HaYehudim Bayim and the Future of Israeli Free Speech

The time is 1300 BC and Moses has descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments that will become the basis of Jewish law. On the barren beige backdrop of the desert, the wandering and weary Jews gather around Moses to hear the divine decree he has received from God himself. Moses lists the commandments with a slight stutter as he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Out of the crowd appears a disheveled, tall, bearded man, his unkempt hair coming down to his shoulders. His head bent in humility, his nervousness is palpable, yet it does not stop him in his quest for clarity.

“Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” he says, looking at Moses, “Does that mean we’re not allowed to even think about her?”

“Correct,” replies Moses.

“Even if she’s really hot?”

“Yes, even if she is really hot!”

“What if I tell myself all the time, ‘Don’t think about her, don’t think about her.’ Does that count as thinking about her?”

“I’m not sure; I’ll check that for you.”

“Ok, but really check because I don’t want to fall on some technicality!”

This is part of a skit from the Kan broadcaster’s sketch show HaYehudim Baim or “The Jews are Coming.” The show, which is well-known in Israel, made international news on August 17 when 1,500 Orthodox and Haredi demonstrators gathered in protest at the Kan public broadcaster’s offices in Jerusalem. Although the show has made fun of many dark points in Jewish history, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, the protestors gathered over its depiction of biblical and religious figures.

“The religious are much more sensitive,” Ido Mosseri, one of the main actors of the show, told the Times of Israel, “We even had to cut a few sketches this season because we felt it may have become too offensive to the religious community after the protests. It grew to the point where our actors were harassed 24/7 on the phones and threatened physically.”

The Jews are Coming does not shy away from making fun of religious figures. From its depiction of Joseph as a flamboyant nudnik who annoys everyone around him with his dreams to their depiction of King Solomon’s emo teenager years, the show pulls no punches. And this is what has caused so many people to take offense. Yet many Israelis believe that the Torah is fair play.

In this way, the show is tapping into a traditional aspect of Jewish humor: a willingness, if not enthusiasm to slay sacred cows. But professors specializing in Jewish comedy and history like Jeremy Dauber, the director for the Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia argue that comedy was often a tool to deal with or avoid persecution. Since Jews in Israel are no longer a persecuted minority, will they lose their sense of humor? And as self-deprecating humor is generally more part of Ashkenazi culture will the 51 percent of non-Ashkenazi Jews connect with it? As the demographics change and Jewish society grows more polarized religiously, the former acceptance of laughing at ourselves and our religion will face more intense scrutiny.

“On the one hand, I get it; nobody likes to be laughed at,” says Guy Wertheimer, an Israeli shoe designer from Northern Israel who describes himself as “ninety percent secular, ten percent traditional,” “But they are doing it in fair game. Everyone gets it. They don’t have any problem slaying sacred cows.”

Mosseri describes himself similarly to Wertheimer, a secular Jew who loves the traditions and believes in some sort of higher power. He says the purpose of the show isn’t to offend but to make people laugh and think.

“Humor is the best weapon to find yourself, especially self-depreciating humor,” says Mosseri. “It’s important for a person and a nation to be able to laugh at themselves as it makes them aware, which leads to growth. So that’s the intention of the show – personal and national awareness.”

Besides being a comedic show, The Jews are Coming can feel like a legitimate critique on Israeli history, they address some of the ugliest parts of Zionism like the kidnapping of Yemenite babies from 1948-1954 by the government, the 1956 Kfar Qasim massacre of Arab civilians by Israeli Police and the racist treatment of Mizrahim during their arrival to Israel.

“We have a lot of skits showing how the strong took advantage of the weak,” says Mosseri, “And it happened here among Sephardim and Ashkenazim and it continues to this day. The writers thoroughly research these stories in history and bring them to light through comedy. So there is a political aspect to some of these skits, although we try not to overjudge the characters.”

To patriotic Israelis like Guy Wertheimer, this is also fair play.

“I am a proud Israeli and Zionist, but our history has had its ugly parts as well and I like the fact that The Jews are Coming does not try to stuff that under the rug. History is never pure, and I think humor can help the healing process. Also, tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the words of the first Israeli comedy group, HaGashash HaKhiver, ‘the world is funny, so you laugh.’”

Some see the controversy of The Jews are Coming as an illustration of a growing rift in Israeli society between the secular and the religious. This divide goes back to the beginnings of the country. While most of the founders of the country were adamant atheists and wanted Israel to remain a secular state, they sought to sponsor religion in a hope to preserve the culture. This is what led to Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s famous deal with the then-miniscule Haredi population, allowing them an exemption from military service to study Talmud in hopes that they would keep the Jewish culture alive. At the time, the Haredi population constituted only one percent of Israel’s Jewish population, but today, they account for almost ten percent. This growth has turned their military exemption and special status into a contentious issue among Israelis today and even more so during the COVID-19 epidemic.

