Opinion: Israeli Big Brother TV Show ‘Does’ Politics

‘Left wing’ reality show contestant Saar Szekely sparks intense debate, challenges the ‘consensus’ and gains popularity

Screen Capture of Saar Szekely in the midst of debate with other Big Brother contestants

Screen Capture of Saar Szekely in the midst of debate with other Big Brother contestants (click on image for full video with subtitles by Eran Vered)

The reality show Big Brother, whether in Israel or elsewhere, is not usually known as a forum for heated political debate.  This year however has been different.  When the apparently far-left Saar Szekely interviewed for a place on the Israeli show he made no pretense about his intentions.  For Szekely, the aim was clear: he would use his appearance on Big Brother to talk about Israel’s prolonged conflict with the Palestinians and the military occupation of the West Bank.

As Ami Kaufman points out in 972mag.com, the producers of Israel’s Keshet television company were more than willing to play along with Szekely’s distinctly political approach.  In an apparent bid to improve ratings, Keshet accepted Szekely into the program just as they had done in the past with other “crazy” left-wingers.  Perhaps they reasoned that Szekely would be good for a quick laugh and that he would be soon voted off by an exasperated Israeli public unwilling to listen to the rantings and ravings of an aggrieved “lefty”.

However, quite surprisingly for all concerned, this is not how events have transpired.  Despite his willingness to grapple with some of the most controversial political issues of the day, by some miracle, Szekely gained the affections of the public and has made it to the show’s finale.  The fact that he is a quick-witted, articulate debater has obviously not harmed his popularity.

While Kaufman clearly sees his own article on the subject of Big Brother and Saar Szekely as a bit of fluff and light-hearted relief, I respectfully disagree.  The clip of Szekely’s debate with the other Big Brother contestants is important because it provides a candid and compelling insight into the current zeitgeist of mainstream Israeli society.

In all honesty, my first reaction when I viewed the clip was to marvel at Szekely’s nimble rhetorical defense against a barrage of attacks by the other participants.  But in the end I found the impressions and comments of a close friend of mine to be far more revealing.  His response was not one of optimism and positivity.  On the contrary it was outrage: not at the sensitive views voiced by Szekely but at the pure refusal by some members of the house to even listen to what the young “leftist” had to say.

At one point in the clip, Szekely recounts one particularly troubling occurrence in Bil’in when a protestor was hit and killed by a direct shot from a gas canister at such close range that it can only have been deliberate.  At this moment, another housemate listening from afar quickly interjects, accusing Szekely of slandering all his friends in the Israeli army as “murderers”.

The camera then cuts away to another group discussing the situation inside the house.  One says, how can he come out on television in front of the whole and be “neged am shelo” – against his people – his own people.  For me, this moment is absolutely key and illustrative of a much wider problem.

Today the mainstream consensus in Israel is shifting towards the view that it is unpatriotic to question the policies of the army or the government.  I would argue the complete opposite.  Free, open and vigorous debate is the life-blood of any healthy democratic society.  This should not be something alien to Israelis.  In fact, the practice of questioning and debate is at the very core of Jewish learning and tradition.  It may be unpleasant to hear some of the facts that Szekely has to present, but clearly the answer does not lie in personal attacks and the refusal to listen.

The fact that Szekely has remained in the competition this long is proof that the Israeli public is receptive to information and opinions which challenge the status quo.  Understandably, after years of disappointment, war and terror, public opinion has hardened rightwards.  But perhaps Szekely’s new-found popularity is a small sign that things are changing.

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