For most Israelis, the biggest news story of the past few weeks wasn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic maneuverings or the swelling of popular protests in Iran, but the arrest and indictment of a 62-year-old comedian named Dudu Topaz. Once the nation’s most popular entertainer, Topaz, Israeli police now believe, hired a gang of thugs to assault a long list of network executives, talent agents, and television stars, apparently with no other motive than to avenge his own fall from the peaks of primetime.
And while there’s little doubt that this strange crime spree is the work of a deeply troubled individual—Topaz sent his victims letters in a failed effort to deflect blame, and tried to pin the attacks on a long line of usual suspects, from the Israeli mob to deranged soccer fans—I couldn’t help but see in his madness a larger, more complex story. For better or worse, Topaz has always been the perfect embodiment of Israeli society, and his stratospheric ascent and rapid downward spiral chart the turbulent course of Israeli culture in the past two decades, a culture rendered chaotic by the sudden appearance of an omnipotent new force: commercial television.
It is hard to remember, looking at Israeli television today, that the country that is now capable of selling show concepts like “In Treatment” to major U.S. networks like HBO had been bereft of television broadcasting until 1968. Television, went the firm belief of David Ben Gurion, the nation’s first prime minister, was a wicked instrument that weakened the mind and loosened the morals; when he finally gave his blessing to begin television broadcasting, Ben Gurion favored not the American, commercial model but a variation on the British Broadcasting Company, allowing for only one channel—called, not without a touch of irony, Channel One—and appointing a special government body to regulate broadcasting and excise any content deemed offensive or inappropriate by the authorities. Israeli television, in the words of one famous media scholar, served as “the bonfire of the tribe,” a source not only of information and entertainment but also of shared experiences that shaped the collective consciousness of entire generations.
Starting in the late 1970s, no man was featured more prominently around the bonfire than Dudu Topaz. Born David Goldenberg, he changed his first name to sound less formal and his last to sound more glittering. He was handsome, cocky, charming, radiant. Soon, his stand-up act sold out across the country.
His success had to do with more than sheer talent. In some inexplicable way common to all great entertainers, he managed to capture the mindset of his era, in his case that of Israel in the 1980s, a formerly socialist nation taking its first hesitant steps into capitalism and cautiously hoping to introduce a modicum of normalcy into its epic and war-torn history. Unlike his predecessors in the pantheon of Israeli entertainment—Shaike Offir, say, or the legendary Ha’Gasash Ha’Hiver trio—the characters Topaz created on stage were not meant to poke gentle fun at the shortcomings of Israeli society but to celebrate its very flaws. One famous Topaz character, for example, was a nihilistic and raunchy arms dealer, who was more interested in making a killing than he was in Israel’s delicate security needs. Another popular sketch revolved around a family of gluttonous and mindless Israelis who set out on a nature hike but end up focusing only on the refreshments offered along the way.
These characters, for all of their vulgarity, appealed to a society determined to no longer think of itself as meek and under threat. And their creator, Topaz, quickly achieved cult status. In 1984, for example, he was appointed as the Labor Party’s spokesman, causing the party tremendous electoral damage when he referred to supporters of the rival Likud as “tchach-tchachim,” a derogatory term that carries with it negative connotations towards Israelis who hail from Arab countries. Critics and politicians denounced Topaz, but his audience did no such thing: his next stand-up act, cleverly named “A Slip of the Tongue,” was a major blockbuster.
Naturally, then, Topaz found his way on to the tightly controlled lineup of Channel One. But it was Channel Two—Israel’s first commercial television channel, which started broadcasting late in 1993—that made Topaz, in the words of one locution popular at the time, the King of Israel.
It is perhaps impossible for Americans, who have always grown up with commercial television, to realize just how big of a thrill the birth of Channel Two was. Within several years, the nascent channel achieved such dominance over the broadcasting landscape that it was not uncommon for its primetime programming to be regularly watched by nearly forty percent of the adult population. And because the new channel made its money not by taxing the sales of television sets—Channel One’s main source of income—but by charging advertisers premium rates, it needed to deliver more of a spectacle, to attract more eyeballs, to produce bigger stars.
