Like a pit bull locking its jaws, director Doron Tsabari never lets go of subjects that occupy his mind. He forensically examines every aspect and is obsessive over every tiny detail. Over the past three years he’s devoted all his passion, energy and attention to new series “The Silver Platter,” which has a distinct objective: to explain Israel’s complex situation through a television show dealing with economics, in a manner that will engage the masses and move them to protest.
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“It’s no coincidence that the series is not being screened on Channel 2,” says Tsabari, days before his series airs on Channel 8. “A series like this could never be shown on Channel 2. The demands made by regulators are slackening, and the screen is there to serve the power brokers. They aren’t into revolutions, they’re more into bread and circuses. There is no creative freedom or budgets – we’ve gone backward.”
His series follows three people: Guy Rolnik, founder of TheMarker and deputy publisher of Haaretz; former Finance Ministry accountant general Yaron Zelekha, who turned the war against corruption into his flagship project while at the treasury between 2003-07 – he forced state institutions to act, triggering personal attacks against him, which ended when he was ejected from the system; and history professor Danny Gottwein, an expert on privatization and intervention in social processes, and who is often dubbed the “conscience of the left.”
The three experts outline the main maladies of Israel’s economy as they see them, with Tsabari and his series partner, journalist Amir Ben-David, also using information, animation and readings to present their case. (“The Silver Platter” is a reference to both the quote by first Israeli president Chaim Weizmann – “A state is not handed to a people on a silver platter” – and the Natan Alterman poem of the same name.)
Rolnik deals mainly with the concentration of economic power (where too few hold too many of the country’s assets); Zelekha with regulatory weaknesses and the concession of natural resources to tycoons; and Gottwein offers instructive historical background on these processes. In the three episodes, each hosted by a different protagonist, a clear picture soon emerges – albeit painted in a very particular ideological hue – of the Israeli economy and its distortions.
A violent jungle
After his military service, Tsabari became a journalist at two (now-defunct) newspapers, Hadashot and Tel Aviv, while studying at Tel Aviv University’s film school. After his studies, he directed “Beit She’an: A War Film” (1996), an award-winning documentary about an underdog soccer team, Hapoel Beit She’an. He also, with Julie Shles, codirected the series “Sewing for Bread” (2003), which chronicled a group of seamstresses in Mitzpeh Ramon who started running their own factory; and “The Ratings King,” which followed TV personality and entertainer Dudu Topaz, foretelling his tragic end (he committed suicide while in prison in 2009). He also coproduced – together with Ram Landes – the groundbreaking HOT TV series “Connected,” which enjoyed local and international success. He also made “A Guide to a Revolution,” together with Ori Inbar, which covered the struggle over the future of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Tsabari’s style, encompassing total devotion and a blurring of boundaries, was evident in each of these projects. His unique style earned him the reputation of being something of a madman, yet he also garnered widespread acclaim. Tsabari says that what he always strives to achieve is an improvement in his abilities as a storyteller. “I may be a director, but stories pack power. If you want to change the reality – and, if you’ll excuse the pretensions, I wish to do so – the most effective tool for that is television. I’m a good storyteller, and what I want to tell now is the story of our economy. My target audience is 17 year olds who’ll be voting for the first time in the next election.”
What do you want to tell them?
“Ultimately, from the dawn of time, all the great struggles have been over two things: bread and freedom. When you understand the mechanism of these struggles and the distribution of resources – which, way before divisions between left and right, religious and secular, is a distribution between the haves and have-nots – and when you understand that a satiated man will never understand a hungry one, you understand why things really happen. I want to tell them what happened in Israel and how things are only getting worse. The series came from Amir and I wanting to act as concerned citizens. Our ambition is to tell a comprehensive story, to make basic concepts accessible. The Israel of Netanyahu is a violent jungle in so many ways, manic and psychotic.”
Can people be inspired to seek change because of a TV show?
“I want to pass on what I believe – that there is no reality that cannot be altered. We’re in a dark place – a terrible, black, shocking time. I believe this can change. The state seems to be shedding its responsibility toward its citizens and the future. The economic policy is a neoliberal one, which 90 percent of the public doesn’t understand, just as they don’t understand what a welfare state is or what social democracy means. The problem with the political discourse here is that it’s either too highbrow and not understood, or too lowbrow and inflammatory.
