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What Israeli Satirical Television Taught Me About Censorship

We tend to be much more sensitive to censorship when it is directed at views we support.
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August 18, 2020

“The Jews Are Coming” is an Israeli satirical television show. I find it extremely humorless, almost embarrassingly so. Others think it’s hilarious. Fans believe that it is the only show with the guts to speak truth to power. 

“The Jews Are Coming” often makes fun of Jews’ traditions, their mythologies, their sages and their ancient laws. In one skit, Noah is sued because his story is allegedly stolen from the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh. Another skit presents Oskar Schindler as a tiresome joker who passes his days harassing Jews who wear yellow stars. In yet another skit, a rabbinical divorce court consists of rabbis who curse and behave stupidly. Because of such skits, the show draws fire from rabbis and religious Israelis, and is praised by the secular and those who draw satisfaction from angering rabbis. What it gets from both sides, in similar doses, is an abundance of slogans. One side says: Had it been Muslims you wouldn’t dare make fun of them (true but irrelevant). The other says: Satire must be annoying (true but also irrelevant). 

The debate about the boundaries of satire is as old as satire itself. It has several layers. For example, funding. “The Jews Are Coming” is funded by Israel’s public television, which means that a rabbi who considers such satire abhorrent personally funds it with his taxes. You can agree or disagree with his rejection of the program, but making him fund a satire against God, Moses and Jewish law is worth a hearing. 

The flip side would be a privately funded fringe theater staging a show that breaks all sacred rules. If this were the case, it would be hard to argue that satire must be free from censorship. Then again, even this argument isn’t completely true. What if a satire spreads anti-Semitic stereotypes? What if, for example, it insults the Muslim faith and as a result, there is a risk of inciting violence? What if it makes fun of Black people, offends homosexuals, denigrates single parents or mocks poor people? Would we still cry “censorship” when someone attempts to tame the messages promulgated by the creators of the show?

The answer is usually no. We tend to be much more sensitive to censorship when it is directed at views we support and much more understanding of censorship at views we consider beyond the pale. Therefore, I am hardly impressed with those who climb on their high horse to defend the show. 

The show draws fire from rabbis and religious Israelis, and is praised by the secular and those who draw satisfaction from angering rabbis.

Still, the response of religious, Orthodox Jews to this show is perplexing — and interesting. Maybe it is time for Orthodox rabbis, activists and heads of organizations to grow up and grow a spine. You would assume that religious Israelis would be less sensitive. Their numbers are growing, their political power is visible, their ability to shape Israel’s culture is significant. They are not a fragile, diminishing group. They don’t need protection from a big, bad, anti-Jewish wolf. And yet, they fight every show of distaste, disrespect, ignorance or vulgarity as if their lives depend on it.

When it comes from leaders who have little sensitivity when they speak in public about Reform Jews, gays, secular Tel Avivians and left-wingers, there is more than a grain of chutzpah in this tendency to demand no offense to the feelings of religious Israelis. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the head of Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem and the rabbi at Beit El, is offended by the show. He said that Reform Jews are like Christians. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, chief rabbi of the Samaria Regional Council, is upset by the show. He called homosexuality a disease. The only difference between these two rabbis and the show, is that they didn’t intend their comments to be satire.

This all points to a paradox that becomes a social disruption in Israel and many other countries. On the one hand, people lose their manners and sense of proportion. Social media encourages bluntness, exaggeration and rudeness by awarding it with shares and likes. On the other hand, the culture that encourages people to be easily offended is quickly spreading. The result is idiotic skits and imbecilic protests against said idiotic skits. The result is both a waste of time, and the spread of bad feelings. So now we can have the next discussion: What should we do when public television becomes the source of bad feelings?


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. 

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