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Chefs Became Fighters for Human Rights in Israel Overnight

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A customer has his temperature taken at the entrance to a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel June 4, 2020.
A customer has his temperature taken at the entrance to a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel June 4, 2020. Credit: AMIR COHEN / REUTERS
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

At long last there is a true protest here, and look who is representing it and how the campaign is presented. A stranger landing in our midst in recent weeks would find themselves convinced that in tandem with the growing political protest against Benjamin Netanyahu, another popular resistance movement has arisen, roiled by two fateful causes: the future of gyms and restaurants. Food and body sculpting, the war over muscle tone, the battle over entertainment in Tel Aviv. Tahrir Square at the Brasserie.

This is obviously not the way things really are, but it’s the way reality is depicted. This is no coincidence. After years in which Israelis have been fed ad nauseam with food-related shows – there isn’t an evening on TV without a burger competition or prime time without phyllo pastry – with chefs becoming cultural icons, the next stage in the development of this so-called culture has arrived. Chefs are no longer only social leaders; they’ve become fighters for human rights in Israel overnight. The good and charming Haim Cohen is now Israel’s Nelson Mandela. The tough Ruthie Brodo is our very own Rosa Luxemburg.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

A painful and just social protest is presented to viewers as another game show with the usual celebrities. The struggle of hundreds of thousands of Israelis to survive, people who have never seen the inside of a gym or who have probably not eaten at a restaurant lately, now living in existential dread, is presented as a campaign for the freedom to gorge out and sculpt one’s body. This is far from the truth, it distorts and twists reality while revealing something about the values dictated by the media, which like to show recognizable faces while repressing the distress of the truly disadvantaged – the latter don’t bring ratings, and thus they have no voice.

The physical fitness business and restaurants employ tens of thousands of people, whose present is difficult and future is scary. Most are not the most miserable victims of the present crisis. This is true for people in the entertainment industry as well. They do not necessarily warrant the most solidarity or commiseration. There are people more worthy of sympathy, such as hardscrabble day workers, old people, sick people, foreign workers, Palestinian laborers, anonymous wage earners and independent workers employed by small businesses which have collapsed. These cases are not as sexy, which is why you’ll hear less about them.

Tel Aviv brings forth only the voices that Tel Aviv loves, such as singer-songwriter Asaf Amdursky or gold medalist judoka Sagi Muki. The protest of social workers is covered by the media only as a gesture to political correctness. The protests by people with disabilities, whose benefits don’t even reach the minimum wage level, has never made it to TV screens. Nurses will likewise not get much coverage. Every restaurant or gym that’s closed in the metropolis will receive more attention than a small store on the city’s margins, more even than a mall in Israel’s outlying areas. The despair there is much less comfortable to watch, it doesn’t photograph as well as an abandoned Holmes Place gym.

This is how the media works, and there is no room for sanctimoniousness. But when distress overflows to such dimensions, one can no longer make do with chef games. Other mirrors should be held up in Tel Aviv, even if the city is disinterested and doesn’t want to hear about it. What is happening now is the inevitable result of years of obtuseness and inanity fostered by the media, mainly but not only by television. These are the bitter fruits of the idolization of vacuous celebrities, of cultural crimes committed by the media, which have created a substandard culture here, hollow and ignorant. The media are involved only in themselves and the bubble they inhabit. It’s no wonder that at times of distress they continue in the same vein.

More than a few coups and protests in the past were launched by takeovers of radio and TV stations, which represented the regime that the protesters wished to topple. In Israel, the media play a decisive role in shaping society. When news programs cover consumer stories and entertainment, and current events shows include hollow and scream-filled cockfights, with reality shows and cooking contests taking up the rest of the screen time, no one is thinking of assaulting Israeli TV stations, ones which have never told the whole truth.

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