On Friday morning, Israelis woke to a new controversial music video hyping the Eurovision Song Contest, which will take place in Israel next week.
📺 This is the land of honey, honey!
Let Lucy and Elia take you in a musical journey throughout the most important parts of Israel. We promise you won’t regret it! 👇👇👇 pic.twitter.com/djQlNXPoDe— KAN Eurovision Israel (@kaneurovision) May 10, 2019
The video opens with two Israeli tour guides meeting two European tourists at the airport. “Stop don’t say a word, we know just what you’ve heard—that it’s a land of war and occupation!” sings one. “But we have so much more than that!” chimes his colleague, and leads them out for a “quick indoctrination.”
So begins the shamelessly edgy promotional video, produced by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, and starring host Lucy Ayoub and journalist Elia Grinfeld. And it’s chock full of offensive jokes.
“Most of us are Jews but only some of us are greedy,” sings Elia as he helps the bewildered tourists convert their cash. “And you might notice people here are very, very needy,” Lucy adds, as someone steals one of the tourists’ phones. They even rhyme “Jerusalem” with “Yad Vashem”, with a mock-serious side-glance at the camera.
The jokes didn’t land with everyone; in fact, they united the far left with the right in a show of humorless unity. Jewish Voice for Peace, which has been calling for a boycott of Eurovision because of course they have, tweeted that “Antisemitism and misogyny set to music is a bad look, Israel.”
Eurovision is shaping up to be a big flop, and this video isn’t going to save it. Antisemitism and misogyny set to music is a bad look, Israel. #BoycottEurovision2019@BDSmovementpic.twitter.com/HmdBJ4s4fr— JewishVoiceForPeace (@jvplive) May 10, 2019
And none other than Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s keyboard warrior son, agreed, chiming into the outrage and calling the video a “disgrace” and “anti-Semitic.”
The joke went over their heads. Far from anti-Semitic, the video was a perfect encapsulation of Israeli humor, which is mercilessly self-deprecating and ruthlessly hyper-aware. And the video’s failure was not a moral one so much as a failure of translation.
Outside observers who disagree with Israelis’ choices and values might think Israelis are not reflective enough. But Israel is perhaps one of the world’s most acutely self-aware societies. Even the most banal conversation can quickly become an argument about who we are, and why we are, and where we are, and what we are. Simply living in Israel, against the odds, forces one in to a protracted dialogue about identity and values. And because of the awareness about the absurdity of the situation, coupled with the whole living under constant threat, Israelis use self-deprecating humor as a pressure valve. It’s a way to breathe.
And because we are a Jewish state with a penchant for merciless self-mockery, the targets of our humor are frequently Jewish. So much of Israeli humor might be considered anti-Semitic if produced anywhere else. Just watch The Jews are Coming, the riotously funny sketch show that pokes fun at the length of Jewish history, including one sketch in which the totally nebbish Jews serially blunder in inept efforts to hang Adolf Eichmann.
Just this afternoon, I saw a sketch that involved an ultra-Orthodox Jew chasing a reporter through the streets with a chicken. In America—shocking. In Israel—titillating.
This is the context in which Elia’s joke about Jews being greedy (but not all of them!) has to be understood. In any other context, as many Twitterati noted, his joke would be considered deeply anti-Semitic. But that’s precisely the point: This isn’t any other context. It’s a Jewish performer, in front of a Jewish director, Jewish producer, and most probably a Jewish video editor.
Israelis also have a different sense of proportion from Jews in the Diaspora. They’re worried about jihadist rockets exploding in kindergartens, not tropes . (I didn’t actually know how to say “tropes” in Hebrew and had to look it up.) In the United States, Jews are rightly concerned that anti-Semitic stereotypes are fueling a murderous anti-Semitism. But in Israel, an inside joke about Jews and money won’t matter a jot to the countries local enemies, like Hamas.
And to the extent they’re attuned to anti-Semitic stereotypes, they’re concerned when they’re used maliciously, not ironically, between Jews. In general, Israelis are less touchy about language. If an American journalist called AIPAC a “Jewish lobby”, there would be uproar. But that’s what Israeli journalists routinely call it and nobody bats an eyelid.
Take another example. “Stroll the park, walk on the bridges,” sings Elia, “and enjoy our lovely bitches!” Shock, horror, and misogyny at a first glance! But take a closer look. The Hebrew subtitles read hofim—beaches. So was it a typo?
Welcome to Israel, you might think with your face in your palm, where nobody bothers to proofread English. But was this really a typo? When asked, Kan tweeted back, “You think?” with an upside down smiley face.
You sure? 🙃— KAN Eurovision Israel (@kaneurovision) May 10, 2019
Native Hebrew speakers pronounce “beaches” and “bitches” virtually the same—which everyone knows can cause misunderstandings. So in all likelihood, at a third glance, this joke was self-conscious: Welcome to Israel, where we know our broken, heavily-accented English can lead to embarrassing faux-pas, and we’re not embarrassed. The joke’s on you.
Still facepalming? Only if you didn’t get that it’s a self-deprecating joke, or don’t think it’s a subject for self-deprecation, or think self-deprecation should steer clear of politically incorrect language.
But that’s also part of the self-deprecation, because Israelis are shamelessly politically incorrect, and this video is reveling in that carefree, blasé attitude. Four levels to appreciate the intended humor—not bad for a culture with supposedly crude humor.
In other words: not only is Israeli humor self-deprecating, but this Eurovision promo is self-deprecating about that self-deprecation.
Perhaps the problem was that Hebrew does not always translate into English, and what is riotously funny in Hebrew could be misunderstood in English. After all, if a joke needs explaining—as I have tried to do here—it can’t have been successful.
Does that make the Eurovision promo a terrible message for foreigners? Well, that depends what message Israel wants them to receive. At one point, the tour guides caress the tourists on the train, singing, “It’s your love that we seek!” But on what terms?
If the face Israel wants to project is of a country desperate to be loved on other cultures’ terms, perpetually walking on eggshells to please judgmental foreigners—then it would be a failure. But if the message is that modern Israeli culture is has the self-confidence to bare itself to the world—in English, and without filters!—then it’s a roaring success.
If you find it funny, laugh. If you don’t, don’t. What’s the worst that can happen? So po-faced outsiders might tut? Nu, so what?
“Yes, people here are crazy, and that is what we love,” sing Lucy and Elia. Yes, Israeli humour can be crazy. And that is what Israelis love, and why they love it.
This risqué Eurovision promo is a sign of a healthy, self-confident culture that can stand on its own two feet. And when the Eurovision lands in Tel Aviv, it will be dancing on those two feet as well—naysayers be damned.
Eylon A. Levy is a news anchor and correspondent at i24NEWS.