x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israel's Big Brother makes 'reality TV' essential viewing

A reality TV show in Israel, Big Brother, has given average Israelis a rare glimpse of how deeply the continuing occupation is damaging their society.

Reality television is rarely the place for radical political debate, but over the last two months the Israeli version of Big Brother, or HaAh Hagadol as it is known in Hebrew, has brought outspoken views on the country's occupation of Palestinian land to a mainstream audience.

One of the contestants, a young artist called Saar Szekely, has been captivating audiences with his left-wing views on Israeli politics, the sorts of views rarely heard on Israeli television, let alone on a show populated by exhibitionists and wannabe celebrities.

In one conversation between contestants, translated and posted on a Beirut-based blog, Mr Szekely discusses the military occupation with another contestant, Eran Tartakovsky, a former army officer.

"The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] hasn't defended anything in a long time. It's geared mostly towards maintaining military rule," says Mr Szekely.

"In order to defend," responds Mr Tartakovsky.

Mr Szekely asks: "Is 'defending' sending 100 soldiers to guard three kids, who barely have facial hair, on some hill they stole from Palestinians? Is that defending?"

"It's nobody's land," says the ex-soldier dismissively.

"It's Palestinian land," says Mr Szekely.

Inside the house, other contestants speak about the conversation. "The whole country has to hear a Jew speak like that about his people," says one, but she doesn't mean it in a positive way. The other contestants are shocked.

To hear what are mainstream views in much of the rest of the world aired like that on Israeli television is astonishing to viewers. The exoticism of the Big Brother brand has faded somewhat in the West and the Arab world, but the Israeli series, which started only in 2008, is still watched by millions.

And the reaction has been extraordinary, if sadly predictable. On social-networking sites, strangers threaten Mr Szekely with gruesome acts of assault. Facebook pages have been set up to denounce him. Ariel, one of the largest settlement cities in the West Bank, reacted to Mr Szekely's description of Ariel - as "a panhandle that protrudes and divides the Palestinian state in two" - by attacking him publicly and suggesting he should be exiled to Africa.

Such reaction shows how deeply dangerous this counter-narrative is to Israeli society. Israel is today almost completely surrounded by walls and wires, sealing the society in. The mindset is one of siege, seeing threats everywhere and reacting first - to paraphrase US President Barack Obama's inauguration speech - with a clenched fist rather than an outstretched hand.

This mentality has filtered down to the people. Increasingly, individual Israelis avoid discussion of the occupation or any criticism of the army's tactics.

On Big Brother, Mr Szekely told his fellow housemates about Bassem Abu Rahma, a Palestinian man killed in 2009 during one of the weekly protests outside the village of Bil'in.

"He stood there shouting - 'There's a woman here who's hurt; you've injured an Israeli woman' - and was shot by a gas canister, aimed directly at his chest, and was killed."

Mr Tartakovsky looks genuinely interested in the story, as if hearing it for the first time, but another contestant explodes, shouting: "How can you hang out with people like that and have them call your friends murderers?" and storms off.

This is the real damage the occupation has inflicted on Israeli society, shutting down reasonable discussion. The way that contestants deal with such discussion parallels society: not by refuting the arguments, but instead attacking the person, ostracising, refusing to listen, or arguing such views are dangerous and should not be aired. For Israelis who are far removed from the true costs of the occupation in lives and liberty, this is the real damage of the occupation.

What Mr Szekely's arguments do is open up daylight between ordinary Israelis and their leadership.

For Israel's government, and particularly for the Netanyahu administration, security forms the centre of policy. The Israeli state - not the people, the official state - is becoming increasingly intolerant of criticism. This week, it slapped a ban on one of Germany's most celebrated writers, Günter Grass, for a poem he had written criticising Israel's nuclear policies.

Yet the structure of the occupation runs through everything - it informs daily life, the country's compulsory military service, its relationships with neighbouring countries, and Israel's standing in the outside world. When Israelis go abroad and find people disgusted by the occupation, they are surprised at such focus on what is, to them, a mere fragment. But for the rest of the world, it is the whole.

"You should wake up and realise that the only way to save this country is to remove it from this conflict," says Mr Szekely at one point. "To stop coveting more and more land, more and more power, and to realise that real power means stopping the fighting, not prolonging it indefinitely."

When Big Brother ended last week, Mr Szekely did not win. Given the atmosphere in Israel today, that was to be expected. But his mere presence on the show exposed ordinary Israelis to ideas they rarely hear and offered a glimpse of how deeply the continuing occupation is damaging Israeli society.



Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai