Paving the road for true multiculturalism on Israeli television

The ‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ finale night was a brimming, pronounced and accented Mizrahi broadcast, paving the road for a true multiculturalism and change of viewing habits. Merav Alush Levron on the struggle she partook in to have the finale aired on Channel 2 (and fair play to Eden Abutbul!)

By Merav Alush Levron (translated from Hebrew by Noam Benishie)

Paving the road for true multiculturalism on Israeli television
The finalists on ‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ during the show’s finale, March 5, 2013 (Photo: Ortal Dahan)

Much has been written over the social networks and mainstream press in the run-up for Eyal Golan is Calling You Finale airing on Israel’s Channel 2. Now that it has been broadcast live from Nokia Arena and that we’ve read, then (I, at least) shred, the disparaging reviews tinged with racism and condescension, I have gained the relative composure to write down how I stopped dreading and learned to love the broadcast channels.

You can all breathe a sigh of relief. I have no intention of singing the praise and glory of commercial TV, overlooking its failings and shortcoming and forgetting how it is all too often embroiled in crony capitalism, or otherwise categorically prioritizing all manners of entertainment programs at the expense of the “haut genre”[1]. Yet this is definitely an event that provided us, Mizrahi activists, media and culture theorists and others that toil away in the labour of culture, as well as the owners of broadcasting entities, ample food for thought.

In my view, the airing of this finale night should be taught in media schools as a fascinating case study to explore the triangle of text, audiences and production, known in media studies as culture. The tale of ‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ – from the moment the Keshet franchise applied to reassign it from Channel 24 to Channel 2, through the fervent debate into the contribution of this request, and finally to the broadcast itself, audiences response thereto and criticism thereof – transcend the boundaries of Marxist debate into wealth’s control over culture, in many ways even challenging it. This transcending of boundaries situates the saga within a complex system of interests represented by financial, but also social, peripheral and cultural sub-groups in their struggle to generate cultural meanings within a complex field of competing representations and images.

In this essay I prefer to avoid elaborating on the racist, Orientalist, bold discourse, sometimes latent and elusive and other times explicit, into the genre of Mizrahi Pop music. Rather, I would like to celebrate and praise the end result.

Before we start, here is a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the facts: the ‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ show usually airs on Channel 24, the cable and satellite designated niche channel, which Keshet – one of Channel 2’s franchise holders – is one of its key owners. The Second Authority for Television and Radio Council (of which I am a member) received an application by Keshet to have the show aired on Channel 2. This application posed many snags, as Keshet had been forbidden by a previous board resolution to promote Channel 24 in its broadcasts. This resolution specified that “Keshet Channel 2’s broadcasts shall not be used to promote its Channel 24 broadcasts, unless by means of advertisements.” The council, which is the Authority’s de facto board of directors, heard the Second Authority management assert that it found the finale’s airing on Channel 2 to constitute an active promotion of Channel 24 and therefore the appeal must be rejected. Meanwhile the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, which regulates Channel 24, argued that airing the finale on Channel 2 would actually undermine Channel 24, causing it a financial damage. Eventually it was decided by an assembly of the Second Authority, gathered for a special hearing, to grant the appeal on account of the broadcast’s public value.

The decision was preceded by a heated debate in the television board of the Second Authority Council, which adjourned with no vote. The following hearing within the council itself was also marked by disagreements, and the professional management stuck by its recommendation to reject the appeal. The Second Authority management adhered to the binding force of the former resolution. My personal stance was that the marginal promotional implications of broadcasting the finale for Channel 24 were outweighed by the pivotal role of the tribute to Mizrahi music designed for this finale as well as by the positioning of Mizrahi culture in general in a prime time slot of the broadcast channel, with viewings immeasurably higher than those enjoyed by niche channels.

The granted appeal was followed by criticism from interest holders on the one hand and gatekeepers of cultural order the other. The latter lot, following the broadcast and under the pretext of allegedly objective television reviews, played down the show’s value and contribution and more than anything demonstrated ignorance and aloofness. (See for example Ynet’s Smadar Shiloni, “I Couldn’t Tell the Boys Apart”).

