08 August 2011

A Wry Angle

Here’s that second angle I promised. I’m tempted to say it’s a lighter-hearted one, but I don’t think that would be entirely honest. The angle I’m referring to is that of Israeli humor.

Israeli humor is biting, vicious, self-deprecating stuff. It’s jaw-droppingly mean to whomever it wishes to sting—stuff the “oh no you didn’t!” variety. Now I know a lot of humor is that way, but the Israeli humor of popular culture is thus to such an extreme that it puts in mind the lyrics from Mumford & Sons’ song “Little Lion Man.”

“...you’ll spend your days biting your own neck”

There were two videos I wanted to post, but one was unavailable, so I’ll save you some time and give a rough description.

The first bit of humor I wanted to show you is a skit from the (very popular) Israeli TV show “Eretz Nehederet”, a political-humor-skit-comedy show. Nine-skits-out-of-ten, this show is an exercise in merciless self-effacement and it says a lot about media opinion and what sort of entertainment thrives in Israel.

This particular skit opens with a pair of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers putting in a video they’ve received from the captors of a kidnapped soldier. The soldier looks tired and worn. He says he’s been given food and water—more or less—and he shows a newspaper with the date to prove he’s alive. Then, as he begins to read the demands of his kidnappers, the camera slowly pans out to show that his kidnappers are NOT Hezbollah…they are NOT Hamas.

They are religious Israeli settlers, presumably from the West Bank. One doesn’t need to be able to speak Hebrew to see the shock value in this, so here’s a link to the clip just in case you want to see the entire original.

After the list of demands is read, one of the Settler-kidnappers comments that “Hey, but they’ve already given in to all those demands.”

So they come up with some new demand and stare at the camera manically while the poor kidnapped soldier looks put-upon.

The skit returns to the two IDF soldiers in their office. They look serious and determined. They are going to go rescue their fellow soldier from the clutches of their fellow citizens! Then the clock strikes 5:00 p.m. They glance at the clock. Glance at each other. Then decide that they can deal with that whole soldier-thing tomorrow, and they whisk away, out of the office—on a little push-scooter—to go have their off-hours and do some yoga.

The clip is very short. But for all that it says a lot. It may even say things it didn’t mean to. I do not agree with everything it says, but here goes:

1.      It shows that the notion of a kidnapped soldier is instantaneously recognizable in the Israeli psyche. Everyone knows what this looks like and what this means. It’s recognizable to the point of being—apparently—ripe for jest. It’s much like an archetype. Only needs one second on screen and everybody knows the whole story.

2.      The gap between settlers and the remainder of Israeli society is portrayed to the extreme. There HAS been conflict between the settlers and the IDF. Some particularly jarring images were produced during the disengagement in Gaza, when IDF soldiers had to drag some settlers out of their homes. This video speaks to the feelings of certain segments of Israeli society who believe that the settlers are detrimental to Israel—the segments that feel they are a strain on resources. The settlers are portrayed as slightly bonkers, and as enemies of the state.

3.      The fact that the ‘skit-settler’ claims all the demands have already been met is a jibe at the government by those who feel the government caters to the settlers. The ultimate implication is that giving in to settlers is the same as giving in to terrorists and that the settlers get whatever they want at everyone else’s expense.

4.      It portrays the IDF as uncaring and unprofessional; they are portrayed as posing clock-punchers. Perhaps this is meant to be a jab at the IDF as a whole. Or an indictment against the draft, bringing in soldiers who don’t really want to be there and don’t care about their job. Mostly, however, it’s a lament regarding the fact that Gilad Shalit is still held captive.

Biting your own neck indeed. Not that I’m against self-criticism.  I'm for it, in general. It follows from living in a democracy and having freedom of speech—little is sacred—but the teeth are really bared towards all possible inward targets here.

So as to alleviate a bit of the humorous sting, the following clip is the one-out-of-ten in which Israeli humor actually makes fun of someone other than self. It ribs BBC’s coverage of the Israeli operations in Gaza, portraying it as unabashedly biased. Most of it’s in English, but for the parts that aren’t: Whenever the “Arab” woman is talking (she is actually speaking Hebrew, but never mind) she says such things as “Our electricity is out, we have no running water, and the sound of explosions keeps us up all night. It’s horrible!”

Which the “BBC anchor” translates to something completely different, which you’ll hear. And when the IDF officer is talking, he is describing their operations and progress; Again the BBC anchor decides to put his own words in the officer’s mouth to portray the Israelis as he sees them--and so Eretz Nehederet can point out that many Western European media sources have a set-in-their-ways bias against Israel.

