It is no secret that a central complaint against the Israeli media is its lack of diversity. For many years the media lacked pluralism, not only in the narrow realm of political inclinations and especially disinclinations, but also in general cultural preferences such as artistic, musical and literary endeavors. Fortunately, progress is evident. More and more religiously observant and right-wing journalists have joined the mainstream print media and electronic broadcasting outlets. The increasing number of religious entertainers and creators is also having its impact.
Some of the more noticeable Zionist-oriented and right-wing religious members of the media have even followed the footsteps of their secular post-Zionist counterparts, left their profession as journalists and entered politics. Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach and now Yinon Magal, who has been assured a safe place on the Bayit Yehudi list by its chairman, Naftali Bennett, are striking examples. It remains to be seen whether Magal will build on his media experience and have direct influence on media-related issues that arise in the Knesset and its deliberations.
Diversity has other aspects to it. In Great Britain, for example, diversity, as a bone of contention, relates to the ethnic makeup of the media. As Sajid Javid, the UK culture and media secretary, himself of Asian origin, has said recently, “statistics clearly showed there was a gap, given that just six percent of people working in newspapers, radio and television are from ethnic minorities compared with 14% of the population as a whole.” He claimed that in the business sector, for example, minorities are better represented. It would seem that in Israel ethnic diversity can also be improved – certainly the number of prominent non-Jewish journalists is much smaller than their proportion in the general population.
Cultural diversity is also an issue of quite some importance in Britain. The Creative Diversity Network is a forum of media organizations that monitor cultural diversity. Its members include senior producers from BBC, Channel 4, ITN, ITV, Sky and Turner Broadcasting.
Its report released this past September following a pilot study found that ethnic minorities, who are indeed under-represented, tended to be clustered around shows featuring what we would consider to be low-level entertainment, such as The X Factor and The Voice.
How does our Israeli media fare? One area that could use more diversity is original drama. Historical drama as a whole is lacking on our television screens, and what historical programs there are are all too often typified by an ever-increasing onslaught from within on our national narrative. This is not a new subject.
Already on February 22, 1978, the plenum of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s (IBA) governing council decided to instruct its creative content employees “to prepare a comprehensive series of broadcasts on the history of the Zionist struggle and the justice of the national enterprise.” This decision was forced upon its members as a result of its own previous funding of Ram Levy’s television film based on Yizhar Smilansky’s short story Hirbet Hiz’a, with its (in)famous line: “What the hell are we doing here?” (Smilansky also became a Mapai MK and then a Rafi party MK, serving from 1949 to 1967).
That film provoked a major scandal. It was perceived as promoting the propaganda of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and, ultimately, anti-Israel terrorism. The fictional tale of the conquest of an Arab village and the expulsion of its remaining residents in “boxcars of exile” was based on the author’s 1948 wartime experience.
This film was a sign of things to come. The contemporary offerings of serious television fare, while justifying Israel as a free, democratic society, are false and hollow because there is so much not aired or produced. Indeed, the result of all this activity has been to turn the Zionist into a virtual anti-hero.
Oddly enough, the eventual “response” of the IBA was the 1981 “Pillar of Fire” historical series, broadcast in 19 episodes over a five-month period. Its origins stemmed from the 1975 United Nations “Zionism is Racism” resolution.
That series was severely criticized for ignoring Jews from Arab lands and the nationalist-camp opponents to the Mapai/Histadrut hegemony. Three decades later, it is now the producers of the post-Zionist narrative, who are mostly homegrown, well ensconced in our academia, our theaters and in exhibitions who accuse Israeli society of being racist. Our airwaves have not provided a significant and firm counter-voice to this false narrative.
Worse, chapters of Zionist history that do reflect a more patriotic and positive narrative are ignored. The struggle for the land, the superhuman efforts to reach the Land of Israel despite restrictions, the heroism of the battles for liberation from the repressive British regime and especially those of the Irgun and Lehi have hardly been mined for their contribution to the national spirit. We have often noted the lopsided satire on Israeli TV and will come back to this topic in a forthcoming column.
Public criticism of this lack of diversity has usually been treated in a critical and even derogatory manner as the left-of-center cultural chiefs among the writers, producers and directors who infiltrated the media dictated their own agenda. Any interference with their work was hotly contested as an attack on their self-awarded freedom to do whatever they pleased, and too often on the public’s expense.
At the BBC, the coming year will bring more than 40 hours of new drama commissions including a new adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which deals with a terrorist bomb plot in Victorian London.
The parallel to the terror threat the UK has been facing for the past years is obvious. The controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson, proudly announced that “the BBC supports the range of writers and ideas that these new announcements demonstrate.”
Could the same be said of our state-sponsored and funded networks? Do Channel 1’s “high-brow dramas,” Channel 2’s popular dramas and the current dramas available on satellite and cable channels adequately, pluralistically and democratically represent Israel’s national ethos and historical record? We think not, and that too much of the good story of Zionism is sadly lacking on Israel’s screens.
The lack of diversity is not limited to the rebirth of Zionism.
The BBC for years has given to the world dramas that cover England’s rich ancient history. The Jewish people have an enormously richer history, covering 2,000 years of Diaspora. Have we ever had a biography of Abravanel, Yehuda Halevi, etc.? Have the years of repression and anti-Semitic acts been given their due? Has the history of Jewish self-rule in the Diaspora, with all of its richness, received any attention? Do our viewers get to know Jewish historical leaders, their successes and failures? Israel’s media is controlled by an cultural elite that have little knowledge about and too often display even less respect for the Jewish people and its ethos. It is high time that this is changed. The Israeli people deserve better.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s media Watch (www.imw.org.il).
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