A View from the Bleachers: Israeli TV shows offer different view

By Rabbi Steven Garten

On April 8, 1903 – Easter Sunday – a pogrom started in the small Russian city of Kishnev. At the end of three days, 49 Jews had been killed, 600 Jewish woman had been raped, and hundreds of others injured. The Jewish world would never be the same.

The aftermath of the pogrom is brilliantly analyzed in Pogrom: Kishnev and the Tilt of History, by social historian Stephen J. Zipperstein. Among many outcomes of Kishnev, Zipperstein tells of two that continue to resonate throughout the Jewish world. Russian Zionists, were horrified by what appeared to be the almost universal lack of resistance of the Jewish community. Chaim Nachman Bialik, the most important of the first generation of Hebrew poets, wrote his famous “In the City of the Killings,” a poem that mobilized many Zionists to action and helped lead to increased aliyah to Palestine.

Then, in September 1903, just five months after the pogrom, a group of Russian extremists began a protracted campaign of anti-Semitism with the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to be the minutes of a secret 19th century meeting where Jewish leaders discussed their goal of global Jewish hegemony through subversion of the morals of Gentiles and by seizing control of the world press and the world economy.

The Protocols found a willing audience. American entrepreneur Henry Ford funded an English translation and distributed 500,000 copies throughout the United States in the 1920s. For the Nazis, it was a foundational text. It is still available in many languages, including Arabic. It has an unlimited shelf life and its poisonous words live on through the missives of white nationalists, anti-Semites, and Israel-haters throughout the world.

If you have any sense of irony, you will note that at least one claim in The Protocols claims has [seemingly] come to fruition. We Jews have, indeed, begun a steady march to control the media. Nowhere is this more obvious then on Netflix, a service that streams a wide variety of television series, movies and documentaries. Netflix’s offerings come from many different countries but no country, beyond the United States, is as widely represented as Israel. At last count there were 13 Israeli television shows and multiple Israeli movies available to Netflix subscribers. Amazon Prime and Hulu, two other streaming services, also provide access to Israeli film and television shows.

What is it about this country of fewer than nine million inhabitants that captures the imagination of the world? The cynic looks to The Protocols and says, “See I told you they want to control the media.” But the inquisitive mind recognizes that there is a hunger to understand this small country whose continued existence remains a source of wonder and hate. Israeli shows such as “Fauda,” “Hostages,” “Mossad 101” and “Prisoners of War” – upon which the American-Israeli blockbuster “Homeland” is based – provide a glimpse into the lives of those charged with protecting the State of Israel. It is not a pretty world, but one full of moral ambiguity that comes by living on the verge of extinction.

Shows such as “Srugim,” “Shtisel,” “Beauty and the Baker,” “Angel,” and “The A Word” offer a window into the everyday lives of ordinary Israelis revealing an Israel that “The National” and CNN never show.

“Shtisel” is a soap opera following the lives of an Ashkenazi yeshivish family. If you believe that frum families are monolithic and insulated from the craziness of the modern world, this show will disuade you. “Beauty and the Baker” is a Cinderella-like story about a wealthy Israeli woman falling in love with a baker. Fluff, yes, but Israeli fluff. Even when living under the threat of annihilation, Israeli television recognizes that fantasy is often as important to survival as a well prepared IDF.

I could continue to elaborate on the Israeli shows available, but I’m not a shill for any particular streaming service. But I do encourage those with access to these services to take a peek at the Israel that lives behind the headlines. It is often an Israel that even the most attuned student of Israeli society does not really see. As for the anti-Semites, well, let them continue to believe that we are controlling the media. Maybe all these Israeli movies and shows will help our survival more than AIPAC or CIJA.