When Satire Made Israel's Opposition Leader Look Less Racist Than He Actually Is

Recollections of a one-time encounter with Isaac Herzog that began pleasantly but went sour.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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An illustration of Isaac Herzog and Sayed Kashua.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

My one encounter with Isaac Herzog took place around three years ago. I don’t remember if he was already No. 1 in the Labor Party then or preparing to run in the internal election for the party’s leadership, which he won. I was very tense ahead of the meeting; I think I even shaved in honor of the event and wore a freshly ironed shirt.

We were about to start shooting the last season of the “Arab Labor” television series. In one of the episodes, I’d come up with the character of a Labor politician – its leader, actually – who hires the services of Amjad, the neurotic protagonist of the show, as the party’s Arab affairs adviser ahead of Knesset elections.

The truth is that it wasn’t just some character from the Labor Party – it was “Bougie” [Herzog’s nickname]. That’s what the script said, that’s what the dialogues said: Bougie. I sometimes write in names that way, just for inspiration, when it’s clear to me that in the end an actor who will remind viewers – of Bougie, for example – will be chosen for the part. I remember the producer saying. “Why take an actor? Let’s try the man himself.”

“He’ll never do it,” I guffawed.

“Why are you always of so little faith,” the producer retorted, as usual. “Do you want him or do you not want him?”

“Obviously I’d prefer him, but he will never”

“Let me try,” the producer said. “What do you have to lose?’

I remember the producer telling me later that day that Bougie said he was into it and wanted to see a script. I rewrote the script of the episode and now called the Bougie character Isaac Herzog, because I thought the name Bougie was offensive and I wasn’t sure that that’s what people called him behind his back.

We sent him the material. I was absolutely sure that the moment he read the script, he would refuse to cooperate. It was an insulting text that ridiculed the Labor Party and its attitude toward the Arabs.

The party hires the services of Amjad, who is totally clueless, with no political or PR experience. He’s asked to articulate policy and make decisions about the propaganda Labor would use vis-a-vis Arab citizens, whose votes will be extremely important for the party in the looming election. Amjad, as played by the marvelous Norman Issa – who is no less neurotic than the character himself – persuades the party leadership that all the Arabs want is respect. “Give the Arabs respect,” Amjad tells the party bigwigs, “and they’re yours.” Forget discrimination, forget racism, forget unemployment, budgets, education – all they want is respect.

The producer subsequently told me, “Bougie read the script and he’s on board.”

But how could that be, I remember wondering, though pleased by the news. It’s always preferable to get the real deal rather than have an actor do an imitation, and a politician is best of all, because in contrast to an actor, he doesn’t cost the production money, which is usually in short supply. The guy must have a sense of humor and a huge capacity for self-criticism if he’s willing to play a part like this and to deliver the election speech that Amjad writes for him to declaim to the Arab voters.

The whole speech is about respect: Bougie was supposed to stand before the Arab audience and promise them that if he’s elected he will give them plenty of it, and that he will give them much of it – ikhtiram, sharaf, karama, “and in short, respect.” This, after he apologizes for the fact that Labor hasn’t always been respectful to Arab voters. The episode was intended to satirize Labor and its voters among the Arab public, and Herzog showed himself to be bighearted, a real prince, in being ready to take on the part.

“But before he makes a final decision,” the producer said, “he wants a meeting, to go over the script together.”

It’s obvious what will happen, I thought: He will agree on condition that he can dictate a reworking of the script. Instead of it being a satire, I’ll have to rewrite the whole thing and turn the episode into a kind of commercial for the Labor Party and the person who will lead it. No way, I promised myself as I drove to the Jerusalem restaurant that had been chosen for our meeting. I arrived with the producer; Herzog showed up with two advisers, if I remember correctly.

I have to admit that I was thrilled – after all, it’s Herzog and two advisers, and me sitting with them and people looking at us and thinking that if I’m sitting with Herzog I must be some kind of hotshot or whatever. And it was such a pleasant conversation, I remember it well. He complimented me on my work – he said he didn’t watch the show, but his family likes it. He didn’t talk about the script, he had no comments to make, he thought it was funny. Well, the guy is imbued with self-confidence and has no problem playing the character of a failed leader who screws up things with the downtrodden Arab public because he thinks he can buy them by invoking the magic word “respect.”

After we settled the issue of the script and the shooting schedule, I started to talk about Arab society. I thought he’d respond with politics. I don’t recall his exact words, but I know I was surprised to the point of not believing my ears. Not that he was against Arabs, heaven forbid, absolutely not, he’s completely for them, of that there’s no doubt. But I definitely remember comments such as, “Your grandchildren will have to act differently.” And something like, “But with you people, there’s this whole thing of family and violence.”

I remember that at a certain point I wondered whether Herzog had indeed related to the script as a satire. Did he even have a sense of humor, or did he think that Ajmad’s “respect” speech was one that was worthy for a prince of the Labor Party? I remember well that at the end of the conversation I said to my producer, “The speech makes them look less racist than they are in reality.”

Good Lord, I never thought that a smart guy could talk like he was still in the Palmach – invoking outdated terms and flaunting an arrogant ignorance that showed a basic lack of understanding of Arab society.

I’d always loathed the Labor Party, but in that meeting I realized I’d been too gentle in my feelings. The choice of the name “Zionist Union” left no room for doubt. They don’t even want to pull the wool over the Arabs’ eyes anymore with a few games of respect.

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