If Israel’s reaction to last night’s Academy Awards ceremony teaches us anything, it’s that political parties like Habayit Hayehudi and the Likud desperately need to take PR lessons from someone like David Siegel, Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles. When “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers”—both of which are highly critical of Israel—failed to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, Israeli politicians took to social media to celebrate the loss. But this only made them seem threatened by, and scared of, the two acclaimed docs. It also undermined the efforts of the Israeli Consul General, who had attempted to put a positive spin on the critical films by claiming that they’re a testament to freedom of expression in Israel.
Consider, for example, these four reactions from Habayit Hayehudi politicians. Naftali Bennett, the party’s leader, wrote on his Facebook page: "The Israeli film, the anti-Israel 5 Broken Cameras did not win the Oscar. I did not shed a tear." MK Uri Orbach likewise got sarcastic on Facebook: "Make a face like you're disappointed that the two documentary films that 'represent Israel' didn't win the Oscar for Best Documentary. Oy, so unfortunate." Meanwhile, MK Motti Yogev claimed that “5 Broken Cameras” should be boycotted because it "slanders Israel in a tendentious way and we should not cooperate with them." And Bennett’s right-hand woman, MK Ayelet Shaked, expressed support for a group of military reservists who are threatening to sue the creators of “5 Broken Cameras” for libel.
The Likud party reacted in a similar vein, with MK Tzipi Hotovely mocking “5 Broken Cameras” on Facebook. “We found Guy Davidi's reaction to [his film] not winning the Oscar," she wrote, alongside a photo that looks like it was taken through a broken camera lens. Over on Twitter, Judy Mozes Nir Shalom, wife of Likud Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, stated that it was "great to wake up and read that the members of the Academy share my opinion. I hope those who were responsible for budgetary aid, which came from taxpayers' money, for films that want to bury us will pay with their jobs."
Shalom’s tweet refers to the fact that “5 Broken Cameras” was funded in part by the Israeli government. As she may or may not know, this is not the first time that government has used “taxpayers’ money” to finance a film that is critical of Israel; Yariv Mozer’s “Invisible Men,” which equates Israel’s policy of deporting gay Palestinians to the Occupied Territories with “sending them to certain death,” is another recent example.
But unlike Shalom, Israeli Consul General Siegel claimed, in reference to “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” that Israel’s policy of supporting “films that want to bury us” is actually something to celebrate, since it shows that diversity of opinion and freedom of expression are alive and well in Israel. “We can be proud of the open democratic political discourse we have in Israel,” Siegel told the Forward.
Siegel’s diplomatic strategy, which took films that aimed to criticize Israel and used them to burnish Israel’s democratic credentials, was far shrewder than the reactions emanating from Habayit Hayehudi and the Likud. Perhaps because they anticipated such a move, the creators of “5 Broken Cameras,” Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, told the press early on that they would refuse any attempt by the Israeli government to embrace their film’s success. But the filmmakers, it seems, needn’t have worried too much: Israel’s right-wing government leaders undercut Siegel’s attempt to do just that all on their own.
None of this was lost on MK Nitzan Horowitz of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, who stated, "The satisfaction that the MKs from Habayit Hayehudi and Likud draw from the fact that the films didn't win is disgusting. Instead of being happy that an Israeli film is internationally recognized and promotes culture in Israel, they are busy trying to minimize public discourse and shut mouths." Far from buying Siegel’s claim that the docs prove Israel supports diversity of opinion, Horowitz thought the politicians’ reactions gave rise to the exact opposite takeaway: "The government that apparently will be formed will not be better than its predecessor in everything connected to preserving Israel's democratic nature and will continue fighting against freedom of speech instead of for it."
So next time U.S.-based Israeli Consul Generals want to put a good face on Oscar-nominated films that are critical of Israel, they’d do well to check in with the handlers of the politicians back home. Diplomats may know how to craft a clever PR spin palatable to American audiences, but Israel’s right-wing politicians sure don’t.