Calling for a Cultural Revolution

"The conditions have ripened for a broad and revolutionary cultural shakeup," says Dov Alfon, the moderator of the "Cultural Attache" program.

"The conditions have ripened for a broad and revolutionary cultural shakeup," says Dov Alfon, the moderator of the "Cultural Attache" program that is returning to Channel 2 on Saturday night. "It's impossible to continue with all that ballroom dancing on television without a revolution erupting."

"The cultural conservatism that in any case has characterized us has reached a worrisome peak in recent years," he adds. "So we have 'A Star is Born' and soap operas like 'Our Song' promoting songs from 30 years ago, Hebrew literature dealing again with the establishment of the state, poets exhorted to return to rhyming and the national theater putting on Neil Simon [plays]. It's time someone breaks out the leather clothes and pierced cheek or something. It isn't easy to love what is happening now. Therefore, we, too, in the program, have gone places where a revolution could break out."

Shabtai's infantilism

The third season of the esteemed cultural program is devoted to rebels. These rebels come from all walks of life and are well represented in the program. Among them are Etgar Keret, Einat Fishbein, Victoria Hanna, stand-up comedians Ayman Shammas and Hanna Nahas and Pinhas Cohen Gan. The interview subjects this season "haven't followed the path that Israeli society has paved for them. I admire a bit and certainly identify with those who have chosen not to toe the line."

But sometimes meeting the interview subjects diminishes his admiration for them. "Aharon Shabtai, for example," he says. "I like his poetry very much, but the trip with him to Bil'in aroused profound disappointment in me. The impression emerged that the separation fence, for him, was what was preventing peace with the Palestinians. At the end of the interview, I asked him whether all of his provocations, the frequent use of dirty words and the speed with which he condemns the Israelis and the slowness with which he condemns the Palestinians, aren't coming from some sort of infantilism of his. He evaded answering."

This comment about Shabtai is interesting also in light of the criticism aimed at the studio when "Cultural Attache" first aired. In 2002, Kobi Niv wrote on the NRG site, among other things, that in this program there is "a negation of the Israeli narrative in the face of the Palestinian narrative."

Alfon says this statement is not at all correct with respect to him, nor with respect to the editor of the program, Irit Dolev. ("It's more her program than mine," he says.)

"If only we did give Palestinian art more of a voice. I'm a standard sort of leftist. I'm afraid. On the program, I do interview Jewish settlers in the territories, leftists, ultra-Orthodox people - everyone who doesn't have a real opportunity to speak on television. To go from this to saying that I'm undermining the Zionist narrative with my meager powers at 11:15 P.M. on a Saturday night, is a long leap."

The same review of the program stated that it unconsciously revealed "the ugly and infuriating cultural, political and social worldview of its creators, who speak in the name of and about the wealthy, liberal and arrogant yuppie Ashkenazi bourgeoisie, as though they were the only people in the world."

"I'm accustomed to certain Ashkenazi [Jews] writing mistakenly that I'm an Ashkenazi who scorns the other culture, and also that I have self-contempt towards the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie. Permit me to ask: Why not look at the narrative exactly as it is, that I'm a non-Ashkenazi and therefore I regard the pseudo-culture that has developed here with a certain amount of scorn.

"Many people have an idea, almost an ideal, of how a Mizrahi [Jew of Middle Eastern origins] ought to look, how he ought to speak on television and what is supposed to infuriate him. As they see it, I'm not supposed to be interested in poetry and art, only in the price of vegetables. If I come and discuss Marcel Proust with the interviewees, then, in their eyes, this is a sign that I am an Ashkenazi, whereas my grandfather read Marcel Proust in North Africa when he was first published. It isn't clear whether Kobi Niv's ancestors read Proust in 1911 or whether they even knew how to read at all.

"I was born in Tunisia. My grandfather was a Tunisian Jew who upheld the total Europeanization of the Levant and wore a suit in 40-degree heat. He, incidentally, was no different from many other Mizrahi Jews in Egypt, Tangier, Libya and certainly Iraq. My grandmother, who knew Latin, had an amazing library. Why should I give in to people who always want me to define myself ethnically, when I believe this is definitely unimportant?"

The French concept

He is also infuriated by Mizrahi Jews' preconceptions about themselves. In the previous season of "Cultural Attache," he had a confrontation with Ron Kahlili, the director of the Briza Channel at the time, who asserted that Erez Tal and Yaakov Elon were not Mizrahi enough.

