Open Zion

04.03.13

Reality TV: The Way To Israeli Consensus?

A talented 19-year-old singer named Lina Makhoul is the winner of this season's The Voice Israel.

Makhoul, who comes from an Arab Christian family living in Acre in the north of Israel, won the final singing showdown against Ofir Ben-Shitrit, a 17-year-old. And it wasn't an easy battle. The Voice made Ben-Shitrit out to be the new Ofra Haza, one of Israel's best and most beloved singers of all time. But the artificial connection the show tried to create between the young teenager and the great singer just wasn't enough to win.

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In order to win the show, a contestant needs public support in the form of texting and online voting. Could it be that the Arab minority in Israel watched this mainstream Hebrew show on Channel 2 prime time television and turned out to vote for Makhoul? Could it be that many Jews voted for Makhoul? In either scenario, this bodes well for the involvement of the Arab minority in Israeli culture and for acceptance of the minority by the Jewish majority.

Makhoul is not the first Arab-Israeli to participate in and win a reality TV show in Israel. A model named Nirel Karantigi won the reality show Hadugmaniot (The Models). Firas Churi won the reality show Project Y. And there were several Arab contestants on other shows like Kochav Nolad (the Israeli version of American Idol) and Master Chef, including Salma Fiumi, Miriam Tukan and Futna Jaber.

Israel is flooded with reality shows, and Arabs, who represent 22 percent of Israel’s population, are underrepresented as contestants. Still, some is better than none. Moreover, it’s encouraging that a comedy series like Said Kashua’s Avoda Aravit, which is half in Arabic and half in Hebrew, was also aired on Channel 2 prime time and enjoyed great success and acceptance from the general public and critics.

The increasing appearance of Arabs on prime time TV—which, for many Jews in Israel, constitutes the only sense in which an Arab has ever entered their living room—might well be a way for the Arab minority to enter into the Israeli mainstream more broadly.

The influence of “name recognition” and the power of being a celebrity work in Israel. We witnessed this in the latest general elections, when a TV journalist, Yair Lapid, was able to win 19 sits in the Knesset and become the Minister of Finance. But it wasn’t just Lapid. In the Labor party primaries, the list of winning candidates consisted of “celebrities” or people with major name recognition like Merav Michaeli (journalist), Stav Shafir (known social activist), Nachman Shai (known MK who defected from another party), Itzik Shmuli (known student rep), Miky Rosenthal (famous journalist) and others. Popular culture and name recognition work.

We may not get an Arab prime minister in Israel anytime soon, but this might be the start of a process similar to the one America went through over the past 20 years. There can be no doubt that the increased visibility of African-American actors on the big screen and on TV—such as Denzel Washington or Dennis Haysbert as President Palmer on the hit TV show 24—as well as musicians, journalists and others in high-profile positions, helped prepare the ground for the success of President Barack Obama in 2008.

These days, as popular culture wields a huge influence over people's perception, Israel isn't far behind. And when younger generations are by default more open to new ideas and practices, we can hope that Lina Makhoul will be our President Palmer on the way to complete integration.