Don’t give up on English-language broadcasting in Israel

For better or for worse, this is the way Israelis have been living for some time now.

IBA logo (photo credit: COURTESY OF IBA)
IBA logo
(photo credit: COURTESY OF IBA)
The war we waged this summer in Gaza, together with the horrific events taking place in Syria and Iraq, reinforced our sense here in Israel that we’re living in a “villa in the jungle.” The family is living its life happily, keeping to itself, in pretty comfortable conditions. There’s just one problem: their villa is located right in the heart of a jungle and life outside is not so simple. Out there, where the law of the jungle presides, life is lived according to the principles of “only the strong survive” and “if I don’t devour you, you’ll surely devour me.” Life in the villa could have been wonderful if it weren’t for the occasional need to go outside, at which point we realize the reality of our fake life.
For better or for worse, this is the way Israelis have been living for some time now. And then one day we realized our villa is not immune to the world around us. Suddenly we found that we were being threatened and attacked from the jungle. We defended ourselves and sometimes went out on retaliatory operations and then quickly came back home, because our home is our fortress, right? The question is: Are the people living in the villa making any effort whatsoever to dialogue with the people living in the jungle all around them? Do they believe that this situation can go on forever?
Or do they think that if they don’t succeed in overpowering the jungle, then they will be the ones who will either have to adapt to the rules of the jungle or abandon their villa and go live somewhere else? I thought about these dilemmas recently when the new Public Broadcasting Law was passed. Shortly afterwards, Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) temporary director Yona Wiesenthal decided that it did not need to broadcast in English anymore. At first they moved these programs to earlier hours, with the intention of showing them only online at some point in the future. In my mind, this is tantamount to closing a window and then lowering the curtain, too. Does this change the reality that exists outside the window? Of course not – we just don’t see it anymore. What’s the connection? It is similar to the connection between our life here and the lives of people in surrounding countries.
The Public Broadcasting Law, which has been gradually formulated over the last 50 years, obliged us to broadcast to surrounding countries in an effort to increase understanding between us.
The aim of the original 1965 law was “to broadcast Arabic-language programs for the benefit of populations in neighboring countries and to promote peace.” After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel decided to initiate TV broadcasting, too. Its official goal was to create a dialogue between Hebrew and Arabic speakers. It was obvious that these programs were an important part of the discourse between Israel and its neighbors.
Along with the decision to provide programming in Arabic, the IBA decided to add English-language programming, since people in Judea and Samaria, as well in neighboring countries, also spoke English. These were the two channels on which diplomacy between Israel and the Arabs was supposed to be conducted. Surprisingly, it was actually when Israel signed the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan that TV’s role as a bridge between peoples ceased to exist. Arabic-language programming was summarily exiled from Channel 1 to Channel 33, which was only broadcast on cable and satellite.
Moreover, during the period when I served as chairman of the IBA, starting in 2000, I demanded that these transmissions be enhanced, and in fact a special Arabic and English-language Middle East channel was created.
Unfortunately, this channel did not survive the IBA’s financial crisis, and later closed. Needless to say, the opening and closing of this channel were of great national importance.
Channel 33 continued to broadcast shows in Arabic, mixed in with Hebrew-language programming, apparently with the attitude that “Arabs have to learn Hebrew at some point anyway.” Channel 1 retained its concise news summary in English, with a more detailed version airing on the faltering Channel 33.
Hopefully you haven’t gotten lost with all these complicated changes – I sure did! And it appears that the IBA acted irresponsibly and gave up the right to broadcast these programs. It has now completely abandoned 1.5 million of its Arabic-speaking citizens, four million Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, as well as the millions of Arabs in the region, to the mercy of the over one hundred Arabic and English-language networks, Al Jazeera being the most influential one, of course. Three months ago, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan presented his vision of a new Israeli broadcasting corporation to the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee. His idea was that there would be two separate channels – one each for Hebrew and Arabic.
I immediately voiced my opinion that it was just as important to have English-language programming. I said then, and I repeat again, that after Arabic, English is the most important language spoken in the region.
But then I discovered that Erdan and the new IBA CEO were not interested in broadcasting English-language programs on TV. They were happy to broadcast radio programs in English, and only for the residents of Israel. The new 2014 law states that, “Radio broadcasts will include programs focusing on news, current affairs, music, Jewish heritage and children’s shows, including broadcasts in Russian and Amharic.”
This last clause was added just as the legislation was being passed. The individuals who initiated the law had not even planned for Russian and Amharic to be included. What a nice surprise they received.
I would like to mention here that hundreds of thousands of native English speakers currently live Israel and that the IBA is responsible for finding a suitable solution to fulfill their needs. Radio broadcasts are not enough; English-language TV programming is required too.
The “nice neighbor” clause in the 1965 law does not appear in the 2014 version. Apparently, this need no longer exists in the new Israel – an Israel that ignores its neighbors, discards them and treats them as if they were not worthy partners in deciding public policy. The future broadcasting authority envisions a Hebrew-language channel on which no Arabic or English words will be heard – God forbid! – and another, separate Arabic channel that will be inferior from the get-go. And of course, not one word in English will be heard on this channel.
All over the world, public broadcasting authorities that are directly or indirectly publicly funded (as is ours) broadcast programs in foreign languages, as seen at the BBC, France 24, as well as the German, Russian and of course American public broadcasting authorities.
My intention here is not to be spreading propaganda – that’s a very scary word. What I’m proposing is that Israel should broadcast programs that will also reach our neighbors, near and far. The costs involved are very low.
The Internet, of course, could play a similar role, but in order to listen to a webcast you need to be connected to a computer or smartphone and the main stage – TV – is then absent.
For now, the transmission of Israeli TV programs on the Internet lags far behind expectations.
IBA’s policy to stop broadcasting programs in English, or slowly kill them off, is a grave mistake. This means that Israel has given up on having any kind of working relationship with its neighbors. It means that we prefer recognizing just one language – the language of force – which we use from time to time (sometimes more successfully than others). We are giving up on ever having a dialogue between ourselves and our Arab neighbors. We are preventing them from getting to know what life in Israel is like, a life which I thought we were proud of.
So whoever believes in coexistence, whoever believes that one day there will be two states here, a Palestinian and an Israeli one, whoever believes that one day we will all learn to live together, that we’ll be able to go outside of our villa and take a walk in the jungle and be able to return to our villa in the evening safe and sound, should not give up on having English-language broadcasting.
The author, a Labor MK, serves as deputy chairman of the Knesset and was chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) from 2000-2002.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.