Israel's Russian TV gears up to celebrate 'The Country's Birthday'

It's Monday afternoon at the Neveh Ilan studios of Russian-language TV channel, Israel Plus, and the station is buzzing with activity. Anchors rush to the makeup room ahead of their various shows, while others sit in glass-fronted offices preparing scripts or researching for later programs. While the action is likely a daily occurrence, now - three days before the nation marks the state's 60th birthday - Channel 9, which was set up five years ago to cater to the country's largest immigrant community, is getting ready to celebrate the Independence Day on a far grander scale than ever before. "Its going to be an amazing program," confides Yana Briskman, a celebrity journalist and front woman for the daily news analysis show Pros and Cons. She and other stars from the channel have joined together to produce a Broadway-style musical titled The Country's Birthday, which tells the story of the War of Independence and recreates the early years of the state. The presenters play famous figures from the country's history, including members of the Palmach, the kibbutz movement and soldiers. "We'll be dressed in costumes from the 1940s and '50s. It will be fascinating for our viewers to see how they lived back then," says Briskman, as the makeup artist fills in her lips with a deep shade of red. "We'll not only be conveying the history but also the atmosphere of the time." "Most Russian speakers here only know the country's history from books, and it's rather dry information," she says. The channel has also completed the first-ever Russian-language documentary series dedicated to retelling the history of Israel's creation. Israel Plus will focus all of its Independence Day broadcasts on interesting its more than 300,000 daily viewers in Israeli and Jewish history and tradition. "Our Independence Day programming this year is on a grander scale than ever before," says Leonid Blechman, the channel's CEO and editor-in-chief. "[The documentary] Tmol Shilshom is a really serious project that cost more than NIS 2 million and took six years to make. We've never done anything on that level before." The channel's other special, The Country's Birthday, was also a huge undertaking and "on a completely different scale from our previous projects," Blechman adds. "Our channel creates a bridge between the [veteran] Israeli community and the Russian-speaking community," says Briskman, who grew up in Leningrad before making aliya in 1992. "Not all the immigrants have managed to learn Hebrew and before we existed, those people would watch the news about Israel only on other [non-Israeli] Russian channels." "Those channels would show Israel in a negative way," adds David Kon, host of popular talk show Open Studio. "People living here would hear the news from the other side, they would hear about how Hamas were not terrorists but freedom fighters." Kon, who also stars in The Country's Birthday, says the main problem is that Israel did not "give us Hebrew. People came here [in the early 1990s], studied Hebrew for a few months and then were forced to go out and find jobs." "It is ridiculous that roughly 20 percent of the population here does not speak the language of the state," he says. With the creation of this channel, the community has had the opportunity to hear about Israel from a Zionist viewpoint, emphasizes Kon, who originates from Baku, Azerbaijan. "It has caused a change in the way the Russian community views Israel." Aleksandr Averbukh, presenter on what might be viewed as Israel Plus's greatest achievement to date - a 13-part documentary series funded by the Avi Chai Foundation about the founding and early years of the state, says that it would be wrong to label the Russian-speaking community as anti-Zionist or not pro-Israel. "When you look from one angle, certain groups always look homogeneous," he philosophizes. "Among the most recent group of immigrants [who arrived here in the early 1990s] there are many different beliefs." While some came for financial reasons, many also came because they wanted to, because they felt strongly about their Judaism, says Averbukh, one of the station's founders and host of financial show Time for Money. "But even those who came here for economic reasons are still interested in the history," he adds. Averbukh's groundbreaking documentary includes input from historians and original artifacts that the channel purchased just for the program. He says the history is approached in a dynamic and modern way. "It is aimed at the most recent group of immigrants and it starts in 1948 through the early 1960s," he says. "Those who were born here and grew up here, they have heard stories from their parents or grandparents about life here back then, but many Russian immigrants do not know the basic facts." Averbukh is hopeful that his documentary will provide the channel's viewers with more insight into why some things in this country are the way they are, including the divide between religious and secular Jews and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "We are talking about the small things such as explaining the "Middle Eastern nature of the outdoor market or explaining where all the [immigrants] came from," he says. "It will help them connect more with the country."