One Against Himself

Satirized as a slippery character, game-show host and Army Radio personality Avri Gilad feels he’s entitled to some ambivalence. But he does have a firm opinion on one thing: The Israeli left has gone awry.

A line of potted plants marks the path leading up to Avri Gilad’s front door in Tel Aviv’s old Tel Baruch neighborhood. I restrain myself from disposing of my chewing gum under one of them. Gilad is known, after all, for caring about the environment − so why litter here? But when we enter the house, he surprises me, and instead of directing me to a trash can he suggests I just toss the gum into the yard.

This might have been some spontaneous whim, but it could also be perceived as yet another example of what many see as the discrepancy between Gilad’s insistent ideological declarations and his behavior. This sort of thing has in recent years rubbed a lot of people the wrong way: They find it hard to understand how someone who rails on his daily Army Radio program against the excesses of consumer culture and actively protests the use of giant billboards plastered on buildings can also be the spokesperson for a supermarket chain. Or how someone who decries the shallow “ratings” culture can host a frivolous game show on Channel 2, a commercial station: “1 Against 100” ‏(Mondays at 9 P.M.‏), franchisee Reshet’s trivia program, now beginning its fifth season.

Gilad doesn’t see any problem with these discrepancies. To him, they essentially reflect an inner conflict which he doesn’t seem to mind revealing to the public. His detractors, however, think he is a hypocrite. Indeed, an impersonation of Gilad on the satirical program “A Wonderful Country” a few months ago sharpened this image: He was portrayed as a slippery character, unable to express a definite opinion on anything. Gilad thinks that even if Assi Cohen’s impersonation of him on that show was technically “superb,” in terms of content, it was “awful.” In fact, Gilad, who works for Reshet, believes the skit was just the latest in a series of blows that the competing and more successful Channel 2 franchise Keshet was dealing him, in order to bury his “Avri” talk show. The show debuted amid great fanfare last September but was taken off the air in February, after taking a drubbing from the critics.

“We discovered that there is a ban by Keshet on interviewing anyone who works with the franchisee, had contact with it or is waiting for a check from it,” claims Gilad. “It was clear that Keshet was concerned about the [‘Avri’] program and they wouldn’t hesitate to try to undermine it. Unfortunately, they’re the types that are interested in building themselves up on the ruins of someone else.

“And then the ‘A Wonderful Country’ thing happened. I felt that it was another weapon being used to hurt me and my chances of success. Maybe I’m just imagining it, maybe it was the ADD in me [Gilad has said in the past that he has attention deficit disorder − D.H.], which reacts quickly and too wildly to external stimulation, and pounced too fast and too strong. But at the same time I was well aware of what happens to someone who becomes a regular character on ‘A Wonderful Country’: The image becomes completely disconnected from the real person and he becomes a regular punching bag, and I’m not keen on that.

“The impersonation was an inaccurate reflection of me. They focused on my inner dialogue about what’s right, what’s the boundary, what’s possible, how to live in a commercial world and still maintain a moral backbone. Personally, I think it’s great that the dialogue is apparent. I think that’s the strongest thing about me − not completely surrendering to the dictate that if you want to be ‘in,’ you need to erase your personality and behave according to the rule book. They turned that into a weapon against me, they made me look like a hypocrite.”

So what’s the big deal?

Gilad: “The most insulting thing to me was that it wasn’t funny. ‘A Wonderful Country’ has become a show of sketches bought from abroad, skits that put down anything that smells like it’s right wing. The impersonations are impressive but accompanied by scripts written for kids 12 and under. I thought that after so many years in the industry I deserved to be treated better.”

He decided to fight back in the opening monologue of one of his shows. “I wasn’t about to take the blows with a smile, especially given the events that preceded this. In my little paranoid mind, I envisioned an order to eliminate me.”

You think someone in Keshet gave such an order?

“I don’t know. I hope not.”