"To say of Spinoza that he isn't Jewish enough, or even to say of an Israeli writer like Yuval Shimoni that 'The Flight of the Dove' that he wrote isn't Hebrew literature because half of the book is set in Paris is ridiculous," says Alfon. "In this respect, I am completely captivated by the French concept, whereby if Picasso lived in Paris for only a month, he was considered a French artist. If Samuel Beckett wrote one play in French, then as far as the French are concerned, he is one of their writers."

By this rule, Alfon, 45, the editor-in-chief of the Kinneret Zmora Bitan Publishing House, is thoroughly French. Though he was born in Tunisia, he moved as baby with his family to Paris and lived there until the age of 11. That same grandfather with the European leanings changed the family's name from Khalfon to Alfon, as a gesture to the French, explains his grandson. But he does not feel only French.

"Part of me is the constant contradiction between the Latin Quarter of Paris where I grew up and the city of Ashdod where I lived until the age of 18 and to which I still have a warm and frequent connection. The fact that I am a graduate of the Rogozin Gimmel Comprehensive High School gives me a somewhat more impertinent look at life," he explains. The fact that for four years he acted at the Ashdod Theater, "from the age of 14 until I was conscripted," also explains his relaxed comfort on the screen. Another contradiction, perhaps, is between his own high-brow cultural program and his favorite television programs: "A Wonderful Country," "American Idol" and the drama series "House."

Alfon has lived in Tel Aviv for most of his life. The decision to meet at a cafe in central Tel Aviv was his. This is his "natural environment," as he defines it. Alfon is not a typical Israeli but, in any case, he believes there is no such thing. "If you ask someone whether he is a typical Israeli, he will say he isn't; if you ask him whether he is a typical Israeli male, he will certainly say he isn't.

"Everyone here is desperately trying to be what he isn't. There is a real obsession among men to dress like teenagers; inhabitants of the suburbs want to be [hip] Sheinkinites and inhabitants of the center of the country dream of moving to the Galilee. This is a kind of pretense that teaches us that we aren't all that happy. 'Israeli' is an uncomfortable definition. This is a violent country. You leave your parking space in the morning to head out on the road and you are in a war. The norm in Paris is to look at the person coming towards you and smile. Here there aren't a lot of smiles."

Not smiles, and certainly not tolerance. One of the rebels this season is Jack Faber, an installation artist who entered the Tel Aviv Museum of Art at night and filmed himself. The museum sued and the artist is washing floors in order to pay his legal expenses, relates Alfon. Alfon is appalled that none of the leading artists in Israel supported the installation artist.

No subway train

Alfon also spoils the fun for anyone who is beaming with pleasure at the list of bestsellers in Israel. "At conferences, one of the speakers always gets up and says. 'Look at how they read high literature in our country. In America the bestseller lists are full of thrillers, and here [the list is full] of Meir Shalev.' Why does this happen?" Alfon says, "Because in those countries many people read. There's a subway and it is necessary to pass the time. Only the elite reads books here. We are taking pride in that there is a minority of readers. We are in fact nurturing a collective delusion."

However, he says, "in our times we don't take seriously artists whose income doesn't instill admiration on the financial pages. An artist is good if his market price is over $10,000."

He does, however, admit that the acquisition of the Israeli television series "In Therapy" by an American television company, impressed him.

"It isn't every day that an innovative television format is born. The thought that it was born in Israel fills me with pride," he says.

He tags Israelis with another compliment - they are ready to give things and people another chance. "But for this to happen, you need to reinvent yourself," he says, and offers Meir Shalev as an example. "Most of his readers don't know that he was the moderator of "Reason to Party," an enormously popular show (with a rating of 70 percent). Kol Ha'ir reported on Shalev's first book under the headline: "Meir Shalev: This time as a writer."

Alfon, who after many years of working in journalism (among other things, he was the editor of the Haaretz weekly magazine supplement) moved to the world of publishing and became the moderator of a television program, is constantly reinventing himself. The person who thought up "Captain Internet" takes pride in "definitely being one of the first Israelis on YouTube and the editor of the Israeli forum on Flickr."

But he believes art is the most important thing. "There is blind admiration for politics here. Let's take, for example, the road map on which millions of words have been spilled, as opposed to a book by Yehoshua Kenaz or Gabriela Avigur-Rotem or Amos Oz, and let's ask which of these documents will have more influence on Israeli society in the next 50 years. I promise that the road map will be forgotten and Oz's 'A Tale of Love and Darkness' will be with us forever."