“Part of what I want to do is explain basic concepts: What is neoliberalism? What is privatization and why was it carried out? Who did it and why? And how did we get to this point? In 1976, Israel and Sweden were the most equitable states in the Western world – that’s a fact. Today we rank 66th in terms of equality – behind India, the country of castes. This wasn’t fate but a result of deliberate choices. The whole system is there to serve the 20 families that dominate the Israeli market. The same people control major media outlets. Society is shedding its responsibilities and the state takes no responsibility for anything ... and it’s only getting worse.”
The Wars of the Jews
Amir Ben-David stresses that economics can’t be separated from politics, and that “everything is political, especially economics. But we’re trying to create a series that doesn’t relate to the usual political divisions. This isn’t a right-wing or left-wing project – it’s a project dealing with Israeli politics in general.”
That said, Tsabari admits he’s had it with the country’s leadership. He’s one of the few people who isn’t concerned about voicing their views openly, despite an atmosphere that isn’t conducive to free speech and contains the potential threat of a loss of funds for future projects.
“Netanyahu is a fault line,” Tsabari says with a grave face. “In the end, there was a civil war here in which three shots were fired. One man was murdered and the right emerged victorious. Part of my rage and motivation stem from the defeatism of Israel’s left. Part of the right’s victory came when it managed to give the left the feeling that there was nothing to talk about, that the left is an illegitimate enemy and this would never change – the right would rule forever and anyone who spoke up would get hit. Fuck you! I think the left today is suffering its most defeatist mind-set ever, but the days of the right are waning.”
How? The right won the March election and Netanyahu is prime minister again.
“Netanyahu’s last victory was shocking on all levels. The main problem with him is that he’s not a democrat and doesn’t respect the rules. [Menachem] Begin was a democrat, and the right – before the settlers took over and turned Likud into a messianic party – was democratic and respected the rules of the game. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel today, with MKs like Oren Hazan and Miri Regev.
“What was so terrible about Netanyahu’s victory in 1996? This was a society whose father figure [Rabin] had just been murdered, and there was no soul-searching. Netanyahu’s victory then was a breach of the most basic biblical ethic of punishment and reward. We as a nation have not been punished yet for parricide.
“We’re facing a moral, political and existential crisis,” Tsabari continues. “I’m confident that generations of historians will write books and do research on ‘the Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu era.’ The prime minister has his own newspaper, Israel Hayom, [the freebie daily] that is the most read in Israel, published by his benefactor, billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The prime minister is also in charge of the Broadcasting Authority and is the communications minister. Yet he still acts like the perennial victim, painting himself as constantly attacked by the media. He’s like Putin, Erdogan. The mechanisms that were once strong enough to stand up to him are disappearing.
"We think we know, but we don’t understand a thing. This is a person who, at the height of a crisis, goes to Florence and stays at the most expensive suite at the most expensive hotel. A man who, at the height of a terror wave, passes a plan to build a new prime minister’s residence at a cost of 650 million shekels [$170 million] – could anyone be more disconnected? It’s madness! No reasonable person, regardless of their political persuasion, should accept this. There can’t be a person of faith, someone who believes there is such a thing as reward and punishment, who could vote wholeheartedly for Netanyahu.”
Tsabari is also fed up with Israel’s culture and sports minister. “Miri Regev is supposedly a successful woman, of Mizrahi [Middle Eastern] origin. But she is bigoted and benighted,” he says, citing an interview she gave to Israel Hayom last month.
“A culture minister can’t flaunt their ignorance. But when this ignorance becomes a badge of honor, it has political implications. Not everyone has to read Chekhov – using him as a metaphor – but the Jewish people always valued learning as a basic tenet of its identity. We admired scholars. The best students were matched with the daughters of the richest man in town. Genes were thus improved from generation to generation. What is this new act? It’s worrying, since it erodes the possibility of expressing criticism, of expressing other ideas. The conversation is so overheated and violent that it’s hard to make changes in such an atmosphere – but one must believe it’s still possible.”
Aren’t you afraid of talking like this about the culture minister? Don’t you worry about losing your funding?
“The very fact you’re asking this question shows to what depths we have sunk. Should I be afraid of criticizing a cabinet member? Why?”
Tsabari takes a long drag on his cigarette. “If I were head of the Broadcasting Authority, I’d make a series called ‘The Wars of the Jews’ – in the style of ‘I, Claudius’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ – so that people would understand their history. Every time Jews have sovereignty, it lasts for 80-90 years and then they blow it. It’s already happened twice, with zealots taking control of the discourse. What happened then is happening again, with a crazy gap between the rich and poor, social classes, extremists taking over. You read ‘The Wars of the Jews’ by Flavius Josephus and think you’re reading yesterday’s Yedioth Ahronoth. I have a real fear and anxiety about this place. It’s fragile.”