Wouldn’t it have been more elegant to send some Reshet execs to get Keshet to back off, behind the scenes?

“I’m not an elegant person. I act from the gut.”

In your youth, you made a career out of mocking people. Shouldn’t that have desensitized you?

“I believe in constant renewal. Nothing is left of the old Avri. I am careful not to make people a target of mockery just for the sake of a few laughs. Slander corrupts the human soul and society, too.”

Keshet said in response to Gilad’s complaints: “We wish Avri Gilad success with the new season.”

For its part, Reshet says his talk show will be aired for a second season.

Radio reactions

About a decade ago, Gilad discovered “cognitive thinking” − the Judaism-tinged, self-improvement technique also known as the Yemima Method or Limmud, which is popular among some local celebs.

“I got into Limmud because no one wanted to work with me,” says Gilad. “I’d been involved in a number of TV programs that failed. ‘The Situation’ went from being a grand production to a totally cheap one because there was no money, and it was a terrible flop, regardless of my involvement. And I guess that added to all of this, I wasn’t the nicest person to be around either.”

Gilad first made his mark on the public consciousness in the 1980s with the wild radio show “What’s Up?” which he hosted on Army Radio, alongside Erez Tal. In 1990, when Channel 2 was just getting started, the pair appeared in “The World Tonight,” which became a cult hit. Gilad was bursting with creativity in those years. Everything he touched turned to gold and he steadily gained more admirers. But human relations were never his strong point, many of his colleagues say.

Dalit Ofer saved Gilad’s career when it was at its nadir in the mid-1990s by inviting him to return to radio, to broadcast the Army Radio program “The Last Word,” which she edited at the time. From then on, his career reignited, but more slowly and gradually this time, as a host on radio and television, including on Reshet’s morning show.
Back at the army station, however, soldiers who grew up as fans of Gilad and got to work with him were disappointed. “He would come in the room and not speak to anyone,” says one. “When I was introduced to him, he just said, ‘Okay.’ No hello, no nothing. He was like that with everyone.”

“My work with him was very pleasant,” says Ofer, coming to Gilad’s defense. “Some of it has to do with his attention deficit, which he admits having. For example, if a soldier was gnawing on an apple while Avri was sitting in the room, he would really let him have it. But he was aware that he was not always nice, and always apologized afterward or warned people ahead of time. He’s not a mean person, and he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older.”

Gilad is uncomfortable with these characterizations. “It annoys me that people told you I’m antisocial,” he gripes. “There’s a malicious campaign against me. If you ask people whom I worked with over the past 10 years, no one would say that.”

And before that?

“Yes, I was arrogant, conceited, disdainful, cynical. I made bad use of my quick tongue and rapid-fire thoughts. I was very aggressive. I had tantrums and shouted at anyone who bothered me. When I understood that it stemmed from a defensiveness and that actually I had nothing to defend myself against, I stopped. I’m not getting nicer, but not being aggressive is already a good start for me.”

What do you think fans of the old Avri think of the new Avri?

“I really don’t care. I’m not trying to get everyone to like me. I realize that I provoke antagonism. That makes me happy − I’m doing something good.”

Specter of anxiety

Avri Gilad was born in Jerusalem 47 years ago, the eldest of two children of Dov and Ora Kwastler. His father was born in Slovakia, was a translator of Czech into Hebrew and passed away two years ago; his mother is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, who worked for the Central Bureau of Statistics and now lives in a senior citizens’ home near her son. Gilad describes his childhood as being suffused with anxiety and overshadowed by the Holocaust.

The last Holocaust Remembrance Day found him in a pensive mood. “The focus on the Holocaust is hard for me,” admits Gilad. “I had enough of it already. In our home there was plenty of laughter and play, but no open display of feelings. My father talked about the Holocaust at every opportunity. He was always telling stories about the camps. He survived Birkenau because a piece of iron fell on him and broke his leg. He was hospitalized and good doctors kept him there until the Russians came.”

