Eurovision, the old continent’s campy singing competition, was particularly rowdy this year. Gracing the stage last Saturday was an Italian in a bloody gorilla suit, an angry Azerbaijani horse-demon crooning from atop a ladder, and a bare-assed Ukrainian prankster trying to nuzzle up to one of the performers. None of them made headlines; Israel did.
When the broadcast, watched by hundreds of millions of fans around the world, turned to Jerusalem—in true European Union fashion, the contest is a tangled bureaucratic mess decided by tallying up the votes of judges appointed by each competing nation according to byzantine protocols—it was met not with the usual inane bonhomie but by a stricken-looking emcee.
“This is IBA Channel One calling from Jerusalem,” said the man, radio announcer Ofer Nachshon. “For the past 44 years, Israel has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest, winning three times. But tonight is our final night. Tonight IBA will shut down our broadcasting forever. So, on behalf IBA, let me say thank you, Europe, for all the magical moments and beautiful years, and hopefully, we shall meet again in the future.”
Immediately, the news spread from Ghent to Aix and beyond: The Jewish State would sing no more. Newspapers across the continent eulogized the Eurovision’s dearly departed, and fans took to social media to speculate what happened to push Israel into stepping away from the world’s most sizzling songfest. Was it a political protest? Budgetary meltdown? A sudden dearth of nonsensical syllables to patch together in a catchy chorus?
It was none of the above because Israel is not quitting the contest. It is merely going to air it elsewhere, because the IBA, or Israel Broadcasting Authority, the government-run TV station that carried the contest for nearly five decades now, is shutting down.
In a way, this conflation of state and station is revealing, because from its very first broadcast, on May 2, 1968, and until its very last, on May 14th of this year, the IBA saw itself—and made sure others saw it, too—as the indisputable voice of the nation. Its demise, which is the result of complicated political and economic processes that even most Israelis find too exasperating to follow, is a good opportunity to reflect on the many ways in which Israel has changed over the years, and on the few ways in which it has remained remarkably the same.
While the Jewish community in Palestine enjoyed radio broadcasts since 1936, courtesy of the British Mandate, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 put all broadcast transmissions under the thumb of the newly appointed government, headed by David Ben-Gurion. And Ben-Gurion, a Polish-born socialist with an authoritarian streak, did not particularly trust the newfangled medium. When one of his ministers proposed that the young state strengthen its commitment to democracy by issuing permits for additional radio stations to supplant the single, state-run one, Ben-Gurion interrupted him impatiently. The proposal, he thundered, “runs the risk of introducing chaos and tumult to our state” and would cause “a sick, tragic-comic split” among the people. Lest that happen, the Old Man made sure that Israel’s solitary station never forgot what it was that it had to do. He appointed his two senior aides, Yitzhak Navon—who would later become Israel’s fifth president—and Teddy Kollek—who would serve as Jerusalem’s long-term mayor—to oversee the state-run radio. Members of the political opposition were routinely denied air time, and Kollek and Navon would regularly send missives to editors and announcers, instructing them what to say and what—and whom—never to mention. When these poor creative souls tried, in 1962, to freshen up the format and air a more modern-sounding news program, Ben-Gurion called and demanded they scrap their plans and go back to the Soviet style of reading the official news. Ben-Gurion was not one for change.
Which, naturally, meant that setting up a TV station was out of the question. The small screen occupied a particularly feverish place in Ben-Gurion’s imagination; he saw it as an unmitigated evil. Visiting his daughter at Oxford in 1958, he noted with horror that his grandchildren seemed preoccupied with the images flickering in front of them. “I wanted to see what they were watching, and I was outraged,” he later told an Israeli newspaper. “In walked gangsters with guns, shooting at each other.” Television, Ben-Gurion added, corrupted the mind and the soul. “It may not turn children into murderers,” he mused, “but it certainly gives them no education.”
Whenever some progressive thinker in his orbit proposed that Israel join the ranks of modern nations and start its own broadcasting service, Ben-Gurion vetoed the idea without further discussion. He mocked Kollek, who was a TV enthusiast, by giving him the nickname “Television Teddy.” And in 1952, when David Sarnoff, the American radio and TV pioneer and the head of RCA, tried to sell him on television’s transformative power, Ben-Gurion replied drily that what Israelis needed was a unifying experience, not pretty pictures. And to keep a country unified, the Old Man believed, you had to tightly control its media.
With Ben-Gurion’s retirement in 1963, the road was paved to welcome in the new medium, but the Boss’s spirit still prevailed. When broadcasts finally began, Israeli TV—charmingly named “The First Channel,” as if there were any others—became known as “the bonfire of the tribe.” It was still tightly controlled from above, but not as heavy-handedly as broadcasting had been under Ben-Gurion. It was enough, Israeli officialdom now realized, to appoint the right people to the right positions, and the rest will take care of itself. The new lords of the screen looked and sounded like the establishment embodied. They were almost exclusively male, and they overwhelmingly supported the dominant Labor Party. There were hardly any Mizrachi Jews among them, to say nothing of religious Israelis. They spoke proper, beautiful Hebrew, and they had no patience for anyone whose background was different: In 1975, for example, Yaron London, one of the channel’s rising stars, interviewed the Tunisian-born singer Nessim Saroussi, mocking him so mercilessly that Saroussi, deeply offended, left Israel and emigrated to France.
The channel’s dominance, however, went beyond mere programming. Determined to keep the powerful medium from turning, in one politician’s unimprovable words, into a platform for “hookahs and belly dancers,” the government was determined to see to it that the values of socialism were reflected in every image the people saw. And because in the late 1970s color TVs were still relatively new and expensive in Israel, the cabinet, concerned that some Israelis might enjoy beautiful color broadcasts while their poorer neighbors made do with black and white, ordered the IBA to erase the color burst from the original TV signal, which meant that even shows shot in color would be broadcast exclusively in shades of gray. Incensed by this dystopian drivel, Israelis, who made up a startup nation even then, invented a now-legendary device called the anti-mechikon, or the anti-eraser, that returned the pictures to their original hues. The government grumbled and resumed its attempts at control.
For years, this routine continued, more or less uninterrupted. In 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud shocked Israelis by ending decades of Labor’s exclusive reign, Haim Yavin, the stentorian anchor of the evening news, announced that the results were a mahapach, a word close in etymology to mahapecha, Hebrew for revolution. And with the end of the single-party era came the beginning of the end of the single-channel era as well: By the mid-1980s, legislators had begun preparing the ground for a second commercial channel. It began broadcasting in full in 1993. Its programming would’ve made Ben-Gurion and company gag: One early talk show on the new channel broke all ratings records by pulling populist stunts like having a senior minister shimmy on stage with a belly dancer, the old Laborite nightmare embodied. By the end of the decade, Israelis had a plethora of choices in news and entertainment. And when that happened, 5 percent of them, more or less, could be bothered to tune in to the IBA on any given evening.
The decision to shut the channel down, then, has left some, mainly current and former employees, feeling nostalgic, but most Israelis barely suppressed a yawn. A few critics argued that by shutting down the station, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was simply taking a page out of the old Ben-Gurion playbook and curbing the press, but that criticism failed to resonate in a densely populated, highly competitive, and thoroughly free media landscape.
The IBA, even Netanyahu agrees, deserved a more dignified farewell than the sudden announcement that led to its shuttering almost overnight. But there’s little about it or the country it represents that we ought to miss. Liberty, in the marketplace of ideas and of commodities alike, has thrust Israel to unprecedented heights, propelling it to prosperity and innovation. And who knows? One of these days it may even win another Eurovision contest.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.