Roses for Lieberman

With its oh-so-Nineties racist clip, Shas did the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman's work for him: It spared him and everybody else the need to dwell on substance.

Shas’ “press star for conversion” campaign video was probably a dream come true for Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman's constituency had resigned itself to the fact that “their” man in the Knesset was dealing primarily with what concerns him, not with what concerns them (housing, the cost of living, pensions, and so on). Then along came Shas and conveniently brought the discourse back to the topic of racism.

Convenient, that is, for Lieberman's party Yisrael Beiteinu; convenient for Shas; and in fact convenient for most of Israel's political parties, which hastened to post Facebook announcements, in Russian, brimming with pathos and love for the Russian-speaking community. The ruckus spared the parties the need to expound on their positions, to deal with alarming statistics or to explicate their unrealistic platforms. One can merely hug a pet Russian and sit back.

The hypocritical protests that flooded the newspapers and TV screens in response to the Shas clip may deceive and confuse. One might think that we live in a country with a pluralistic media that takes care to properly represent all population groups, that takes to the barricades the moment a party transgresses – in this case portraying an entire population using racist imagery, including a heavy accent and shiny blond hair.

But we don't live in a country like that and Shas didn’t invent the wheel. Shas' only sin was that rather than flirt with the outré, it brayed it.

Researchers of media distinguish between two types of media racism – open and “subliminal”. The first is self-explanatory. The second is an instance in which racist outlooks are buried within various representations, such that they operate subconsciously on the viewer. Shas simply didn’t realize that open racism – i.e., Russian non-Jews with heavy accents – was terribly Nineties. Today, to be really effective, one must cleverer. One must be more sophisticated and go the other route.

For years, Israel television's portrayal of immigrants was minimal, stereotypical, and shallow. In the mid-1990s the Second Television and Radio Broadcast Authority did a study looking at the representation of immigrants on commercial television. It concluded that immigrants were all but invisible and when they did appear, it was in negative contexts, as passive or alien characters. The media stressed stories about Russian prostitution, mafias, and organized crime, painting an entire population in uniform, gloomy colors, and the stereotypes stuck.

Seemingly things have changed since then. Such representations are no longer within the bounds of the politically correct, but the change is cosmetic, not substantive.

The Russian-speaking population is still on the margins, is almost invisible compared to its proportion of the population, and is still represented by stereotypical characters, albeit somewhat softened. The prostitutes and mafiosi of the 1990s have been replaced by the security guard, the woman who doesn't know how to behave and the beefy macho who threatens the hero.

When the news features immigrants, it's still primarily in crime reports. When immigrants from the former Soviet Union commit serious crimes, they stop being "Israeli" and go back to being "Russians," who are, of course, more tolerant of violence and love drinking flammable liquids.

The Israeli media has also demonstrated that it doesn’t tolerate accents. Blond reporter and news presenter Natasha Mozgovaya was removed from her position at Channel 2 in 2006 because of viewer complaints about her accent, and I don’t recall that any of her colleagues at Channel 2 News rose up in her defense. She was unceremoniously dumped so as not to offend. Since then, by the way, no other news outlet has taken any chances.

So as far as Lieberman is concerned, what comes to mind is the Talmudic saying that “the righteous have their work done by others.” All that's left for him to do is add some twigs to the fires blazing around him and murmur to himself that, as usual, "All's coming up roses."