Gilad says that he developed an “anxiety about anxiousness” as a response to his father’s excessive tendency to worry.

“I can’t bear excessive worrying,” he says. “I absorbed so much of it as a kid and as a teenager, until I realized that worrying is not constructive. If I were a minute late getting home, there was hysteria − because maybe something happened to me. When the weather forecast was for a day and a half of snow, the fridge would fill up with six months’ worth of food. My father was really emotionally damaged by the Holocaust, and even with all his charm and humor, he was depressed, anxious − the whole thing. My mother tried to explain to my sister and me that Dad had been through difficult things and that we had to understand and accept his craziness.”

And were you understanding and accepting?

“I didn’t know there was another option. My father was the dominant figure and that dictated the emotional tone at home. I never rebelled against him, he was too weak for that. You couldn’t give him the slightest bit of criticism because he was completely fragile; he took it extremely hard. You always had to take responsibility for the parent, and that’s not easy.”

As a boy, Gilad developed a penchant for lying as a way to win the attention he was lacking at home.

“When I was 7, I lied to all my friends and told them I was the goalkeeper for Hapoel Jerusalem because my grandmother had bought me their uniform,” he offers by way of example. “I wanted to be famous, loved. I don’t miss the feeling of having a lie exposed. I don’t remember anymore what happened exactly, but it was very embarrassing.”

What did you do that embarrassed your parents the most?

“My father caught me stealing a packet of chewing gum in the shape of cigarettes from the store when I was 7. That was the only time in his life that he ever slapped me.”

What technique did you develop to cope with his behavior?

“Obeying him.”

At 32, Gilad married actress-model Chelli Goldenberg, who was eight years his senior and already a superstar when Gilad was a teenager. They split up about 10 years ago, and after that Gilad’s name was mentioned in the context of a number of brief romances, mostly with women younger than him. Since the divorce, Gilad and Goldenberg have both been careful not to speak about their relationship to the media. Acquaintances describe it as a cold peace. Aya, their 14-year-old daughter, was 3 and a half when they separated. She lives with Goldenberg, spends part of the week with Gilad, and attends an anthroposophist school.

For the past two years, he has been in a relationship with Naama Shochat, 28, whom he met when she edited his radio program, “The Last Word,” on Army Radio. They live together in Gilad’s apartment. When she emerges from the shower and serves an avocado sandwich with slices of tomato for dinner, Gilad, lounging in sweats on the sofa, calls her a “woman of valor” and gets a kiss on the forehead.

“I have a perfect alibi,” Gilad says when asked about their age difference. “I’ve been with women of all ages. I was married to an older woman, and since then I’ve been with women who were a lot younger, a little younger or more or less my age. But the fact that I’m with someone who is a lot younger than me isn’t something I see as an achievement, it’s more of a problem. Even in the most superfluous way of ‘how does it look?’ And there are differences of consciousness, too. When a 70-year-old man goes out with a 21-year-old woman, it’s clearly not aesthetic.”

And when a 50-year-old does it?

“I’m 47, remember. It was an issue when we met and realized we wanted to be together. I know that the day will come when I’m old and she’s not, if we stay together. Old age creeps up on a person all of a sudden. I have a fear of old age, but physically I’m in great shape. I work out every day, I keep my mind supple by doing Limmud, I eat healthy food, take nutritional supplements.”

Do you dye your hair?

“I have to for television. I darken it a little.”

Is your daughter Aya having a better childhood than you had?

“She’ll have to answer that when she’s 30 or 50. I don’t know if I was a better parent, but I was certainly different. Each generation imposes its flaws on its children.”

What would be the most hurtful way that Aya could rebel against you?

“Burning tapes of ‘The World Tonight’ in Rabin Square. Since I don’t impose any specific rules, I don’t think there’s anything specific that would bring things down. She could become a religious penitent or an anarchist who is against the separation fence ... That would be a tough betrayal, actually.”