It was a perfect setting for Dudu Topaz. He quickly left Channel One for Channel Two, naming his new show “Reshut Habidur.” The pun wasn’t lost on anyone: Reshut Hashidur, Hebrew for the Broadcasting Authority, is the state-run body that governs Channel One; by naming his show Reshut Habidur, Topaz did more than switch channels: he now declared himself on par with the government, a powerful entity representing the common will of the people.
And the people loved it. Topaz’s show was consistently among the highest rated on Channel Two, attracting cabinet ministers, supermodels, athletes and authors alike to its glitzy set. The King of Israel moniker never seemed more appropriate: no longer content with simply entertaining, Topaz now wanted to effect social change. True to his populist instincts, he began featuring games in which Israel’s newly impoverished—victims of the country’s rapid process of privatization—were made to compete for cash prizes. Entire shows would be devoted to helping out those in need, sometimes with a simple makeover, sometimes by shaming the authorities into cutting bureaucratic red tape. Politicians—the actual men and women entrusted with the public’s well-being—were invited to sit by and silently watch as Topaz did what they could not and earned the popular admiration that had eluded so many of them.
But fame and fortune were not without their pitfalls. His prolonged popularity made Topaz feel invincible. He began to think that nothing was off-limits. In one famous case, he punched a television critic who had derided his show. In another, he insisted on airing his show just hours after a deadly suicide bombing, interviewing a woman wounded in the attack and browbeating her into saying that enough time had passed and that it was now all right again for Topaz to tell jokes and do his shtick. This was too much even for his most loyal fans. Whereas in the 1980s and early 1990s Topaz’s vulgar humor was often perceived as a bold comedic response to the existential threats still looming above the Jewish state—the 1982 Lebanon War, for example, or the first Palestinian uprising of 1987, the intifada—in the early 2000s, with more violence in Lebanon and a second, considerably more violent intifada under way, Topaz’s jokes often came across as tasteless and offensive. Whether he was losing his comic touch or the reality was changing to exclude his particular sensibilities is impossible to tell. The outcome, however, remained unchanged: the King of Israel was being dethroned.
Topaz’s decline was fast. His ratings plummeted. The same audience that was once mesmerized by his antics was now infatuated with American-inspired reality television shows, Survivor and American Idol and The Amazing Race. But Topaz refused to acknowledge that the times had changed: he insisted on the same old format, the same old jokes, even the same old way of doing television, live and without editing. In a fast-paced broadcasting environment run largely from editing bays, it was a recipe for disaster: Topaz often missed his cues, cut to commercials prematurely, and presided over a show that was looking increasingly outdated. In 2005, Channel Two finally pulled the plug.
Topaz, however, was unfazed. Channel 10, Israel’s second commercial channel, had gone on air in 2002, and it wasn’t too hard for the former star to negotiate a spot on the struggling channel’s line-up. On the evening of his first show on Channel 10, Topaz sent flowers to Avi Nir, the Channel Two executive who had cancelled Topaz’s show. “May the best man among us win,” read the note attached.
The best man wasn’t Topaz. His new show was soon canceled. For the first time in decades, Topaz found himself without an audience. It was more than he could bear.
But Topaz’s case, says Professor Anat First, a media scholar in Israel’s Netanya Academic College, may be more emblematic than private: Israeli society, she says, had adopted commercial television so quickly and enthusiastically, it hardly had the time and presence of mind to consider some of its potential downfalls, such as increased consumerism, say, or the decline of traditional values.
And yet signs that Israeli society was undergoing major changes were everywhere. By the mid-1990s, the country was awash in phenomena it had never known before: massive malls and McDonald’s restaurants, intrusive paparazzi and instant millionaires, a steep decrease in the number of Israeli youth volunteering to serve in combat units and a dramatic rise in organized, violent crime. It wasn’t just that the economy, traditionally navigated by the government, was increasingly abandoned to the dictates of the market, largely eroding the middle class and creating throngs of newly rich and newly poor; it was that all Israelis, regardless of their socioeconomic status, now took their cultural cues from one, all-influential television channel.
