Published in The Daily Beast
On the surface, Balad’s Press Conference ad is a comic parody intended to ridicule right-wing politicians and the bevy of legislation intended to question Arab citizens’ loyalty to the State of Israel. But the ad leads up to a call to Arab viewers to fight the legislation rather than to leave the political playing field to anti-Arab politicians, and of course, to vote for Balad. Intriguingly, a party considered to be separatist is asking its voters to become more active citizens in Israeli society, to engage with its cultural symbols and political discourse.
Balad, the Nationalist Democratic Alliance, is known for its demand for Israel to become a state of all its citizens and not specifically a Jewish state, and its call for protected minority status for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Twice in the last decade, the party was disqualified by the Central Elections Committee from taking part in the elections, decisions subsequently overturned by Israel’s High Court. Party founder Azmi Bishara fled Israel in 2007 and resigned from the Knesset, after being accused of passing secrets and taking money from enemy states during wartime, charges which he denied. Current Balad Knesset member, Haneen Zouabi, outraged many Israeli Jews by sailing on the Mavi Marmara in the flotilla to Gaza and by later justifying her actions from the Knesset podium as legitimate protest.
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Any ad from Balad, therefore, is going to be subject to scrutiny and varying degrees of hostility from Israeli Jewish viewers. This one opens with a title reading: Press Conference 1, Proposed Law of Loyalty to the Song of Hatikvah, the 18th Knesset. We see montages—with photos of the politicians’ heads attached to cartoon bodies—of Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman behind a Knesset podium, with the Likud’s Dani Danon and Strong Israel’s Aryeh Eldad to his left, and Strong Israel’s Michael Ben Ari and Likud’s Ophir Akunis to his right. Strong Israel is the most extreme right-wing party running in the current election and Danon and Akunis are on the right end of the Likud spectrum.
Lieberman says, “I already tried to pass law which would make receipt of an identity card dependent upon a declaration of loyalty to the song Hatikvah. In the next Knesset I will try to pass this law again.” The actual loyalty laws are not specifically about Hatikvah, but this exaggeration sets up what follows, as Lieberman says, “We have to make this song more appropriate for the Arab population so they can identify with it.”
The bulk of the ad consists of photo animation, starting with Lieberman doing a belly dance, followed by the other politicians joining in various Arab style dances, while the words of Hatikvah are sung in Hebrew with an Arab accent to the tune of a hit Arab song. The way the mouths move makes the figures look like marionettes (Bibi’s perhaps), and at one point all five characters form a single circular five-headed Shiva or 10-armed octopus, a figure both ludicrous and threatening.
The lengthy dance is interrupted by white-on-black titles in the shape of an official stamp which freezes the frame and asks in Arabic, Is it funny? answering immediately, The situation is not funny. The black stamp bleeds like a stain in all directions and the message appears, We have to stand against these laws! We must not leave the arena to them! This is the time for Balad!
Balad leaders knew that their appropriation of Hatikvah would be seen as provocative, particularly given the animus from Jewish politicians routinely directed at their party. I would argue that they were not primarily mocking Hatikvah, but instead mocking the use of Jewish state symbols by right wing politicians to question the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens. They were careful not to change the words, which appear as subtitles in classical Hebrew script.
But the Balad leaders knew that to Jewish ears this could or would sound offensive, or at the least, absurd, although I also know Israeli Jews who find the ad quite entertaining. Imposing an Arab melody on the national anthem is meant to expose the absurdity of demanding Arab loyalty to a Jewish vision for the state, exemplified in the words of Hatikvah, and the expectations that Arab citizens should sing them:
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope—the two-thousand-year-old hope—will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
The use of Hatikvah led this ad to be disqualified from broadcast by the Central Elections Committee because it showed, as Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said, “contempt for the symbols of the state, a Jewish and democratic state, and that’s not acceptable to me.” In determining that the use of Hatikvah was protected by free speech and therefore overturning the decision, Chief Justice of the High Court Asher Grunis ruled that it could not be demonstrated “that the degree of offensiveness to the public as a result of watching [this ad] is beyond the ‘level of appropriate tolerance.’” He also acknowledged that if television broadcast was banned, the ad would still reach a broad public through You-Tube, and in fact already had.
Most striking is that a party often thought to advocate dissociation from state government and institutions, is pressing voters to actively engage in the cultural and political discourse which affects their standing in Israeli society, to take on right wing politicians, rather than give in to apathy or feelings of futility. It also models one means of making a state symbol weighted with Jewish meaning more Arab, an act of cultural appropriation which could be seen as an expression of identification, or as mockery, or both.
A second Balad Press Conference ad, this time with Prime Minister Netanyahu leading the choir, attacks the Nakba Law, which allows the imposition of fines on public institutions which mark Israel’s Independence Day as the Nakba (the Catastrophe), a day of mourning for Palestinians, rather than a day of celebration, or sponsor events which challenge “the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The underlying message of this ad is that Arab involvement in politics is not welcome in Israel.