Culture wars emerge around Israeli ‘Big Brother’

The cast of "Big Brother," an Israeli reality TV show that reflects the country's culture wars. (Eldad Rafaeli)

The cast of “Big Brother,” an Israeli reality TV show that reflects the country’s culture wars. (Eldad Rafaeli)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — From Internet chat rooms to household dinner tables, the Israeli version of the reality TV show “Big Brother” has all but taken over the national discourse here.

With its mansion in the hills of Jerusalem stacked with Israelis representing every token stereotype in the country, the show sparked a 21st-century cultural showdown between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.

The show features contestants who live in seclusion together in a house wired with television cameras that never turn off, while each week one of them is voted off.

The program, which has enjoyed the highest ratings of any TV program in Israel over the last decade, culminated in Tuesday night’s final episode, when thousands of viewers sent text messages with their votes for the winner.

At the focus of the frenzy was a foul-mouthed, middle-aged building contractor named Yossi Boublil and his sidekick and daughter, Einav. Of Moroccan background, the two have been the two Sephardic stars of the show. The father, who finished second in the contest, has come to symbolize the anti-hero stereotypical Sephardi: an aggressive, macho man of the people. Even his own revelation that he once tried to aggressively lure a girlfriend into group sex did nothing to dampen his popularity.

There has been much hand-wringing in Israel over the "Boublilification" of Israeli society. Critics complain the show is dragging the nation’s culture into the sewer and distracting the country from real issues of importance.

One somber poster on Tel Aviv notice boards admonishes Israelis to think a little more about Gilad Shalit, the long-held captive Israeli soldier thought to be in the Gaza Strip, and a little less about Boublil. “That’s the real reality,” the poster says.

Israeli television, which until 1993 consisted of just one state-run channel, once was the purview of more serious-minded programming, heavy on social documentary programs and BBC dramas. Now, with cable and two other regular broadcast channels, Israel increasingly has the regular enterainment clutter that can be found elsewhere around the world.

The debate over “Big Brother” highlights the conflict between the old Israeli cultural guard and the new.

Longtime Israeli broadcaster Haim Yavin, considered the Walter Cronkite of Israeli news, was appalled that his documentary series on Israeli Arabs was not promoted on Channel Two, the same station that airs “Big Brother.”

The success of the show has been attributed to producers’ ability to cleverly handpick contestants who represented a microcosm of Israel.

Among them has been Boublil’s main rival, Shifra Cornfeld, the artsy daughter of a rabbi who abandoned her fervently Orthodox upbringing to become secular. To many, Cornfeld — who emerged as the victor on the show and won its $250,000 prize Tuesday night — represents the stereotype of the Ashkenazi elite, living in Tel Aviv in a bubble of left-wing politics and liberalism, detached from the rest of Israel.

Other contestants included a religiously observant man, a gay man who came from a Russian immigrant background and an attractive Arab-Israeli aspiring actress.

Produced by the Israeli production house Keshet, the show came down to a battle between the Boublils and their three Ashkenazic rivals. Einav Boublil nicknamed Ashkenazim in general as “the Friedmans” – a new slang term that quickly caught on nationwide.

Omri Marcus, a developer of reality TV content for the Israeli production house Reshet, says reality TV is a venue for more honest depictions of who people really are.

"In ‘Big Brother,’ the show developed a new take on the culture war — not the type we have been seeing here since the 1950s and 1960s, but a different type of clash," he said.

Marcus describes the Boublil duo as the Israeli version of rednecks, and suggests Ashkenazim and Sephardim are divided more along socioeconomic lines than ethnic ones. “It’s the strong versus the weak sectors of society,” he said.

In the show, Boublil says whatever comes to mind, completely unfiltered.

"Here comes this Archie Bunker-like figure who is crude and homophobic and we love him because he shocks us with his stupidity,” Marcus said. “But as time passes, the joke is on us because the person becomes bigger than the program itself.”

Joshua Sobol, a leading Israeli playwright, said the “Big Brother” phenomenon is part of the larger phenomenon of the rising popularity of reality TV in Israel.

"It injects into the culture a habit of viewers staring mindlessly without thinking, and people get addicted to entertainment without imagination, thinking or feeling,” Sobol told JTA. "It’s making people into a nation of sheep."

Sobol is among a group of artists who staged a demonstration against reality television in Israel to coincide with the show’s finale this week.

"When the messages are violent, shallow and coarse, the lowest common denominator is what sells,” read fliers advertising the event. “We demand a different kind of culture!"

Among those who have been hooked on the show is Moran Haim, a 25-year-old manicurist from Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb. She says the show’s focus on Ashkenazi-Sephardic tensions reflect the real Israel.

"It’s the main issue in this country, not Palestinians versus Israelis," she said. "Again and again, it comes back to the pain that comes from being from the country’s periphery and the contrasting experience of someone like Shifra, who may not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but represents a more educated and professional type of person."

For Haim, whose father is of Yemenite origin and whose mother comes from a Polish family, the show also felt very familiar.

"My father is a Boublil and my mother is a Friedman,” she said. “I’m the balance in the middle."

NEXT STORY