It’s not surprising, then, that the man who, for so many years, was that channel’s emblem would refuse to reconcile with cultural irrelevance. For three years, ever since his engagement with Channel 10 ended, he did everything in his power to return to the limelight. He fired his longtime representative, Aviv Giladi, and engaged Boaz Ben-Tzion, one of Israel’s most powerful talent agents. When Ben-Tzion suggested that Topaz take a few years off and wait for the perfect opportunity to get back on television, the entertainer scoffed. Bypassing Ben-Tzion, Topaz began to call and text various network executives, sometimes as late as three in the morning. His messages were all similar: long, rambling, and insisting that he has a new idea for a show that would easily top the ratings charts. The idea, too, was always the same, a thinly veiled variation of the show he had been doing for a decade, in the height of his fame, on Channel Two.
Increasingly, Israel’s small television industry began seeing in Topaz a persona non grata. He still had a hefty bank account, a lovely home in Tel Aviv, and a famous face that drew admiring catcalls from passersby on the street, but he didn’t have a perch on TV. And that made him mad as hell.
“It was as if someone had turned off his considerable personal charm,” a senior Israeli television producer told Ma’ariv, recalling Topaz’s state of mind. “He was looking less and less well. He kept going around and saying how people in television were bastards, and how hurt he was.”
But the comedian who had made his name portraying obnoxious, aggressive Israelis had no patience for being hurt. He wanted revenge. As the still-ongoing police investigation recently revealed, Topaz allegedly hired three different pairs of criminals, giving them the names and addresses of leading figures in the television industry and ordering them to break some bones. Avi Nir, Topaz’s old nemesis in Channel Two, was brutally beaten and hospitalized. Shira Margalit, another Channel Two executive, was attacked in front of her seven-year-old son, her jaw crushed, her eye punched shut. Even Boaz Ben-Tzion, Topaz’s second agent, wasn’t spared: assailants ambushed him as well.
At first, Topaz tried to hide his crimes by sending his victims misleading letters. Some purported to be from fans of the soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, known as a rowdy and violent bunch, claiming that the attacks came in response to negative coverage of their beloved team. Others yet stated that the beatings were a response to investigative reports of the Israeli mob’s dealings. But Topaz was more of an entertainer than a criminal mastermind, and had left behind enough clues to lead to his arrest and arraignment. Shortly after he was apprehended, he admitted everything. Soon after that, he tried to kill himself.
Now crushed and in custody, Topaz continues to represent Israel to itself. But as I look at his still-handsome mug, it’s a very different reality I and other Israelis see reflected back, one not of promise and prosperity but of a culture numb with mindless entertainment.
Natan Zehavi, one of the country’s most popular journalists and radio talk show hosts, wrote that while Topaz’s crimes were unforgivable, his alleged victims, the ratings-obsessed captains of Israel’s television industry, were not altogether undeserving of wrath. “Watching Kochav Nolad,” Zehavi wrote, referring to the Israeli version of American Idol, the host of which was reportedly on Topaz’s hit list, “I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the contestants who were humiliated or laughed at would lose it and strike [the show’s judges] or even Avi Nir [the show’s producer] with a bat to the face. Evil has its price.”
The journalist Rino Tzror went even further. “We look at Topaz,” he wrote in an op-ed, “and we see hell.” He then enumerated a number of ills plaguing contemporary Israeli society, from avarice to violence; Topaz, he concluded, was the embodiment of them all. “We look at Topaz, we say ‘God help us,’ but we see ourselves,” he continued. “We see careerism… the illusions of money, survival, fear of getting old, lack of fulfillment, an ongoing depression. Topaz is not just a fable. He’s our mirror.”