Celebrity Treason

If they have not served in the IDF or they express opinions critical of Zionism and the state, Israeli celebrities can quickly find themselves in the court of public opinion, catapulted there by a scandal-hungry media. This nationalist hype has been the death sentence of several a rising star.

Im not sorry I didn't enlist because I benefited hugely. It can?t be helped - famous people have different needs. Why is it good to die for the sake of our country? What - isn't it better to live in New York? Why should 18-year-old people die?"

(Bar Refaeli, model, in an interview with mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, October 3, 2007)

"I didn't enlist because I am incapable of holding a rifle, I did not vote in the elections. It wasn't worth it for me to move my little ass. For whom? Who's here?"

(Jacko Eisenberg, winner of "A Star is Born 4," September 15, 2006)

"I spit on Zionism. We want to tell kids to think twice before they become newly religious, or before they go to the army."

(Ishay Berger, a member of the Useless I.D. band in an interview with Yedioth, June 25, 2006)

Celebrity culture is based on a three-sided deal: The famous people (Side A) provide us with interest, which gives zest and content to our little lives; we (Side B) shower them with admiration and fame, which increases their value in a competitive market and improves their self-image; while the media (Side C) mediate between Side A and Side B and force-feed the relationship between the two with the aim of supporting their own industry.

This deal works very well all over the world, but in Israel it has an implicit addendum that includes a non-negotiable condition, which could be called "the patriotism provision": Side A must cling to the values of Zionism and the sanctity of service in the Israel Defense Forces every time it is interviewed for one of the parties belonging to Side C (and for Yedioth Ahronoth in particular). Any deviation from this norm will immediately put an end to the obligations of Side B and will induce terrible sanctions against Side A.

The greatest beneficiary of the patriotism provision is of course Side C. While the celebrities lose everything and the fans lose their focal point, along come s the media and takes the whole pot. Even at the best of times, it earns a pretty penny from the celebrity deal, but when a celeb breaks this most basic deal with his audience in an anti-patriotic interview, sales soar sky-high. The Bar Refaeli who didn't want to die for the sake of our country sells a lot more newspapers than the Bar Refaeli sporting a bathing suit; and the Jacko Eisenberg who isn't prepared to hold a rifle generates a lot more talkback than the Jacko Eisenberg who has written a new song.

No wonder, then, that the popular press prefers its celebrities subversive and provocative, even if they aren't exactly that. No wonder that it blows their words of wisdom out of proportion, across front and back pages, even when no such action is merited. And no wonder that the famous people don't know what has hit them. They didn't read the small print of the patriotism provision and now they are in a hurry to apologize.

Useless excuses

In June 2006, the Hot cable-TV company decided to put the legendary youth program "Exit" into the hands of the four members of Useless I.D., a successful Israeli punk band that had accumulated a great many fans of the right age. On the weekend before the show hit the screens, Yedioth Ahronoth's "7 Nights" entertainment supplement published an amused interview with the band's members, in which they let slip a few childish in-jokes against Zionism, religion and the army, all in keeping with punk tradition. The provocative jokes immediately became the main headlines and the fate of the four was sealed - the public was shocked, the heads of Hot had conniptions, and the band was kicked off the screen even before the opening show ("The decision was made out of a sense of responsibility to the audience," declared Alon Shtruzman, Hot's vice president for content and programming).

The members of the band were equally appalled by the interview's outcome. They had no idea that this was what they were like. In a desperate attempt to straighten things out they embarked on an organized campaign of repentance in the media, but to no avail. It did not help them return to the screen. The young celebs were nipped in the bud before they ever even managed to bloom.

Three months later Jacko Eisenberg also experienced what will become of a celebrity who does not honor the conditions of Israeli patriotism. This time, too, the offices of Yedioth Ahronoth had no small role in the matter. As Eisenberg had soared to the height of his glory, the article about him was especially prominent and, consequently, the punishment was especially heavy. All the public apologies were to no avail. The Helicon record company canceled the promised contract, the mayors of several towns boycotted his performances, the columnists trampled him, the talkback writers crucified him and the newly minted star had to go underground for many months. The subsequent participants in "A Star Is Born" no longer even needed to give interviews in order to walk this Via Dolorosa. The very fact they had not served in the army, no matter why, made them enemies of the public.

Betrayed fans

Now it is Bar Refaeli's turn. Yedioth Ahronoth has elevated her to the top of the national agenda in a transparent, even annoying, marketing manipulation. But in so doing, the newspaper has also exposed Israeli society's celebrity complex with unprecedented impact.

This complex is characterized by the people's obsessive need to live through the lives of celebrities, to consume their glamorous world and to draw meaning from it instead of creating their own meaning from within. Very quickly afterward, worship develops - the celeb becomes an extension of his consumers' individual and national ego, their representative on earth. From that moment onward, everything he says and does, even distractedly, takes on national importance. Every bit of nonsense and every stupid utterance are taken out of proportion and assume a hysterical volume. A celebrity who doesn't conform to the shared standards of "Israeliness" (above all, military service) better watch out. He will become a traitor and will suffer the worst punishment of all - denial of his greatness, boycott and shunning.

This is what happened to Jacko Eisenberg, and it is beginning to happen to Bar Refaeli. The sky is the limit for her success abroad, but soon she will have nowhere to come back to. The betrayed fans will be the death of her. They are even liable to wait for her today at Ben-Gurion International Airport with jeering placards ("Wouldn't you rather live in New York?"). The media will be all too happy to report and to magnify. The impression is that Refaeli and her family understand the trouble they got into and are looking for a cathartic reconciliation. Going by past precedents, it is reasonable to expect a media campaign of repentance that will express Bar Refaeli's love of the homeland, demonstrate her contribution to improving Israel's image and enable her to return to the bosom of the nation as a key pillar of the celebrity culture.