Culture wars emerge around Israeli Big Brother TV show

From Internet chat rooms to household dinner tables, the Israeli version of the reality TV show “Big Brother” has all but taken over the country’s national discourse.

With its mansion in the hills of Jerusalem stacked with Israelis representing every token stereotype in the country, the show sparked a 21st-century cultural showdown between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.

The show, which originated in the Netherlands and now has dozens of international knock-offs, features contestants who live in seclusion together in a house wired with television cameras that never turn off, while each week one of them is voted off.

The program enjoyed the highest ratings of any TV program in Israel over the last decade, culminating in the final episode, Dec. 16, when millions of viewers sent text messages with their votes for the winner.

At the focus of the frenzy was a foul-mouthed, middle-aged building contractor named Yossi Boublil and his daughter and sidekick, Einav. Of Moroccan background, the two were the Sephardic stars of the show. The father came to symbolize the anti-hero stereotypical Sephardi: an aggressive, macho man of the people. Even his own revelation that he once tried to aggressively lure a girlfriend into group sex did nothing to dampen his popularity.

There has been much hand-wringing in Israel lately over the “Boublilification” of Israeli society. Critics complain that the show is dragging the nation’s culture into the sewer and distracting the country from real issues of importance.

One somber poster on Tel Aviv notice boards admonishes Israelis to think a little more about Gilad Shalit, the captive Israeli soldier thought to be in the Gaza Strip, and a little less about Boublil. “That’s the real reality,” the poster says.

Israeli television, which until 1993 consisted of just one state-run channel, once was the purview of more serious-minded programming, heavy on social documentary programs and BBC dramas. Now, with cable and multiple regular channels, it has all the clutter that can be found elsewhere around the world.

The success of the show has been attributed to producers’ ability to handpick contestants who represented a microcosm of Israel.

The winner ended up being Boublil’s main rival, Shifra Cornfeld, a 27-year-old El Al flight attendant who received 1.7 million votes. The artsy daughter of a rabbi, Cornfeld abandoned her ultra-Orthodox upbringing to become secular, and she represented to many the stereotype of the Ashkenazi elite, living in Tel Aviv in a bubble of left-wing politics and liberalism, detached from the rest of Israel.

Other contestants included a religiously observant man, a gay man who came from a Russian immigrant background and an attractive Arab Israeli aspiring actress.

Produced by the Israeli production house Keshet, the show came down to a battle between the Boublils and their three Ashkenazi rivals. Einav Boublil nicknamed them “the Friedmans” — a term that quickly caught on nationwide as slang for Ashkenazis.

“Here comes this Archie Bunker-like figure who is crude and homophobic, and we love him because he shocks us with his stupidity,” said Omri Marcus, a developer of reality TV content for the Israel production house Reshet. “But as time passes, the joke is on us because the person becomes bigger than the program itself.”

Marcus added that reality TV is a venue for more honest depictions of who people are, and can bring to light the cultural issues that aren’t often mentioned aloud in Israeli society.

“In ‘Big Brother,’ the show developed a new take on the culture war — not the type we have been seeing here since the 1950s and 1960s, but a different type of clash,” he said.

Joshua Sobol, a leading Israeli playwright, is critical of the “Big Brother” phenomenon, saying that it is part of a larger trend toward mindless cultural programming in Israel.

“It injects into the culture a habit of viewers staring mindlessly without thinking, and people get addicted to entertainment without imagination, thinking or feeling,” Sobol said. “It’s making people into a nation of sheep.”

But “HaAch HaGadol,” as the show is called in Israel (a direct translation of “Big Brother”), has plenty of fans. Among them is Moran Haim, a 25-year-old manicurist from Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb. She says the show’s focus on Ashkenazi-Sephardic tensions reflect the real Israel.

“It’s the main issue in this country, not Palestinians versus Israelis,” she said. “Again and again, it comes back to the pain that comes from being from the country’s periphery.”

For Haim, whose father is of Yemenite origin and whose mother comes from a Polish family, the show also felt very familiar.

“My father is a Boublil and my mother is a Friedman,” she said. “I’m the balance in the middle.”