By STEFANIE GARDEN
Last week the wildly popular satirical variety show Eretz Nehederet opened its new season with a controversial, if not extremely unsettling skit. The skit shows IDF officers watching a "proof of life" tape of a kidnapped soldier. As the camera scrolls, the audience sees a soldier, buzz cut, clean-shaven, and painfully reminiscent of Gilad Schalit. As in the Schalit tape, the soldier begins by identifying himself and his family, then offering up reassurance that his captors are treating him well and that he's unhurt and well fed - with kosher food, in fact. The soldier then holds up the day's Makor Rishon newspaper - an Orthodox paper, as opposed to a Palestinian paper in the Schalit video.
The camera pans out and the audience begins to understand that the soldier's kidnappers are not Hamas or Hizbullah as one might expect, but rather West Bank settlers. Complete with beards, payot and kippot, the settlers begin to list their demands for the release of the soldier - an end to the settlement freeze, amnesty for attacks against police, the creation of preferential expansion zones for settlements and so on. Upon realizing all their demands have already been met, they change course and demand that a popular Orthodox anchorwoman be featured in the racy men's magazine, Blazer, with her elbows showing.
The two IDF officers watching the tape, who appear to be the ones responsible for negotiating the soldier's release, get distracted by the alarm signaling the end of the work day and head out to yoga class, without a care in the world.
Not surprisingly, the religious Right was not at all amused by this portrayal of their community, and those in positions of power have already voiced harsh criticism of the offending skit. In a televised Knesset Education Committee meeting, MK Ya'akov Katz (National Union) furiously denounced the show's depiction of settlers and the religious as harboring intentions to harm soldiers.
"I, as someone who served as a soldier and officer in the IDF, and lost a leg, was portrayed as someone who harms soldiers, and my children, who all serve in [some of the best IDF units] have to stand by and watch their father be portrayed as someone who shoots soldiers," he said.
Katz further condemned the program by comparing the show's antics to the Nazi tactic of first demonizing, then exterminating Jews. Add the fact that Eretz Nehederet airs on Friday nights, when the members of this particular community wouldn't be able to watch anyway, and Katz seemed to imply that it is part of some elaborate, secular plan to turn the country against the settlers for subsequent expulsion.
Almost ominously, Katz then declared, "There will come a day when we will be the ones in power, and there will be retroactive laws and all those tainted by anti-Semitism - toward the settlers, toward the Jewish people, toward the IDF - will be brought to justice."
WHAT KATZ and some in the religious Right may have failed to recognize is that this particular Eretz Nehederet skit upset a much larger audience beyond those who support the settlement movement. More than anything, it was extremely difficult to watch the mockery of Gilad Schalit's kidnapping, and the painful debate over the conditions for his release that have divided the country. What the Schalit family must have been thinking...
The Second Television and Radio Authority, responsible for regulation of programming, felt the skit was tasteless but didn't see any reason to intervene, instead passing along the complaints to Keshet, the media group which broadcasts Eretz Nehederet.
In a statement made to the Second Authority, Keshet declared, "Freedom of expression is the life force of a democracy. Interference and criticism would violate the rights of the creators to express themselves, therefore undermining the rights of viewers to be exposed to messages that are not to the satirical or parodical tastes of one politician or another."
"The role of satire," the statement continued, "is to expose an often stinging mirror image, even if it is not convenient."
The prevailing argument surrounding "offending" content is that what one deems "offensive" is entirely subjective, and therefore - as a free and open society - we should be able to decide for ourselves what content to absorb, and what to simply ignore. Many of us can agree that hateful or inciting content needs to be carefully considered before being aired, if at all. Sometimes, however, it's important to recognize when content is just in poor taste.
In 2008, The New Yorker faced a public outcry over one of its covers. The cartoon featured a not-yet elected Barack Obama standing in the Oval Office dressed in a turban and robe, fist-bumping his wife Michelle, who was dressed in military fatigues and fully armed, while a portrait of Osama bin Laden hung above a roaring fireplace where an American flag was burning.
It's quite obvious that The New Yorker was in no way suggesting that the Obamas were terrorists; instead the cover was a way to call out those on the Right consistently raising concerns over the Obamas' loyalty to the United States and the presidential candidate's background as an American.
While subscribers to The New Yorker are presumably conditioned to the magazine's satirical style, and its readership is expected to be sophisticated enough to understand the joke, for all those Americans not familiar with it, this image offered up all the right scare tactics to make it the most convenient manipulation tool for those who wanted it.
In the hierarchy of values that exists among all free societies, freedom of expression is both the most prized and most contested. We are constantly forced to ask ourselves whether some topics are truly off limits or just tasteless, and in a society of free ideas, who gets to decide when something is offensive or just plain hateful?
Satire has become a prevalent part of the way free and open societies scrutinize themselves and look for improvement. Characterized by controversy, satire boldly stares taboo subjects in the face and laughs. Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? Perhaps, but crossing it may be the only way to find out.
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