The Trashy Talk Show, a Fitting Home for Israel's Political Debate

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A screengrab of Israeli Transportation Minister Miri Regev (R) giving a controversial interview on talk show 'Ofira and Berkovic,' October 2020.
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The most-read article on the Haaretz Hebrew website Saturday was the report on what Transportation Minister Miri Regev said to the broadcaster Eyal Berkovic. The second most-read story was Ariana Melamed’s critique of Regev’s remarks.

Regev told the former soccer star that he would never coach the national team because he called Likud a “criminal organization.” This launched the weekly ritual of “public uproar” to great fanfare.

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“Ofira and Berkovic,” the talk show that Berkovic co-hosts with Ofira Asayag, also broke its own viewership records, and there’s no arguing with that kind of success. It is also a cultural crime. It corrupts and flattens the public conversation. When people complain about the poor quality of Israel’s politicians, they should also consider the quality of the talk shows that glorify the most rude, ignorant, superficial and populist of them.

There’s no room for a serious politician on these programs. There’s a place for trashy shows like “Ofira and Berko,” of course, but when they become the flagship of political discussion, something is deeply rotten.

It’s not just the weekend brouhahas, or the impossibility of a weekday without a scandal – mostly empty fabrications, tempests in  teapots – that reflect the nadir to which our discourse has dropped. As the lyricist Ella Amitan wrote, “In the land of the dwarves, noise and confusion ... the cavalry comes, riding on fleas, filling the air with whistles and the sound of song.”

While the organizers of the protests around the country break their arms patting themselves on the back for pulling off a great civic awakening, the level of public debate remains in the swamp. Who said what to whom? Here is a select sample.

Channel 12 journalist Rina Matsliah said supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would vote for him even if he raped their daughters.

Likud MK Miki Zohar said he wouldn’t appear on “Ofira and Berko” again.

His party colleague Tzachi Hanegbi called “nonsense” claims that Israelis were going hungry due to the coronavirus crisis.

A leader of the protests, the retired army general Amir Haskel, screamed at an Ethiopian Israeli police officer, saying he piloted the plane that brought her parents to Israel.

Sara Netanyahu got her hair done during the lockdown.

These incidents and many others set off fierce public debates, most of them meaningless. The speakers aren’t important, their remarks even less so. Empowering them serves just one goal: the Moloch of ratings. But engaging with these mini-scandals is also a distraction. Focusing on trivialities has always been a refuge for the public debate in Israel, which flees from the big problems as if from fire.

Civil debate has seemingly woken from its long coma, but the unconsciousness has only changed its form. Instead of apathy and complacency, we get a fierce attack over a single issue, and not the most important one – Netanyahu, yes or no – and in its wake, furious squabbles over the most trivial and insignificant matters.

Most of this vanity fair takes place on social media. On these platforms, anything goes and everything is permitted. There’s no perspective, proportion or hierarchy, no facts and no truth – every bastard a king, and every king a king of the swamp.

But the conversation doesn’t stay in the virtual world. It metastasizes into the real world, corrupting and destroying everything. And so, a bit of (infuriating) nonsense uttered by a whiny and not particularly senior cabinet minister to a not particularly eloquent television host becomes that day’s hot topic. From there, the road to the list of most-read articles on Haaretz is short.

The goal is obvious: bread and games. The total Trumpification of the conversation. The crowning of “Ofira and Berko” as the show where fates are sealed and the national agenda is determined proves this better than a thousand interviews.

Cheap identity play, insults, rudeness and shrieks are the only game in town. The other current events try to imitate the success of Asayag and Berkovic. Their success has a name: disaster.

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