My final example of Israeli humor is in a category all its own: A mere description of the author tells an awful lot of tales about Israeli society. Below are snippets from an article by Sayed Kashua. Sayed Kashua is an interesting person, and a seeming anomaly. He is a columnist for an Israeli newspaper that leans to the left, and he’s written three novels in Hebrew, two of which are available in English. He is an Israeli Arab. He has intriguing perspectives on Israel, Israeli identity, Israeli Arabs and Arab identity.

"Being neither here nor there" is his very platform.

In this article Sayed Kashua describes a visit to a “religious leftist Jewish family” on Shabbat. The family assumes that, being leftist, they are politically aligned with the journalistic Arab Kashua and will have much in common. Kashua assumes that they will not—and that they are a little over-the-top, essentially implying them to be ye old average bleeding hearts. He’s not entirely mean about it—but he is a little. And it’s very funny.

Here is how he describes the family he is visiting:

They are very leftist. Very. Going to protests every day. They belong to some movement called “Rabbis without borders” though I’m not actually certain about the name. They have a lovely house in one of the most Anglo-Saxon neighborhoods in the city. The have books by leftists, leftist pictures and completely non-threatening Shabbat candles.

While having dinner, Kashua begins to muse on the incongruities of his family’s Arab-Israeli life (translation mine and necessary definitions preceding):

('Eid Al-Adha: Muslim holiday, translates to: “feast of sacrifice.”
Sufganiyot: basically donuts, eaten on Chanukah
Latkes: grated potato pancakes)

Here Kashua talks about his son's identity struggles as a completely nominal 'muslim':
“My young son, whose highest ambition is to be “Father of Shabbat” on Fridays, attacked me again with a look of disappointment regarding his religious and national affiliation. He is in an emotional stage, my son—ever since Christmas, Chanukah and ‘Eid Al-Adha he’s been in a deep depression.

“The kids who do Chanukah dispel the darkness, they have sufganiyot, latkes,’ good, good, good dreidel’---stuff about the signs and wonders and they get presents,” he threw at me some weeks ago. “The kids who do Christmas have Santa, they have Jingle Bells and a lovely tree. And what do we have? Sheep?” he shouted. “and teacher tells me that we bring and knife and…” he started to cry.

“Don’t worry,” I had to hug him and comfort him and he did not relax until I promised him that next ‘Eid Al-Adha I would decorate the sheep as if he were a pine tree, with flashing lights and bells and gleaming stars which I’ll pin onto his snow white wool. And if it’s one that has antlers, I’ll accompany it with a Menorah as well.”

Later in the article (and the evening) the conversation tries to recover from Kashua trying to convince his children that their favorite tv show ditties are, somehow, special religious songs. So they turn to a new subject.

“Do you all participate in protests?” The mother of the family asked with a warm smile, while I struggled to separate the skin from the chicken (and, in my life, never have I seen such a leftist chicken).
“No,” my wife answered without feeling any guilt. I scrambled quickly to improve our geo-political position.
“Sometimes,” I blurted, and my wife raised her head, surprised by my inaccurate answer. “But mostly I am in favor of different kinds of protests”

“Ah, really?” admired the host, “Like what, for instance?”
“Ummm…,” I wrinkled my forehead and arched my eyebrows, trying to get my wife to stifle her grin and focus on her ‘polka.’ “All different kinds of protests, more to do with PR, I would say,”—in my head rose images of me, drunk at the bar on Ben Sira street, accusing everyone present of racism and of hating Arabs.

“Ah,” the hostess said admiringly. “That’s lovely. Where do you do all this?”
“Usually in public places,” I answered. “I just go up on the stage—sometimes just a table or a chair—and I speak my mind so as to open their eyes—mainly it’s young men and women”
“Wonderful,” responded the head of the house. “Interesting. And what are the responses of these listeners of yours?”

Good, since most of them are drunker than I am, I thought to myself. “Sometimes it’s hard,” I answered out loud.

This is already a really long post, so, after one last thing, I’m just going to let that simmer for a while. Sayed Kashua, non-protesting, non-religious, “both and neither” Israeli Arab.

The end of the article is as follows, taking place as Kashua and his family leave the house of their hosts.

“And us?” [my daughter] continued. “Are we communists?”
“We’re post, honey, we’re post

And I think Post-(anything) is a common place to put yourself...when you have a hard time placing yourself anywhere. Because it isn’t really a place at all.

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