By Daniel Hoffman
The controversial educational video from the Israeli Ministry of Education opens with a kindergarten teacher asking tough questions “to prepare the children for the complicated life in Israel.” Shockingly, the tots reply straight off with traditional right-wing arguments. When the teacher wonders what Israel needs to have peace, the answers come from all sides. “There’s no one to talk on the other side!” one cutie cries. “I got to be a leftist but I became disillusioned,” another admits. “It’s proven, removing settlements doesn’t bring peace,” a third says. The video goes on, parodying many clichés of Likud rhetoric, such as the world’s hostility toward Israel and the country’s famous “PR problem.”
The hilarious skit is an excerpt from the comedy show Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country), broadcast on Channel 2 since 2003. One of the most influential TV programs in Israel, it gathers one million viewers every Friday night, more than 50 percent of the television audience. Like The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live, the show is a humorous reflection on Israeli society in its most ludicrous and laughable aspects. No burning issue (the conflict, the religious tensions, the political mess) and no side (left, right, Israelis, Palestinians) are spared by the writers’ caustic pens. In a country where anguish and tensions are ubiquitous, the black humour and satire Eretz Nehederet brings is a weekly relief for many.
Many clips from Eretz Nehederet have gone viral on the ‘net. A few years ago, the show made fun of French tourists, depicting them invading Israeli beaches during summer and creating a buzz among the French Jewish community. Another famous clip is this spoof on the dancing Na Nachs, and this brilliant video from last November, watched 360,000 times on YouTube, parodies the failed peace negotiations, using characters from the iPhone app Angry Birds to “embody” Israelis and Palestinians.
Like its American counterparts, the show mocks the grotesque and the absurd in political discourses, helping citizens better understand the thorny issues and have a somewhat more sane, more relaxed debate about them. They are not “just for fun” programs; they fulfill an important social role, greasing the wheels of political debate.
Eretz Nehederet also highlights a paradox of diaspora Jewry. Connoisseurs of Israeli culture and society know that there is no other place in the world where the criticism against politicians, the army and religion is so virulent as in Israel. Yet it is in the diaspora that Jews find it difficult to distance themselves from these topics. Even if they rarely agree with everything Israel does or says, many diaspora Jews think that they have to defend it to restore the balance (See Moment‘s “From the Editor” on the difficulties of discussing Israel within the American Jewish community).
Israelis don’t feel this type of obligation at all. On the contrary, they use
self-deprecating humor and self-criticism as a weapon. A weapon that
helps them preserve and strengthen their most important asset:
democratic vitality. It is a “wonderful country,” indeed.