“We’ve suffered a lot because of the ultraorthodox [during the pandemic]. They completely ignored social distancing and they are very communal, so they were the main reason for the lockdowns,” says Maksim Mikulsky, a secular Jewish immigrant from Russia and student at the College of Sound, Engineering and Production in Tel Aviv, “yet when the hospitals ran out of doctors and nurses because many were sick, it was mainly the ultraorthodox and religious with immunity that stepped up and volunteered as health workers on the front lines of this crisis.”

There is an old saying, ‘two Jews, thirty opinions,’ and while it is easy for statistical purposes to break Jews up into these four groups, the case is often more a spectrum, where uniform groups only exist in ultraorthodox sects. A 2014 Pew Research poll showed that of the seven million Jews living in Israel, 40 percent identified as secular, 23 percent as traditional, 10 percent as religious and 8 percent as Haredi.

“I don’t see there being four types of Judaism, it’s not that black and white,” says Wertheimer. “My problem is in “government-authorized” Judaism and the religious leaders. The problem is they [religious leaders] don’t have thick skin compared to the rest of Israel and whenever their leaders see something they think threatens their beliefs, they become very aggressive.”

According to Mosseri, the protests against the show were started by these leaders, “there were one or two rabbis who started the whole mess.  And there are rumors that one of the rabbi’s had his own political interests in attacking the show to gain approval from another rabbi. The reality in Israel has turned into people always doing things in their own interests, especially in religion. It’s a sad mirror for Israeli society. People become more and more divided. I just wish the people would develop their own individual conscious, but that may be a naïve hope. They should not be too dependent on rabbis. It’s a good thing to have your own rabbi. I have my own. But there is no need for fanaticism.”

Besides the deal between Ben Gurion and the Haredim, there were other historical factors that led to today’s divide between the religious and non-religious. During the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab lands between the 1940’s to the 1970’s, a fledgling Israel took in more than 850,000 Jewish refugees – about 50,000 more than the total Israeli population in 1948. These refugees, having lived in lands where Judaism was historically more accepted and a relative peace existed between themselves and the local Muslim populations were much more religious, or at the very least traditional.

“I believe in God and observe all the holidays. I try to keep mitzvot and Shabbat, but it does not always work out,” says David Mizrahi, a religious Jew of mixed Moroccan and Iraqi descent, he asked me to use an alias over privacy concerns, “I have seen some clips of the show, but I hate how they make fun of our prophets, rabbis and other important people to the Jewish religion, so I don’t watch it anymore. The show bothers me, I see it as blasphemy even, but we have free speech in this country. So they can play their show and if it bothers people enough they can protest.”

From the other side of the “religious divide” came the mass immigration of Soviet Jews from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. Many of the Jews that arrived were either of mixed heritage or were not allowed to practice their Judaism freely and were disconnected with their religious and cultural roots.

“It was a huge change coming from Russia,” say Mikulsky, “Those who made Aliyah and continue to arrive came from a strict Soviet-style educational system, but many did not have a Jewish education. Some know about Judaism, but many do not. They don’t have any problems with religion or those who practice it, but they do have problems when it becomes political. We don’t want to see special rights being given to the religious or to live in a theocracy.”

The earlier Pew poll showed that a large majority of the Haredi and religious population believe that the country should be governed by Halakha or religious law. It also showed that around 23 percent of traditional Jews were also in favor of Halakha governing the country. Mizrachi is one of the religious Jews who disagrees.

“I try to live my life by Halakha, but I do not think it should not be forced on everyone,” says Mizrachi, “maybe there could be a separate system that people could choose from, but I’m not so sure how that would work.”

Religious figures are not the only sensitive topics addressed by The Jews are Coming. The show also has sketches referring to periods of Jewish persecution like the Holocaust, the Inquisition and pogroms, as well as Israel’s many wars.

“I see myself as Israeli and very patriotic and Israel gets it too,” says Wertheimer, “My grandfather helped build the country and they laugh at them. I, like many Israelis, know people who died in the wars or have PTSD because of them, and they make fun of that as well. But they are hilarious and do it with a sense of tact.”

The state of humor in Israel represents the issue of free speech. Despite the attempts by some to silence The Jews are Coming, most episodes they post on YouTube receive more than 500,000 views, which is a lot in a country of slightly under 9 million people. In response to the protest, Kan broadcasting issued a statement insisting on their right to the freedom of expression and creativity as well as the protestors right to protest. Yet because of the protests, The Jews are Coming self-censored themselves out of fear of religious outrage.

It begs the question, if the religious community keeps growing at an exponential rate and gain more political and economic power, while supporters of social liberty stand by or are harassed into submission, will this freedom last?

About the Author
Joseph Ari Epstein is a former journalist based out of Tbilisi who has covered the war in Ukraine, protests in Armenia and the refugee crisis in Greece for publications such as Foreign Policy, VICE and the Daily Beast. He served as a lone solider in Magav from 2017-2019. He is currently employed as an analyst at Maisha Group, an Israeli intelligence company devoted to fighting poaching in Africa.
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