NEVE ILAN, Israel (Jan. 30)
“Quiet on the set!” shouts a production assistant, and silence falls over the fake marble floors and dark wood panels of a television studio designed to look like a conference room in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. As a make-up artist dabs more powder on the forehead of Yaakov Perry, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, the contestants on Israel’s hit reality show, “The Ambassador,” adjust their dark tailored suits, clutch leather attache cases and eye each other nervously.
The cameras roll and Nahman Shai, the thin, bespectacled former Israeli army spokesman who is one of the show’s three judges, looks up and says, in a voice as serious as war, “It’s time to decide.”
The time has come to vote another contestant off of the show, which features 14 young Israelis competing to be chosen as the best person to promote Israel’s image abroad.
Within Israel, the show has added some glamor to the task of Israel advocacy — in Hebrew, “hasbarah.” Abroad, it has gotten amused media coverage although Israel continues to battle attempts to paint it as an international pariah.
The show taps into Israel’s desire to be better understood on the international stage, to replace the army generals and stiff government spokesmen on CNN’s screens with engaging, telegenic young people who might more easily win sympathy for Israel’s side in its conflict with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
“For me, hasbarah is like a war. And like any other war, we have to win it,” Shai said during a break on the set. “The Palestinians learned how to play the game and know how to sell their message, sometimes better than we do.”
Israelis spend a great deal of time thinking about how they are perceived abroad, so perhaps it is only natural, observers say, that it has become the first country to produce a reality television show on that subject.
Shai notes that Israel has been defending its right to exist since the state was born. “The Ambassador” has brought that task into the living rooms of Israelis, who for the first time are discussing such questions as how Israel should best explain its decision to build the security fence to the world at large.
The show’s director, Givon Snir, said he thinks the show works well because it speaks specifically to Israelis. “The conversations that get people going here most are about politics. It touches everyone and hasbarah is part of that. Paris Hilton and ‘The Simple Life’ would just not work here. It’s too American.”
On each slickly produced episode, the contestants are presented with a different challenge, ranging from debating the Israel-Arab conflict before an audience of Cambridge University students to meeting with real-life ambassadors to conducting television interviews with French and Arab journalists.
In between the serious part — discussions of current issues, visits to Europe, and training sessions with top political consultants — there are also reminders that this is reality television after all, with all the requisite backbiting, scheming and personality politics.
The contestants, all between 24 and 30 years old, include lawyers, business students, an Ethiopian immigrant and both religious and secular Jews. Selected from a pool of thousands of applicants, they are attractive and well-spoken in both Hebrew and English.
The show was modeled in part on the U.S. reality show “The Apprentice,” where Donald Trump eliminates one contestant on each show until he chooses the one who will be his assistant. At the end of each episode of “The Ambassador,” the panel of judges kicks another contestant off the show. The winner will be rewarded with a yearlong job at Israel at Heart, a New York-based organization that promotes Israel’s image.
“You watch the way Israel is seen around the world and it hurts,” said Joey Low, the American millionaire who founded Israel at Heart, explaining why he agreed to the producer’s request that he provide the prize.
Among the show’s most popular contestants is Tsvika Deutch, a 26-year-old chemistry student with golden hair and a knit kipa who lives in a student village in the Negev. The affable, ever-smiling Deutch recently was voted back onto the show by viewers after he was kicked off by the judges.
“I always felt I had a knack for talking to people and explaining things,” said Deutch. His participation on the show has demonstrated to him what an uphill battle pro-Israel spokesman have. “You are up against many years of Israel battering. It is very hard to change the image in one meeting. It’s a long process. You have to tell your story and to tell the truth and hope it penetrates.”
Yael Ben-Dov, 27, one of the show’s other finalists, acknowledged the difficulty of explaining to the world images that seem to show Israel as the aggressor.
“We need to let people see the whole picture, to let people know the facts before they judge us,” said Ben-Dov. “We are here trying to protect ourselves, not trying to hurt anybody on purpose.”
A column by Simon Spungin in Ha’aretz has been following developments on the show with a critical eye, complaining the contestants have been less than charismatic and describing the show as flat and unoriginal. Its success in putting issues on the table, however, has been applauded.
“The only redeeming feature of the show so far — and the reason it has been the subject of newspaper articles and television reports — has been the opportunities it has afforded to address issues that are central to Israel’s future,” wrote Spungin recently. “It is rare for a prime-time television show to mention such charged issues as the separation fence, discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens, and the occupation. When these subjects are raised, it is usually in the framework of political discussions or news broadcasts. It was refreshing, therefore, to see ‘The Ambassador’ try to tackle them, though the treatment was superficial.”
Tova Herzl, the recently retired Israeli ambassador to South Africa, has served in diplomatic posts around the world. Admitting that she has not seen much of the series, she commends it for raising the Israeli public’s knowledge of hasbarah. But she warned that it takes more than the right turn of phrase and a telegenic face to be effective in the nuanced world of media and diplomacy.
“Being pretty and articulate is certainly important, but it’s not enough,” she said.