Song for a Murderer

The line between news and entertainment is blurred when a singer appearing on a TV show calls for the release of Yigal Amir and is then asked to perform a love song.

"Yigal Amir is buried alive and this is not right. He is a murderer, alright, and so he has to be treated like all other murderers. I don't understand this! Imagine if we found out that he isn't guilty. What would we do? People are talking about this all the time on the Internet! Something is not right here! The court makes mistakes sometimes. It is true that he pulled the trigger, but the bullets were blanks. The court makes mistakes. They are human beings" - Ariel Zilber in an interview to Army Radio, October 22.

On Monday, the television show "Five in the Evening with Rafi Reshef" started off with an interview with Ariel Zilber, the singer who supports the release of Yigal Amir. Anyone who wanted to know more about Zilber's opinions was granted another opportunity to learn that "Yigal Amir is deserving of rights," that "they release murderers every day" and that "there's no way of knowing who the murderer is" (it's a fact - after all, there is even talk of this on the Internet). But this time that was not the end of it. After Reshef elicited the quotes he had aimed for, he asked Zilber to sing something. The singer's face lit up and he began to sing about the expulsion from Gush Katif. Reshef stopped him. He had been referring to a song from Zilber's earlier period, back when we still loved him.

Zilber turned to the piano that was waiting behind him and broke into "No Matter How" ("And in the nights, and in the nights / in me the melodies rise, rise / and a narrow stream flows / and my prayers to the wind win replies"). Although this is a lovely song, for me it was the signal to switch to a different channel.

Today Zilber's prayers have new meanings. I don't want his requests being granted. And since I had changed the channel, I don't know whether his performance won applause. In hindsight this performance illuminates the disagreement over how the media should handle Ariel Zilber (which is in fact an offshoot of the disagreement concerning the media's treatment of Yigal Amir): Should Zilber's songs be boycotted - as has been recommended by Nurit Dabush, the chair of the Second Broadcasting Authority ("When a person appears in a campaign like that he is liable to pay a price")? Was Channel 24 right in debating whether to continue to play Zilber's songs? Is the Tel Aviv municipality right to consider canceling his performance at the Piano Festival? Did Reshet Gimmel radio station broadcaster Ofer Nahshon do the right thing when he announced that he could not include in his program "a singer who undermines the foundation of democracy?"

Sound judgment?

After watching Reshef's interview with Zilber, my answer to these questions is "no, but ..." It is not right to disqualify his songs because of the statements he has made, no matter how annoying or foolish, and certainly not on behalf of a public entity like the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Zilber has not broken the law and his opinions are legitimate, as is the view that Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti should be released, for example. After all, freedom of speech is intended to protect even idiots.

Yet this is where the big "but" comes in. There is a need to draw a line between broadcasting Zilber's opinions on a current-events program and turning him into a celebrity; there is a need to differentiate between his right to express his views and making them part of a musical-entertainment segment that neutralizes their significance. This is not a matter of establishing a legal or ethical boundary, but of instituting a boundary of good taste and sound judgment. I have no 0problem in principle with Zilber appearing on entertainment and musical programs (although I reserve for myself the right to vomit after hearing his messages castigating homosexuals and calling for the expulsion of Arabs). I do have a problem with him appearing on news programs in the political philosopher's slot and then all of a sudden breaking into a love song in the same show's singer's slot. The message portrayed by such a role allocation is that his call to release the prime minister's murderer is receiving legitimization. It is difficult to separate the political content from the entertainment content when they come in one package.

But Ariel Zilber is not the problem. The media's attitude toward him is just a reflection of their attitude toward Amir and his disciples - in both cases, there is a blurring between news and entertainment. There is a huge difference between providing informative and factual coverage of the assassin and his family on the one hand, and turning them into full-fledged celebrities on the other; between reporting on Larissa Trimbobler's pregnancy and delivery, and transforming her into a star with respect to entertainment programs, gossip columns and paparazzi; between professional journalistic coverage of the campaign to release Amir and the inflationary and drooling use of the film clip that was produced by the "Committee for Democracy" founded by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel (the short movie portrays scenes from Amir's childhood and interviews with his family).

Forces of evil

The same dramatic aura also characterized the handling of the videotape showing Amir's interrogation, which the police recently released to the media. Again the murderer was placed at the center of the public interest, this time from the other angle - as a representative of the forces of evil, who embodies all of the mainstream's feelings of hatred and hostility and allows its representatives to come down on the "right" side. Gideon Levy has referred to this as "sacred wrath"; I see it as an authentic reflection of most viewers' position, which is an integral part of the job of the established media. The result, in any case, has been that the memorial day for Yitzhak Rabin has in fact become a Yigal Amir festival: The figure of the assassin has provided the main contents of the murdered prime minister's memory and legacy.

The point of all this isn't to castigate the mass media for their failure in "shaping meaningful discourse about democratic culture" or blaming them for "the avoidance of discussion of the fundamental questions that arise from the assassination." This form of criticism, which has emanated from elitist and academic circles, is tainted with self-righteousness. It is somewhat silly to criticize popular and commercial media organizations for what they are - popular and commercial. The more prominent these characteristics are in the media's self-definition, the more they will tend to focus on curiosities like Zilber, to focus on the sensational aspects of the assassination, and to make the living murderer the star-of-the-moment at the expense of the dead leader.

Therefore, when Rafi Reshef caps his conversation with Zilber with a love song, he is only testifying to the nature of his program. The public's right to know what the singer thinks is merely an excuse for the program's need to entertain its audience. The profound discussion needs, therefore, to seek other, more serious and less popular stages. The mass media will continue to do what they know how to do, which is quite a lot - without the obsessive concern with Amir and his legacy, it is doubtful they would have sufficient means to preserve the fading memory of Yitzhak Rabin.