Eretz Nehederet (It’s a Wonderful Land) is not only Israel’s most viewed TV show, it is also one of them most important. Somewhere in between The Daily Show and SNL and a little to the left of both, Eretz Nehederet prides itself on constantly pushing the boundaries of criticism, decency and myth-busting. The latest season to hit the air is no exception, and despite the absence of some of the former comedic stars, few were unimpressed by the opening skit of Bibi Netanyahu asking Gilad Shalit to go back into captivity so that he could free him again, this time closer to the general elections.
As in America, although not to quite the gargantuan standards, there is plenty of bad comedy in Israel, but we are often prone to forgive the standard of humor if the critique is biting or politically incorrect enough. Lior Shline, attempted to become Israel’s Letterman and ended up with bad jokes and poor ratings, which only improved when the Vatican demanded an official apology over a set of averagely funny slanders. Eretz Nehederet has been the topic of Knesset debates, celebrity anger and humiliation, and accusations of overly political agenda. But it hasn’t crossed the Atlantic well, and few American Jews are aware of the show. That is, until a parody of Birthright has put some backs up…
The skit (you can view it here with English subtitles) is neither written nor acted particularly well, but has some good moments. The gleeful reaction to the announcement that the group will be visiting Yad VaShem and the overly emotional statements of Jewish identity, resonate with many who have worked in Israel travel programming. And the killer line that the JAP utters: “Israel is like my home... In terms of land too, I have a house like it in the Hamptons” saves it from falling on its face. Overall, I was happy to see the skit, as it shows that Birthright has finally broken into the mainstream Israel conscious.
However, some American Jews have not been overjoyed to see the parody. As a FaceBook friend wrote to me:
“It's not a loving spoof, but a clearly disdainful one. It's not inaccurate (based on my own teen tour from the late '80s), but why poke fun at Americans?... Israelis shouldn't be looking down their noses at this experience. A generation from now, we'll look back and see that the future leaders of American Judaism come from two main sources: day schools (already a reality) and alumni from Taglit/Birthright.”
While I am still being seduced into answering the “why poke fun at Americans?” question... I am more worried by the feeling that this was not a “loving spoof” as it was disdainful, as in Israel these are not mutually exclusively. But my FaceBook friend makes an interesting case as Israeli society hasn’t really come to terms with what Birthright is and should be about.
An article in the Tablet, however, took the seven-minute skit and read into it tomes of social commentary, which included: that Israel has got fat and old and botched an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in 1997; that “the majority of Israel Defense Soldiers” spend “three years at a silly desk job”; and that Israelis are in cognitive dissonance and have introduced as a “calming idea… this distortion of American Jews”. Which is kind of like a preschooler psychoanalyzing American society through the prism of a Jersey Shore episode, Newt Gingrich’s comments on colonizing the moon, Geico adverts and the Iran-Contra Affair. I just don’t get why anyone would want to “poke fun at Americans”.
If there is a dissonance that exists with Birthright, it is that the Israel presented in a ten-day whistlestop tour is problematically far from the reality. Birthright has also misled Israelis as to what the program is actually about, as the infomercials that air on national radio generally showcase an American Jew who has made Aliyah due to their experiences on Birthright; rather than the reality that the program rejuvenates Jewish identity on the return to America.
In many ways we are lovingly disdainful of each other. American Jews use a ten-day visit to the State of Israel as a catalyst for keeping American Judaism dynamic; and Israel uses American support and finances as a catalyst for keeping our country dynamic. If we want to move away from the disdain, we need to spend a bit more time with each other, and build on a thinking that keeps us mutually and inextricably dynamic.
I look forward to the next installment of Eretz Nehederet.