Indeed, the Mizrahi Pop music has seen its status upgraded over the last few years, yet the de-legitimisation thereof is alive and kicking. Its branding as inferior, deeming singers of the genre lesser artists with no cultural message to show for, is also not a thing of the past. Truly, different music shows, such as ‘Kochav Nolad’ (the Israeli version of ‘American Idol’) and ‘The Voice’ do not exclude the genre and their panel numbers Mizrahi composers and lyricists that inspire respect and pride as judges. These shows’ contribution in boosting Mizrahi culture and its place around the Israeli national campfire is arguable. One can also question their significance when it comes to stemming prejudices. And it is all the more appropriate and important to debate their role in the actual promotion of the Israeli society as multicultural. In the course of such debate, I shall find myself signifying the advantages as well as disadvantages and limitations of the Mizrahi representation. Yet when acknowledging the unequal representation of Mizrahim and other minorities in culture, one must conclude that when compared to the impact and contribution of airing ‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ on the broadcast channels’ prime time – ‘Kochav Nolad’ and ‘The Voice’ lose hands down.

The day before the finale was a brimming, pronounced and accented Mizrahi broadcast, in the broader political sense of the word, and ultra-peripheral to boot. This designation has no pretension of determining any essentialist Mizrahi authenticity as the ultimate Mizrahiness. Mizrahiness is obviously a broad category. Yet representations of this Mizrahiness were all but absent from the broadcast screens. ‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ is a subversive, biting, challenging cultural product, counter-hegemonic in no uncertain terms. Its peripheral nature was evident in the show’s every vein: participants were Mizrahi men and women with no exception, its panel had an overwhelming Mizrahi majority, the music was 100 percent trill-decorated Israeli music (as referred to By Yossi Gispan in an interview with Café Gibraltar’s Shira Ohayon), not a single participant was christened in the white-washing river, which bestows a kosher seal on the prim and proper Mizrahiness, sanctioning standard dress and jewellery, the precise desirable gestures, the quota of trills, contestants’ familial representations and their visibility.

‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ does not subject the show’s mise-en-scene to the rules of cultural decorum, to the rights and wrongs of being seen and heard as dictated from the perspective of cultural hierarchy and its taste setters. It makes no attempt to appeal to Ashkenazi audiences nor does it embrace the symbolic hegemonic codes to earn an empathic smile from the non-Mizrahi judges, or the compassionate, moved gaze of Keren Peles at the mellifluous singing of a Mizrahi child. The finale night airing on Keshet’s prime time is therefore a revolutionary act. Under the white patronage wing, the black answered the white with a defiant, poignant, proud and powerful black gaze. Mizrahiness was neither pushed to its designated corner nor cast as an ethnic spice in a colourful barbecue party alongside representatives of other cultures and classes, to cite Ella Shohat’s famous saying when criticising the faux liberal pluralism. Quite the contrary – the show conquered a territory, declaring it its own. For one significant night the owners of Channel 2 were not its mere stakeholders, but the ones who had gained its alternative ownership, turning its familiar tables to create a subversive cultural disruption. It is no coincidence, therefore, that an overwhelming majority of the show’s viewers – roughly 60 percent – were Masorati (“tradition keepers”) Mizrahis, from the Israeli periphery.

‘Eyal Golan is Calling You’ is not a popular television piece that adheres to controlled pluralism, counterbalances and textual contradictions that construct it as an ambiguous text for e-v-e-r-y one to view. Nevertheless, it by no means follows that the show does not hold the potential to reach diverse audiences. At the end of the day, TV wields a significant power in instilling viewing habits, and the show is a cultural display of Mizrahi Pop music relevant to the here and now of Israeliness. In this sense, my fight to air the show on Channel 2 and the product itself should be read as a democratic call for unstipulated containment of identities and minority groups, a call to acknowledge the other and the importance of the various Mizrahi audiences in forming the cultural spectrum of Israeliness.

The 26 percent ratings (a very high percentage in itself, particularly in view of the limited promotional time and the corresponding football match) might have caused some disappointment among the ranks of Keshet, used as they are to higher figures, yet I reckon it would be outright wrong and a great missed opportunity if this night is not etched in the consciousness of all broadcast entities. Clearly if this night remains a one-off event, or even should the passenger who stayed for the night be granted permanent tenancy yet undergoes a makeover at the hands of the hegemony’s cosmeticians and top hairdressers – then our victory spells our defeat. Eden Abutbul has proved that you can sing Arabic on prime time and still gain audience recognition. All you have to do is peek out of the box and stop fearing.

See, here’s what happened: Eyal Golan and Assi Azar declared, on prime time TV, as the broadcast drew to an end (here, on the 102nd minute) that they were proud to be Mizrahi and lo and behold, Nokia Arena’s ceiling remained intact. That’s the way to break glass ceilings.

[1] Including documentary films, drama, public discourse programs and investigative journalism shows.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets