On Tuesday night, exactly three weeks before the January 22nd Knesset elections, hundreds of thousands of Israeli households tuned in as three local stations began broadcasting campaign commercials. Long a staple of elections here, the system has its quirks: the ads run in 40-minute blocks, with the various parties allotted air time in accordance with their relative power in the outgoing Knesset (allowing for Kadima, the party that garnered the most seats in the previous election but is currently on the brink of disappearance, to make a strong showing). While some of the ads had been shared on Israeli social media over the past few weeks, the more noteworthy—-and controversial-—spots were new, and might just be the angriest and most hateful campaign ads to have ever been broadcast in this country.
Israeli campaigns have never been known for their nuance, sponsoring ads that often feature racial references with various degrees of subtlety. Four years ago, Avigdor Lieberman’s campaign scolded Arab MKs for not being loyal to Israel, intoning that “Only Lieberman Understands Arabic” and promising “No Citizenship without Loyalty”. Now, with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu mellowed slightly by its merger with Likud, it was Otzma LeYisrael’s (“Strength to Israel”) turn to shine. After a bus campaign that purported to teach Arab-Israelis “new words” that they were unfamiliar with-–taxes, building and traffic regulations, and of course, loyalty–-the neo-Kahanist party unveiled their new advertisement this week:
The ad begins with a series of questions and answers that flash across the screen: “How high are the property taxes you pay? In [the Arab town of] Sakhnin, not everyone knows what those are. And how about income tax? In East Jerusalem, there are those who don’t obey the law.” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who heads the Central Election Committee, determined that the rhetoric was racist, ordering the television stations to instead have screens go black for that portion of the commercial. He allowed for the rest of the ad to run.
After the party’s jingle plays (“Security, resolve, loyalty, pride”), its leaders, MKs Michael Ben-Ari (Meir Kahane’s disciple) and Aryeh Eldad, appear on screen, sharing a cup of Arabic coffee while lecturing–in Arabic, with Hebrew subtitles–on the tenets of good citizenship. “Jews and Arabs are equal in our democracy,” they concede, “but there are no rights without duties: we must all pay taxes, obey the law and be loyal to Israel, the Jewish state.”
Balad, the Arab party that advocates transforming Israel from a Jewish state to “a democracy for all its citizens,” attempted to counter the ad with their own commercial mocking Otzma LeYisrael and Lieberman’s demands for loyalty. In theirs, a cartoon Lieberman sings Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, set to a new tune, which he explains will be easier for Arabs to identify with. The upbeat melody is in stark contrast with the song’s famous, somber lyrics, describing a Jewish soul yearning for Zion. Rubinstein censored the ad entirely, citing the mockery it made of the country’s anthem.
But the videos don’t just highlight animosity between Jews and Arabs. Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, the Orthodox-Sephardic party, came under fire just weeks ago for releasing the so-called “ethnic demon” between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. He accused Likud-Beiteinu of representing only “whites and Russians,” alleging that the party discriminates against Sephardic Jews. Even though Deri was quick to apologize, Shas returned to that same message on Tuesday night, airing an ad that featured a soon-to-be-wed couple under the chuppah:
The bride, Marina, a ridiculous Russian caricature speaking in broken Hebrew, proudly displays a wedding gift from [Lieberman’s Yisrael] “Beiteinu”: a fax machine. She then dials *-C-O-N-V-E-R-S-I-O-N and promptly receives a faxed certificate documenting her successful conversion to Judaism. “You aren’t Jewish?” asked the shocked groom. “I am now!” replied the bride. The insinuation was clear enough: Lieberman’s attempts to ease the conversion process will result in an influx of Russian shiksas into Israeli society. The ad caused an uproar, and Shas agreed to take it off the air after the second night of commercials. Not because of how offensive it was to Russian Israelis, however, who constitute a large portion of the Israeli population, but because a woman in the video was wearing a short skirt that ran contrary to religious modesty rules.
If these parties share one thing, it’s how they cater to very specific demographics. That they all believe the only way to appeal to their demographic is to hatefully attack other groups, often with a clear racial or ethnic undercurrent, speaks volumes about the nearly nonexistent level of solidarity in Israeli society in 2013.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.