Parody of My Praise for the Netanyahus Is the Highest Form of Flattery

When you’re laughed at in public – for example, on a popular TV show – you are effectively canonized. That's the prize, or perhaps punishment, for breaking a taboo.

Benny Ziffer
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Actor Roy Bar-Natan portrays Benny Ziffer on the program "It's a Wonderful Country."
Actor Roy Bar-Natan portrays Benny Ziffer on the program "It's a Wonderful Country."Credit: Screenshot
Benny Ziffer

Last Saturday night, my life changed unrecognizably after I saw myself impersonated on the season opener of the satirical program “A Wonderful Country,” on Channel 2. It was as though I’d won some sort of prestigious prize. Friends called to congratulate me, and wherever I went I was greeted with cheers, like a national hero. There were also some who gave me a sour look – they were probably envious – whereas others made no comment, thinking perhaps that I’d perhaps been offended by the parody, and not wanting to rub salt in my wounds.

I’ve been told that I am the only person from the written press who’s been turned into a character on “A Wonderful Country.” Which only inflates my ego even more. I would add that I might well be the only editor of a literary supplement in the world (in my case, the weekly Culture and Literature section of the Haaretz Hebrew edition) whom anyone has taken the trouble to impersonate on such a popular program. Which is to say: If I’d received a literary or journalistic prize, who would know about it outside the industry? And here I won the ultimate and most coveted prize that anyone can be awarded for his professional and other accomplishments: I was made a laughingstock before the entire nation.

That’s a prize, because contrary to what might be thought, when you’re laughed at in public, you are effectively canonized. After all, who are the canonical figures? Those who are not afraid to be ridiculous and play for the audience in the public circus. It’s they who in the end get the appreciation of the public, which prefers them over public personalities who are respectable and boring.

I have to note that I was completely aware of this phenomenon when I invited Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife to dinner at my home and afterward wrote my impressions of that evening in a thrilled tone. I knew that many people would find me ridiculous. But I didn’t care. And it seems to me that the punishment – or the prize – for that is the parody on “A Wonderful Country.” A prize or punishment for someone who broke a taboo.

And indeed, the program pinpointed the ridiculousness that already existed in what I wrote about the evening with the Netanyahus and elevated it a notch in terms of the pathos. The actor who played me, Roy Bar-Natan, was excellent. He exaggerated my mannerisms only slightly, and every word he spoke was an exact quote of things I’ve written and said. There was nothing in them that I wouldn’t sign off on.

Was the satire effective? I think it was, even very much so, but perhaps not in the primitive sense of the term. In the primitive sense, satire should have made me feel ashamed, and led others to keep their distance from me, even mock me. But as I noted, that wasn’t what happened, and I don’t think anyone really wants satire to look like a drumhead court-martial.

The satire was effective in that it had an interesting moral that has no connection to immediate politics. It showed how flattery that is spoken from the heart and with true conviction stops being flattery and becomes genuinely useful to the person being flattered. The skit starts with Yuval Steinitz applying makeup to Netanyahu, who looks uptight and helpless ahead of his television appearance. Both Steinitz and Netanyahu look very non-masculine, and Steinitz’s fussiness with respect to the prime minister verges on homosexuality. Then Benny Ziffer bursts onto the stage like some deus ex machina and utters his words of flattery, which emphasize even more the homosexuality of the whole scene.

What’s extremely interesting is that in the parody, Netanyahu is not fazed in the least by the quite overt homosexual references that are spoken by the actor who plays me. The actor emphasizes demonstratively the names of the homosexual couples who were at the dinner, and Netanyahu in response emits sounds that verge on orgasm. The whole character of the actor who plays me expresses gay mannerisms, and this is not a source of distress for Netanyahu. On the contrary: It allows him to leave the make-up room feeling far more powerful.

What can we learn from all this? That the ways of good satire are serpentine indeed. It says several different things simultaneously. And in our case, along with my depiction as a ridiculous flatterer, it conveyed a not-uncomplex message that presents Netanyahu as a person who lacks masculinity. In other words, not matching the stereotypical right-wing macho profile attributed to him by the left. That is, the parody confirms or affirms the way I introduced and portrayed Netanyahu during our meeting in my home – as an intellectual and a sensitive person (traits which in the popular imagination are identified with those of a “sissy.”).

What and who, then, is “A Wonderful Life” critiquing? If it’s mocking anything, it’s above all the media itself. For example, in the excellent way in which Eyal Kitzis, in the role of the newsmagazine presenter, ridicules anchormen. And if the program mocks politicians, it’s done in a way that sees them acting hypocritically and falsely when they appear in the media (such as the impersonation of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett visiting settlements and talking the talk, but looking scared to death and only wishing that he could get out of there). The parody of me was also to some degree a critique of the media, perhaps of the covert racism and homophobia of the left, which in order to condemn the fact that I have supposedly “defected” to the Netanyahu camp does not balk at using the weapon of homosexual-based ridicule.