How a Facebook Post Rekindled the Row Over Jew-on-Jew Racism in Israel

Army Radio film critic suspended after sparking storm while appearing to play on stereotypes of Jews of Middle Eastern origin as superstitious and backward.

Army Radio’s film critic Gidi Orsher
David Bachar

Israeli film critic Gidi Orsher is well known in Israel. A respected member of the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, the gray-haired, ponytailed Orsher has been sitting on film juries, attending film festivals and rating flicks on his radio program since the days when movies were shot in black and white, or nearly so, it sometimes seems.

But this week, instead of critiquing plotlines or telling his listeners what movie theater to head for on date night, Orsher was thrust into the spotlight himself – with a starring role as the villain in a new summer release about racism, politics and stupidity. A story, incidentally, that Orsher also wrote, produced and directed all by himself.

It all began with a ranting, derogatory and, by most accounts, straight-out racist Facebook post. The post popped up on Saturday morning, in the midst of a raging public debate in Israel over a new Education Ministry report recommending additional Jewish heritage studies in schools, with the focus on the culture and history of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin).

“Next time you have a heart attack, skip catheterization and use your grandmother’s remedy of putting a chicken leg on your head instead,” Orsher suggested in his rambling and, in parts, incoherent post, which seemed to be directed at Mizrahim as a whole.

Maybe Orsher was sleepwalking when he headed to his keyboard. Maybe, as he now insists, he was terribly “misunderstood.” Maybe he somehow thought he was being funny. Or perhaps he really is, simply, a racist.

Whatever the case, it’s fair to assume that the esteemed critic must be wishing there had been someone around to yell “Cut!” before it was all too late. “I do wish I had first sat down to review the new Almodóvar film,” he admitted to Channel 2 News later. “That way, I would have been tired and maybe not written this post.”

Instead, playing on old and dangerous stereotypes of Mizrahi Jews as backward, uneducated believers in charms, amulets and grandmother’s tales, Orsher suggested that the next time the country came under rocket attack from Gaza, the “professional wailers from the East” might prefer to ignore the sophisticated Iron Dome antimissile system and instead “recite Psalms or perhaps wait for the matriarch Rachel to protect you.”

His remarks touched a raw nerve, adding fuel to the cultural, political and social fire that has been burning here almost since the founding of the state, and which persists despite all the social integration and intermarriage between the two communities.

Disparities remain between the Mizrahim, who constitute the largest subgroup among Israeli Jews, and Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European origin), especially when it comes to education, income and power. And with these disparities come frustrations and angers that take far less than such a Facebook post to inflame.

Orsher managed to step on nearly all the insecurities connected with these disparities, and bring in all the associated clichés: For example, instead of pursuing advanced medical fertility treatments, he suggested, “these folks” should continue their practice of praying for fertility at the graves of dead rabbis in the Galilee.

If and when they want to publish something, he went on, digging himself deeper and deeper into that proverbial hole, the community in question might want to turn off their computers and shut down the apps developed by Israeli startups and “go back to writing on parchment, and sending messages with bonfires.”

The shock and fury, along with the requisite public shaming and collective hand-wringing, took but a split social media moment to follow, with everyone from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to opposition head Isaac Herzog rushing to post their own Facebook nuggets in reply.

Netanyahu called Orsher’s comments “deplorable,” and lambasted him as “ignorant” and “racist.” Herzog, meanwhile, took the opportunity to call for a “profound discussion about values, culture, education, traditions and beliefs.”

Once Shabbat had passed and he could get online, Shas leader Arye Dery – a Moroccan-born Mizrahi Jew himself – piled it on further. Orsher, he charged, is “a racist of the lowest kind who incites against an entire population that he treats with condescension, arrogance and terrible racism.”

Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev – another proud Mizrahi Jew who has made slamming “Ashkenazi elites from Tel Aviv” and promoting Mizrahi culture a cornerstone of her tenure – called for Orsher’s immediate dismissal from the government-funded Army Radio station, which hosts his program.

Orsher backtracked, half apologized, but mainly tried to explain and defend himself. His words were never meant as a criticism of an entire ethnic community, he explained on radio talk shows throughout the day. He was taking aim, he maintained, at those very politicians and “sectarian power groups who themselves promote hate and divisiveness in Israeli society.”

“I feel the situation here is getting worse – there is violence, ignorance and divisiveness,” he told Channel 2 News on Sunday. “And I’m not talking about Mizrahim – I’m talking about everyone who dances around for the rabbis. Ashkenazim, too. I am talking about the cynical establishment that encourages this.”

So far, few have bought or, probably, even understood Orsher’s explanations. Army Radio chief Yaron Dekel, usually wary of Regev and her demands, fell into line quickly this time, suspending Orsher, summoning him for a hearing and, for good measure, making clear that the man was a freelancer, not a staffer.

If anything is clear about this story, it’s that it will be a long time before Israelis – be they Mizrahim or Ashkenazim – take any more tips from Orsher about movies – or, probably, about much else, either.

Meanwhile, as the news agenda moves on, it is also clear that the furious posts and pronouncements unleashed by the saga will not end up adding anything of true substance to the ongoing, and very real, debate here on discrimination, stereotypes, power and racism. That would necessitate the making of a much longer, far more serious movie.