Cable Technology Points Only to the West

by Jonathan Schorsch

    One hears repeatedly about the ways in which Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are ignored in Israel by "the establishment," i.e., the Ashkenazic, western-oriented powers-that-be.  In response, many people overlook or downplay such discrimination or attribute it to the pragmatic necessities of Israel's difficult birth pangs.  But the sad fact is that not only does such discrimination continue to exist, but its source, at least these days, is purely ideological.  Recently, and quite unintentionally, I gained an education in the vicissitudes of Israeli "establishment ideology" when I subscribed to Israel's cable TV provider, Arutzei Zahav.

After the technician came and installed the cable TV capability, I discovered that the radio no longer picked up many of the stations to which I had been able to tune in previously.  These included the "pirate" religious stations, to which I listened as both a fan and an ethnographer.  Yet with cable I could not pull in a single one of these stations.  Needless to say, no one at Arutzei Zahav had mentioned to me that getting cable TV entailed a thorough revamping of my radio reception as well, something that had not even occurred to me.

At first, I thought that Barak's proposed civil reform had gone ahead far faster than I had ever imagined would be possible.  Perhaps, I considered, he has simply shut down all of the "pirate" stations, a kind of throwing down of the gauntlet at the foot of the Haredi political parties.  It was not only the religious stations which eluded my new cable reception, however, but even my favorite Mizrahi stations, such as Kol ha-Mizrach or Radio Kachol ve-Lavan.  I seemed to be able to find only stations broadcasting in Arabic or English.  Frustrated after days of tuning up and down the proverbial dial -- now linear, of course -- to no avail, I took action and called Arutzei Zahav.

It took some time to get the company representative to understand the problem.  She insisted that with cable I would continue to receive all of the stations as before.  With cable, she explained, the stations' signals come in at different numbers on the dial, so perhaps this was the reason for my poor reception.  She told me the new numbers and I tried one of them, Arutz 1.  It worked.  Aha, she proclaimed; see, everything works as it should.  Fine, I acquiesced, but the list of stations whose call numbers she read out to me contained only the big, "official" stations.  What about the local stations, I asked.  What local stations, she wanted to know.  The religious ones or Kol ha-Mizrach, for instance.  Oh, she answered, those are not carried over our system.  But, she offered appeasingly, you can get MTV, the Movie Channel and English and Dutch pop stations.

I suppose I should not have been surprised that Arutzei Zahav, purveyors of western commercial and popular styles, would exclude radio stations whose approach is either too distant from or indeed opposed to the modes and worldview of MTV or the Movie Channel.  The exclusion cannot be of a technical nature.  It could, of course, represent an unwillingness by Arutzei Zahav to cross governmental directives by carrying quasi-illegal stations, though the failure to grant legal status to some of these stations exists because of similar exclusions based on secular and Ashkenazic bias on another level.  Arutzei Zahav is thus actually unwittingly carrying out a kind of Haredi mandate segregating those who interest themselves in "secular" culture from those who interest themselves in "religious" culture.  (And, interestingly enough, Mizrahi "pop" has always been more tolerant of "religious" content than its more commercialized "western" cousins.)

It is ironic, though, that in this age of globalization and world beat music the local Mizrahi variety of commercial junk -- though obviously exceptions of excellent quality can be found -- should be deemed commercially non-viable.  Perhaps this exclusion merely reflects a judgment on the economic potential of Sephardi and Mizrahi households, though surely each station carried by the cable system does not need to be a commercial powerhouse -- how many people, after all, really watch the fashion channel?  (Here one begins to understand the commercial powers determining popular tastes.).  Additionally, the various stations are hardly mutually exclusive.  The de facto result of this kind of cultural censorship is a disturbing reduction of the spectrum of the airwaves in a most clearly biased way: silencing worldviews deemed to be unfashionable, or out of tune with the "real world," or even primitivistic.

As always in "free" societies, this kind of censorship is not exercised by the government, by means of coercion.  It is carried out by the self-appointed guardians of culture, who act in the name of assimilating to the "cutting edge," to "advancement," to the reigning global culture.  Yes, my excuse for subscribing to cable TV was that my children, recently moved with us from the United States, could learn Hebrew from Israeli kids' shows, or could watch great olympic athletes and shows about Vivaldi.  And, I admit, I love watching Spanish TV to keep my Spanish active and watching Jackie Chan -- his older martial arts flicks, that is -- to appreciate the astounding possibilities of human physical prowess executed with grace, humor and brilliant choreography.  But we came to Israel partially in order to escape the dangerous vacuousness of the reigning global culture and its incessant pressures to "upgrade," to stay au courant, to "keep up with the Joneses."

I refuse to dispense with those fonts of more spiritual nurturing: nigunim, divrei Torah, the beautiful sounds created by Jews from Mashad to Marrakesh.  And my refusal is heightened by being told by a major communications monopoly that an entire segment of the palate of human communication is no longer available.  Needless to say, I unplugged the cable and set up again the old-fashioned FM antenna.

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Jonathan Schorsch is an ethnographer and contributing editor to Tikkun magazine.