Battling indifference

Gilad was ranked ninth on Yedioth Ahronoth’s 2009 list of the top earners in television. He reportedly takes in $340,000 per season − in addition to his earnings as a spokesman in TV commercials for the Mega Bool supermarket chain. He also sold a game show that he developed abroad.

“I don’t talk about money because no one in the industry reveals how much he makes,” says Gilad. “When everyone comes out in the open, then I’ll put my cards on the table, too. I try not to get confused by [the money], not to invest it in drugs, gambling, girls, ritzy labels and ostentatious things. On the day I get a fat check, I donate more. That’s my indulgence.”

If you’re already making so much, why did you need to do a commercial?

“Because it’s a lot of money, and it didn’t entail lying to myself.”

Are you a journalist?

“Sometimes. I’m also a journalist.”

A journalist isn’t supposed to do commercials.

“I’m not exactly a journalist, I am what’s called a ‘talent’ in the modern lingo and I don’t know how many more years I have left to be on the screen. We’re in a culture where if you’re past the age of 40, you better cushion your ass well because who knows where the jab is going to come from. How many others like London & Kirshenbaum are there? There’s just them.

“I came from a Holocaust-saturated home, where there was economic anxiety as well, and I know that growing old with dignity and being in a senior citizens’ home is an expensive proposition. So I’m concerned about what my finances will be late in life. And aside from that, it’s my right to make a living the way I choose, and I don’t believe it goes contrary to what I say. I never said that doing advertisements is unethical.”

Gilad was recently sued by Norstar Media for NIS 2.8 million on the grounds that his calls for the removal of billboards from the Ayalon Highway, based on ideological reasons, was in fact tainted by personal interests.

“The case is in court now,” explains Gilad. “Their central claim is that I have a personal interest in advertising on television and therefore I don’t want there to be billboard advertising. I don’t know where in the world they came up with that idea, because I took action only against the billboards on the Ayalon, in the open areas of Hakfar Hayarok, which I see as an act of violence against the environment.

“They put up porno images on the signs, of couples in sexual poses, girls who were almost completely naked. As a driver, as a man, I pause when I see that, and when that happens at a speed of 90 kilometers per hour, it’s irresponsible. Also, when I’m driving on the Ayalon, I’m a captive audience. And what if I’m religious and don’t care to be exposed to this?”

When he’s not fighting billboards, Gilad wants to fight political indifference and convince others to share his existential fears that are fueled by the volatile geopolitical situation in the region.

“A new Hitler has arisen in Iran, and he’s propping up little Hitlers in the area,” he says. “The global-Islamic consciousness has invaded this region. The Koran calls for Jews to be slaughtered.”

Have you read the Koran?

“No, but I hear preachers at Al-Azhar, the Islamic university in Cairo. I watch a lot of clips by those people who are so fond of us. When I was what you call a leftist, or just a sucker, I thought they said these things for domestic purposes only. Today I believe them.”

Today you’re a rightist?

“No. I’m no rightist. I voted for Meimad, which is like religious-lite. In exchange for an end to the conflict, I’m prepared to accept a total and dramatic compromise in terms of land and Jerusalem. But I demand full reciprocity and not some fictitious and false pretense a la the finest Palestinian culture of lying. I won’t recognize the Palestinian narrative as long as they don’t recognize my narrative, that we have not been guests here for one moment, that Jews have lived here from time immemorial. The question is where you start counting from, and I insist that we count from the beginning, from where there is archaeological evidence.

