This was no clever pun. This was unintentional. And therein is the nub of the problem.
Israelis are famously resourceful and resilient, but that “get stuff done” attitude does not automatically mean they understand the nuance of cross-cultural communication. In fact, there is no Hebrew word for “nuance,” which is very telling.
A promotional big-budget video prepared by the national broadcaster with more than ample lead time and resources is a high school-level embarrassment. That they did not even bother to find someone with a grade three education to proofread the English subtitles says it all.
We present ourselves as being thick, insensitive, gutter chauvinists.
Oh, wait. Maybe it was intentional.
Interestingly, a reporter whose work I regard highly, portrayed the video in an opinion piece earlier this week as being confidently cheeky, including the “bitches” thing. He refers to a response from the broadcaster on Twitter, asking if it was just overlooked. They responded with a winking icon and, “Ya think?”
Another classic Israeli moment.
Ya, I do think – that it was an error because it is not the only translation glitch in the subtitles. And, I hate to be so nitpicky, but for example, moorcavim does not translate to “bleak.” Ever. And there are more.
What this says to my inner English teacher and cultural sensitivity coach is that this was a bit of sloppy, slapdash work. I see it too often in the business world here in poorly stated documents that are rough translations of Hebrew idiom to English and presented with boundless confidence.
Even on the most generous interpretation, if it is a joke, it is at best, a fishbowl joke that only Israelis will get.
Joke’s on us.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.