Opinion

Israel's Answer to Studio 54

Channel 2 has just been split into two new commercial stations, but its craziest times were in the 1990s, when it helped Israelis escape from reality

Dudu Topaz, right, on his Channel 2 television show in 2000.
Alon Ron

The accepted wisdom is that when Israel’s first commercial television channel, Channel 2, was launched in the early 1990s, it represented Israeliness: For the first decade or so, the entertainment shows of Dan Shilon and Dudu Topaz became Israel’s authentic tribal campfire. The main value of Shilon and Topaz was how they supposedly flattened hierarchies: high mixed with low, the momentously political, the day-to-day mundane and entertaining fake news stories (Topaz’s report of a supposed alien landing, for example). They conveyed the message that a government minister or classical music conductor were no better than anyone else. Shilon could conduct the Philharmonic on his show and a minister wearing a tarboosh could play the fool. Everything stopped being serious.

Topaz surprised ordinary folk in their homes and handed out gifts, as if bribing them to watch his show. His announcement of a commercial break was done with fanfare, because it was fun to be consumers in a hedonistic, capitalistic society – and Israel was a normal country. Life with Topaz seemed like an endless bacchanalia. The last days of Pompeii, and to hell with that smoking, belching volcano in the background. Even the nightly news on Channel 2 was an energetic, coke-fueled party.

Channel 2 was Israel’s Studio 54 – and the party just grew bigger after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The main thing was to forget. Viewers snorted “22” [the channel’s number on the remote] like there was no tomorrow. Prime time was high. Rabin’s murder and the terror attacks were mixed together on an assembly line of entertainment and, for a moment, it seemed like it was all one big hallucination, another trip.

At the time, Shilon and Topaz’s shows were responsible for 70 percent of the income at the channel’s franchisees, Keshet and Reshet (which split into two separate channels last week). Shilon always said the number 22 was worth a lot of ratings, since it’s easier to click on the same number twice on the remote. That shows what he thought of his viewers. The sense was that a mystical connection had been created between them and the channel, total symbiosis. But did Shilon and Topaz really represent Israeliness?

They themselves belonged to the old elite. Shilon said he would not have watched his own show. Topaz liked to quote the famous soliloquy from “Hamlet.” They were Ashkenazim through and through, openly left wing, well-educated, completely secular, liberal.

In 1981, Topaz called members of the right-wing Likud chahchahim (“riffraff”); Shilon revered Bach. Clearly, Shilon and Topaz themselves not only did not represent Israeliness, but were instead the very antithesis of the religious and Mizrahi right that had begun to take over the country. Shilon and Topaz largely legitimized the new authentic Israeliness; helped it come into being. But they did not represent it – they merely took advantage of it.

And then, all at once, this Israeliness had had enough of them. It happened almost overnight. The ratings plummeted. The Golem stood up to its creator. The public turned its back on Shilon and Topaz with extreme cruelty. The revolution they started devoured up. The masses that had crowned them cut off their heads. Topaz went crazy. Shilon, humiliatingly, wandered among channels and time slots. Did they ever really think they were the tribal campfire? Look at modern Israel and the answer is no. Today, too, the newly split Channel 2, with its news and reality shows, is much more pluralistic, liberal and leftist – for example, “Eretz Nehederet” (“It’s a Wonderful Country”) – than the people themselves.

What does this mean? Channel 2 remained the public’s Studio 54: They have a great time there at night – Sodom and Gomorrah – and in the morning go to work and act differently. That’s the real split: Not between Reshet and Keshet, but between them and the life that takes place outside of their prime time.