“I won’t recognize the Palestinians’ Nakba [their name for the situation resulting from the 1948 War of Independence], if there is such a thing, as long as they don’t recognize that there was a reason for the Nakba. A violent Jewish enemy didn’t just materialize out of the blue. The situation is complex. And when I’m told that the Nakba is not complex and that there’s a bad side, and it’s me, I say: I’m not the strong one, I’m the victim, as a nation. In 1936, the Arabs here made a strategic alliance with Nazi Germany and since then the Arab sheikh is a Nazi sheikh, who speaks the language of annihilation. The non-nationalist, Gideon Levy-type left, which says the Palestinian is always right and the Jew is always evil − the automatic, boring left, has become detached from reality in my view.”

You know the counter-arguments: The occupation hasn’t ended, there’s a blockade of Gaza.

“There has to be a blockade, otherwise all the stuff that goes in there becomes the material for terror. They know how to make terror out of baby formula. So there’s a blockade? What can you do? Tough luck. You may think that this is insensitive, that all those people there are really peace-loving. The ‘because’ − that is, the reason behind it − is always omitted. I’m horrified by the liberty taken by elements in the oddball left, which tries to override the decision of the majority by joining forces with trans-Islamic elements that are joining with the European radicals to wipe out the State of Israel.

“[The case involving] Anat Kamm and Uri Blau is just one example. And the anarchists against the fence, and the lecturers who call on universities abroad to boycott Israel. And the Israelis who don’t understand, or who do understand, that we’re involved in a serious war for our survival and align themselves with the worst of our enemies. I think we’re headed for a big internal war. I’m also deeply disturbed and worried about the increase of anti-Semitism in the world, and by the ugly rules that some of those who want to have an impact in the Israeli game allow themselves to use. We’re in immediate danger of annihilation, on a historic scale.”

Touring settlements

Recently, Gilad decided to tour the settlements that belong to the Samaria regional council in the northern West Bank.

“It seemed ridiculous to me to talk about it for years without ever meeting the actual people,” he says. “I didn’t undergo any profound ideological revolution, but I understood that in entrenching yourself in a position, you’re also not seeing the other. I met people who are usually referred to as ‘the settlers,’ but they’re nice, serious people who are doing things I may disagree with on a certain level, but whom I also have to admire on another level.”

So settlements are cool?

“Don’t put words in my mouth. The origin of the settlement movement lies in a profound error of thinking. It would have been better if we had given back everything right away in ‘67 and not gotten into trouble. But to say today that a withdrawal from the settlements and freezing them is the solution, without seeing that an agenda has arisen that is no longer Palestinian but pan-Islamic, and that evacuation of settlements has become the motto of what needs to be done because it’s the simplest thing − that just won’t work.”

Did you also tour Palestinian villages?

“Not yet. The media bring me the Palestinian reality on a daily basis.”

You’re not serious.

“I am, actually. I’ve decided to start touring all over the country. You have to start somewhere and I’d prefer to start with my brethren.”

Could I give your number to the Breaking the Silence organization? They also conduct tours.

“No, there’s no need right now.”

If you’re so unhappy with people like Gideon Levy and Uri Blau, isn’t it a bit odd that you agreed to be interviewed in Haaretz? It might look like another example of that ‘awful-superb’ phenomenon. Since it’s identified with the left, Haaretz is awful, but in order to promote the new season of “1 Against 100” − it’s superb?

“I really don’t live my life according to ‘how will it look?’ Haaretz is not the enemy, but some people there don’t read the reality in which we live the way I do, and thus are not helping to preserve what I see as Israel’s main interest − which is to survive. Before surviving as a democracy and all sorts of other things, just to survive. I don’t boycott Haaretz. It’s superb in some ways, and not because I can promote my aims in it, but it’s awful in other ways.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?

“There’s no such thing as happy. It’s an imaginary concept invented by Western culture to make a person frustrated on a regular basis. Happiness is an imaginary point in the future that never arrives. The soul wanders. The moment you leave here, I could be depressed − or euphoric.”

Maybe the question really ought to be: How strange are you?

“In my own eyes, I’m not strange. But apparently I’m generally considered a pretty strange person who doesn’t fit the standard mold. What do I care?”