Israelis take the edge off with laughter

On the surface, Israel's controversial West Bank separation barrier - slicing through parts of the occupied West Bank - seems like no laughing matter.

It recently landed Israel in the International Court of Justice, and some Israelis fear a negative ruling could nudge their country toward pariah state status. But Israel's most popular television show, a spoof on newscasts called "Eretz Nehederet" (Wonderful Country) thought the government's approach of organizing protests outside The Hague courtroom to stress that Israelis are victims left much to be satirized.

Producers of the show, based partly on Saturday Night Live, decided to portray an upbeat Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carrying flowers through the wards of a hospital following a terrorist attack. He offers round-trip tickets to patients for a "free vacation in Holland."

A young man in a cast tells him, "But I was injured in a traffic accident."

"It doesn't matter, you're coming with us to The Hague," roars the prime minister, launching into a song-and-dance number about how a public relations ploy is much better than "a thousand lawyers" at the sessions, which Israel boycotted. The skit was one of the show's more biting moments during a premiere season that has Israelis of all political stripes laughing. Despite its popularity - on average 10 percent of Israelis tuned in - critics say Eretz Nehederet's dovish writers favor slapstick and ratings over traditionally merciless Israeli satire and a tackling of the painful Palestinian issue.

The show's chief editor, Muly Segev, says its purpose is often just to entertain but that it also voices attitudes at loggerheads with Mr. Sharon's right-wing policies. "We know the situation is complex and that the Palestinians are not angels, but we think the responsibility to change the situation falls upon the Israelis because we are the stronger party," he says. "We believe that some elements of the establishment find the crisis atmosphere in which Israel lives to be convenient."

In one episode, Syrian President Assad calls Sharon's car phone and offers him a peace treaty. But Sharon, anxious to retain the occupied Golan Heights, says he can't speak anymore, feigning an accident.

The show's first few episodes introduced Luba, a parody of the ubiquitous Russian immigrant female supermarket cashiers in Israel. Credited with being the first major Russian immigrant character in Israeli pop culture, the feisty Luba spars with her customers in hilariously halting Hebrew, spending so much time arguing that she finishes only one customer a day.

"This is a show that you can relax with after a hard week," says Eran Rotsheker, a basketball coach in Jerusalem. "It's satire that is intended to make you laugh with your family on Friday night. They take real things and exaggerate them in a funny way."

Sharon was initially depicted almost entirely as a farcical figure, crushing people with his physical bulk and destroying everything around him. As the season wore on, a comically sinister side appeared, but he was mostly depicted as a slob. In one skit, police tempt him to talk about alleged corruption scandals by using a shawarma sandwich. As for Israel's macho defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, he invariably responds to questions about Israel's hawkish policies by saying in a hushed voice: "Be a real man's man."

Avoiding a leftist label

By the 10th of 14 episodes, in a spoof on Sharon's stated plans to evacuate Israeli settlers, a settler family relocates from the West Bank to a Tel Aviv suburb, which it proceeds to convert into a war zone. The gun-toting father, Oz, plants mines in the garden to kill Samir, the Arab gardener, while the mother, Masada, tells an Arab supermarket delivery boy: "I have a tip for you. Don't ever come here anymore."

"At the beginning, we were harmless and didn't want to scare people," says Mr. Segev. "If you criticize the government too soon, you might be labeled leftist. We earned people's trust at the beginning and bit by bit we made the criticism stronger."

The show has earned high marks for its linguistic innovations, which include transforming biblical phrases into modern slang and rhyming between Hebrew and English. It parodies Israel's leading journalists as prima donnas or simply morons.

To soften a broadside against the security barrier, which Israel says is needed to thwart suicide bombers, the criticism is put in the mouth of Udi Ben-David Federbush, the show's clueless military correspondent. Wearing an Indian headdress as a costume for Israel's Purim holiday, a carnival-like celebration of the foiling of a genocidal plot against the Jews of ancient Persia, Udi listens to Mr. Mofaz describe why the barrier snakes into the West Bank and then voices identification with the Palestinians: "Who knows better than we Indians about having the white man steal your lands and put you on reservations?" The comment passes without much reaction from the live audience.

A history of stinging satire

Israeli critics say that the humor is markedly tame compared with devastating critiques in the past. "Eretz Nehederet did not address the central issue on which our lives depend, namely the conflict with the Palestinians," says Benny Ziffer, TV critic for Ha'aretz. "Social criticism has been sacrificed for high ratings."

TV commentator Mordechai Kirshenbaum contrasts the show's tone with plays in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Hanoch Levine, a founding father of Israeli satire. Mr. Levine's parody of what he viewed as Israel's smug militarism and cruelty caused audiences to hurl objects at the stage, created an uproar among critics, and resulted in cancellation of his play. Later, a TV series, "Nikuy Rosh" (Cleaning Out the Head), ridiculed the government so sharply that it was cited as contributing to the ruling Labor party's defeat in 1977.

"There have been much tougher shows," says Maariv newspaper columnist Erel Segal, who describes himself as being center-right on the political spectrum. "I do not see a left-wing agenda here. This show is an excellent comedy that is interested in commercial success."

Mr. Kirshenbaum, who was the chief writer for Nikuy Rosh, adds: "People today do not have the strength to watch satire about the wrongs committed by the army against the Palestinians. Every Israeli rightly sees himself as a potential victim of a terrorist attack. With burning buses in mind, people do not want to look in the mirror. Direct and painful criticism would cause people to watch a soccer game instead."

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