When its fourth season debuted on Israeli television last Sunday, drawing an unprecedented 45 percent ratings share, Big Brother (Ha-Ah Ha-Gadol) cemented its ascent into something much larger than a mere reality show. Focused on a small group of radically diverse people crammed into a tiny space and forced to iron out their differences, Big Brother is so successful in Israel because it is Israel: anyone watching at home knows just what it’s like to share a little swathe of land with people whose opinions and behaviors you find deeply maddening yet towards whom you feel an inexplicable streak of tenderness and shared destiny.
Capitalizing on this affinity between reality show and national psyche, Big Brother’s producers do their best to highlight the conflicts that make up Israeli society. Previous seasons have focused around tensions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, the rich and the poor, the religious and the secular. But in a nod to the increasingly jagged nature of Israeli civic life, the theme du jour is politics.
On one end of the divide is Eran Trtakovsky (second row, third on the right), a striking-looking long-time veteran of the IDF’s intelligence corps. In the show’s introductory video, he did his best James Bond impersonation before dropping the smooth façade and stating that he hated Arabs as much as he hated cancer, seeing both as a malignant force certain to kill him.
In the left corner, equally as attractive, is Saar Szekely (third row, on the left). Wearing a wristband emblazoned with the Palestinian flag, he claimed he agreed to be on the show only in order to call attention to the topics that really matter, like the plight of Palestinian prisoners.
Even before these two had a chance to lock horns, enraged viewers began a campaign to eject Szekely from the Big Brother villa, asserting that his criticism of Israel as an apartheid state made him unfit for participation in the unofficial national reality show. In the meantime, millions of Israelis tune in to watch what is essentially a prime time political argument. After are, there are far worse things to watch on TV.