The reality TV test

The reality TV test

Gabrielle Debinski


Furore erupted throughout the Arab world last week when the Saudi owned MBC TV network referred to “Israel” on a world map it showed on its popular TV program, Arab Idol, rather than using the name “Palestine”. MBC was forced to issue an apology after it identified Israel as the country of origin of two Arab Israeli contestants, Manal Moussa and Haitham Khalailah, both from villages in northern Israel. Almost immediately, fuming viewers took to social media to air their anger with what they referred to as the Saudi-TV network’s “serious offence.”

The two contestants, aged 24 and 25 respectively, are the first Arab Israelis to ever participate in the singing competition, which launched its new season in mid-September. The reality TV show, based on the original British version of Pop Idol, boasts tens of millions of viewers and reportedly, is the most widely watched program across the entire Arab world.

When the program referred to Israel as the home country of the two Arab Israeli women, many throughout the Arab world threatened to boycott the reality TV show unless the Saudi-TV network replaced “Israel” with “Palestine” on the map and issued a public apology.

Moreover, threats on social media went viral with one group launching a Twitter campaign under the hash tag “Shut down Arab Idol” while another group aired its anger under the banner “Palestine is Arab not Hebrew.” A third Twitter campaign was launched under the title “Together Against Arab Idol.” It is interesting to note that the complaints did not mainly come from Palestinians, but from nearly all the Arab countries. Garnering mass support, these campaigns prompted MBC to issue a formal apology in Arabic in which it stated that the inclusion of Israel as a current state on the world map was merely a “technical error.”

Interestingly, however, the station’s managers reportedly said that there were “extreme activists” who threatened the station and its owners, resulting in the name “Israel” being promptly removed from the map, replaced by the term “Palestine.”

But the saga did not end there. Under persistent pressure from viewers, the station removed all mention of Israel from the TV show and the two Arab Israeli singers are now only referred to as Palestinians, ignoring the fact that they live in the Galilee in northern Israel and hold Israeli passports.

Writing for the Gatestone Institute, Arab Israeli journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh, notes that the vast uproar that exploded throughout the Arab world simply because of a world map that included Israel as a genuine state, “is yet another reminder that many Arabs still have not come to terms with Israel’s existence — and apparently are not interested in coming to terms with it.”

He goes on to further state:

“This refusal is not related to the recent war between Israel and Hamas or to settlement construction. Rather, it is the narrative that has been prevalent in the Arab world since 1948 – a narrative that considers Israel an alien entity that was violently planted in the Middle East and needs to be removed…
If a powerful TV network such as MBC was unable to face pressure and intimidation and had to remove Israel from its map, how can anyone seriously expect that Arab leaders will be able to win the backing of their people for an initiative that talks about ‘establishing normal relations’ with Israel?”

Meanwhile, it is interesting to contrast how Israeli reality-TV programs and the general public have embraced Arab contestants. This disparity reveals much about the extent of anti-Israel sentiment that still pervades in the Arab world, even within those states considered more ‘moderate’ and the reality that despite effort widespread efforts to insist the problem there is a “cycle of violence” or “mutual hatred”, this is sentiment is largely not reciprocated in democratic Israel.

For example, in April last year, an equivalent singing competition, the Voice Israel, based on the series which originated in the US, saw 19-year-old Lina Makhoul, an Arab Christian from Acre in Israel’s north, crowned the winner. In order to win the singing competition the contestants needed to gain the most public votes through texting or online support. Makhoul was adored by the Israeli public, coming out on top of 17-year-old runner up, Ofir Ben-Shitrit, who throughout the competition was often compared to Ofra Haza, one of Israel’s much-loved singing icons.

Yet, Makhoul was not the first Arab-Israeli to partake in and win an Israeli reality singing show. In April 2012, a young Arab-Israeli woman, Nissren Kader, won first place on the popular singing show, “Eyal Golani is calling you” – named after and hosted by one of Israel’s most beloved performers. When asked about her success in charming the audience singing only in Hebrew, the 25-year-old from Haifa in Israel’s north, said she was filled with pride to be the first Arab winner on the singing program:

“I never imagined that they [Jews] would like me to the degree that they did. I’m an Arab citizen in a state that has troubles and disagreements between Jews and Arabs, and they saw something else…they saw another side.”

Moreover, there have been hosts of other reality TV shows where Arab-Israeli participants have thrived, been embraced by many Jewish Israelis in the general public and come out as victors. In April of this year, Israeli-Arab woman, Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, won the fourth series of Master Chef, which is the Israeli adaptation of the UK-based cooking competition and the most-watched reality TV show in Israel this year.

The 32-year-old microbiologist and mother of three is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye in Haifa. While in contrast to other reality TV shows the Master Chef title is decided by four judges and not the general public, Atamna-Ismaeel became a household name in Israel and described winning as “the most exciting moment in her life.”  

A long list of similar cases goes back several years. In 2006, for instance, 20-year-old, Niral Karantinji, a Muslim woman from Haifa, participated in and won the second series of the reality TV show ‘Israel’s Next Top Model.’ The reality documentary involves contestants competing for a prestigious modeling contract with a Tel Aviv modeling agency in the hopes of kick-starting a career in the industry. Karantinji was not only the judges’ pick, but she also garnered the most support from the general public, which resulted in her emerging as the winner.

Finally, perhaps the most well know example of the way in which Israel embraces diversity in its reality TV shows, was seen in last year’s season of Israeli Master Chef. The three final contestants were Tom Franz, a German convert who lives in Tel Aviv, Salma Fiyumi, a 27-year-old Arab nurse from Kafr Kassem, and Jackie Azoulay, a 29- year-old Orthodox housewife from Elad in the West Bank. While she finished second behind Tom Franz, it was the young Israeli-Arab woman Fiyumi who captured the hearts of Jewish Israeli viewers. Her close friendship with another Jewish contestant on the show, Elinor Rahamim from the Gush Etzion area in the West Bank, was a highlight of the season and a symbol of inter-ethnic co-existence which is the ideal – and increasingly the reality – for the large majority of Israelis. 

The contrast between the commotion within the Arab world over Israel’s inclusion on the world map on the Arab Idol TV program, with the way that the Arab-Israeli minority have been integrated and embraced on Israeli reality TV shows is yet another examples of the evidence that one-sided bigotry against Israel and Jews still largely prevails in the Arab world, and is still perhaps the most important barrier to a two-state peace. Further, this episode creates some doubt regarding the recently much-discussed willingness of some Arab countries to forge closer ties with Israel in the context of the increased chaos in the Middle East and the war against Islamic State.

Indeed, Khaled Abu-Toameh aptly sums up this point:

“The protesters who forced MBC to remove Israel from its map were not demanding a two-state solution and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They were protesting against Israel’s existence; that is what really bothers them.
Their success in forcing MBC to remove Israel from the map is a symbolic victory for those who seek Israel’s destruction. But it is also a reminder that this conflict is not about a settlement or a checkpoint or a fence — but about Israel’s very existence…
In order to make peace with Israel, the Arab world needs to prepare its people for such a move, and not incite violence against Israel and demand that it be removed from maps. Unless that happens, the prospects for real peace will remain as remote as ever.”