The pungent smell of nominally illegal marijuana served as an honor guard for Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg, who has led the campaign for legalization, as she entered and exited from the Tel Aviv bar that hosted an unusual “roast” of her and her party. The evening was dubbed “They Forgot How to Funny,” which was supposed to be a play on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous assertion that leftists “have forgotten how to be Jews,” but turned out to be an apt review of the evening itself.
The concept behind the “roast” was to engage young Tel Avivians who support Meretz and its positions in theory, but who are mostly preoccupied with themselves in practice. The language chosen to initiate the contact was stand-up comedy, which is enormously popular in younger circles, in the format of an American-style celebrity “roast.” Whether one finds the concept admirable or laughable, its execution left much to be desired, at least in the eyes of those who hadn’t stoked up in advance.
The reach-out to younger voters comes against the backdrop of a party that many on the left and center-left admire, but few vote for. Almost a year after Zandberg replaced Zehava Galon as leader of the leftist, peace-supporting, social-democratic Meretz, it is hovering in the polls around its current five members in the Knesset, perilously close to the 3.25 percent threshold, beyond which Meretz would disappear from the parliament completely. Desperate times, perhaps, call for desperate measures.
The seven better and lesser-known comedians who were recruited to roast Zandberg spent more time knocking each other with insider jokes. Generally speaking, their routines were too vulgar for an official event of a supposedly respectable party but not clever enough to make the evening worthwhile nonetheless. Zandberg didn’t seem confident that she had made the right choice when she agreed to participate in the roast, but she came equipped with acerbic one-liners about her fellow politicians that put the professionals to shame.
Zandberg delighted the crowd of about 250 people, average age 25, who jam-packed the small room at the Ozen Bar, near Dizengoff Center, which is usually reserved for jazz sessions and disco dancing. “I didn’t sleep all night,” she told her audience, “but not because I was too anxious. Tzipi Livni was ringing my doorbell, begging for a safe seat in the next Knesset.” Zandberg meant it as a joke, though some left-wingers view a Livni-Meretz alliance as a leftist -and feminist - dream come true.
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Of Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party garners the votes of upper middle-class liberals that Meretz needs in order to expand its base, Zandberg said: “He’s an assertive man who looks great in a suit on television. Too bad the image collapses the moment he opens his mouth.” Of the recent book published by Labor leader Avi Gabbay, Meretz’s direct rival on the center-left, Zandberg said: “I was worried that the podium was wobbly, but we figured it out and I’m proud to say that we’ve finally put Gabbay’s book to good use.” She then stuck the knife even deeper to Gabbay, whose underperformance in the polls far exceeds hers: “I didn’t read the book but I saw the movie - The Titanic.”
And, of course, Netanyahu: “I am very optimistic about these elections. I know that Netanyahu and the Likud have been in power for ten straight years but I comfort myself with the same kind of thoughts that went through my head as I listened to some of these comedians: Take a deep breath, be patient, in the end the suffering will end. I believe that after the elections Netanyahu will have to do what all the people on this stage should have done long ago - look for a new job.”
In return, Zandberg was subjected to a heavy barrage of snark, for her alleged pilgrimage to Yasser Arafat’s grave, for her brazen prediction that Meretz would double the size of its Knesset list - she must have been high as a kite, the comics said - but mainly for her controversial contact in advance of the March 2018 Meretz primaries, in which she was elected leader, with right wing strategic adviser and professional muckraker Moshe Klughaft. Her liaison with Klughaft, one of the architects of the ongoing right-wing incitement against the New Israel Fund, is still an open wound among Meretz supporters, who were reminded of Zandberg’s snafu a few hours before the roast when the State Comptroller reprimanded her for failing to give a proper account of her contacts.
“We don’t know who wrote your speech - you or Klughaft,” the evening’s host Dror Rafael sniped. “If it was funny,” Zandberg retorted, “then I wrote it. If it wasn’t, Klughaft wrote it.”
All in all, when they weren’t engaged in slamming each other with juvenile ribaldry, the comedians lampooned the conventional view of Meretz, shared by many of its own supporters, as an elitist Ashkenazi party that is too naive and way too leftist for most Israelis. Some Meretz members wondered why Zandberg was adding insult to injury by supplying her party’s detractors with fresh ammunition. And while Zandberg deserves credit for allowing herself to be roasted on the eve of elections, the jokes reflected the somber electoral predicament of a party that still lives in the shadow of its charismatic founder, Shulamit Aloni, and still yearns for the 12 seats she picked up in the 1992 elections, an outcome that seems more unreachable today than ever.
“This is like a wake,” one of the comedians said, though the atmosphere at the Ozen Bar was relaxed, congenial and good-humored. Zandberg repeated her promise that Meretz will surprise everyone, but its voters worry that the real wake will be held on the night of April 9, when first results of the elections come in.