They say the only predictable thing in the Middle East is that the region is ridiculously unpredictable. In a reality of increasing violent events, a deteriorating feeling of community, a declining economy and no solutions around, you would expect the Israeli electorate to support serious people with deep, elaborate, fully-baked answers. In fact what is happening in recent months is a complete takeover of the Israeli elections by none other than comedy. I'm not talking about funny TV shows making fun of politicians -- I'm talking about the politicians themselves putting on wigs and doing sketches. After all -- in Israeli elections -- no matter who gets elected -- the joke is on us.
Last month in Jerusalem, a first-of-its-kind conference took place: Comedy for a Change, was a revolutionary gathering that focused on the power of comedy to drive social change. At the opening presentation of the two-day event, Nadav Eyal, Chief Editor of International News at Israel's Channel 10, gave an overview of the use of comedy in the international political landscape. From Reagan to Obama, comedy was and will be used as a weapon to neutralize the opponent's arguments and to ridicule the rival's image. It can also be an effective way to explain a complex reality in a way that will make sense -- a rare and desirable commodity in the Middle East.
For all intentional uses of comedy, the million dollar question always is: What type of comedy is needed to convey the message? In the case of elections in Israel, while one can sometimes rely on a pun or a dry remark to make a solid point, election period is generally not the time for fine British humor. Israeli election comedy must be swift and immediate, responding to the argument without delay, stopping the opponent dead in his or her tracks.
Some Israeli prime ministers have been known for their witty senses of humor. None of them was quite a Reagan or a Thatcher, but that's not to say that there are no chuckle-worthy sayings on record. For instance, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin was asked about Israel's policy regarding the Iran-Iraq war, he memorably replied: "We wish success to both sides."
Ever since commercial television began in Israel in the early nineties, Israeli politicians have been desperate for a chance to come into our living rooms. They are willing to do anything to make us laugh with them, rather than at them. It's a known story that in 1996, a senior minister in the Israeli government approached the satirical puppet show, Hahartzufim, with the offer to pay for the creation of a puppet in his image, simply to remain in the public eye during the election period. Since then, Israeli politicians have been courting TV comedy shows just before the elections, like eager suitors waiting next to the locker of the most popular girl in school.
Social media's power has not been lost on these politicians, either. Quickly, they recognized its ability to reach to a broad audience without the rules of traditional TV. The only problem with social media is that in order to make their serious messages go viral, politicians and political hopefuls have to surround their content with sweet kittens--or, alternatively, they can make it funny. Most of them have picked the second option. Parties and candidates create their own comedy sketches and distribute them on Facebook, Twitter and even Whatsapp (a popular text messaging application in Israel).
The first political party to take advantage of viral comedy for this next round of elections was extreme right-wing party, "The Jewish House." In order to convey the message that Israel should stop apologizing for its actions, The Jewish House created a video mocking the leftists' habit of apologizing constantly.
The Prime Minister himself jumped on the viral comedy video bandwagon in recent weeks. Instead of addressing the issues that actually made him disperse the government and call for elections, he posted a skit in which he plays a kindergarten teacher trying to make order in an unruly classroom. Those familiar with Israeli politics will note that the children share names with certain politicians in Netanyahu's dysfunctional government. The video was very provocative and very politically incorrect. Rather than distributing it as part of Netanyahu's official reelection campaign, his campaign team "leaked" the video -- an old trick designed to help it go viral.
Netanyahu's foray into comedy did not end there. After the kindergarten clip, his campaign mangers posted an animated video pointing out the lack of experience of Netanyahu's competitors.
This was followed by a third video, in which the Prime Minister stars as a babysitter.
In the perceived race to win the public through humor, the left wing is left (no pun intended) far behind. Perhaps this is a strategic decision, intended to help the left build itself as the voice of reason -- the "alternative" to the current, mocking trend. The sad truth is that even with lame performance of the current right wing government, the left does not rise in the polls. Maybe its time for the campaign managers to reconsider that strategy.
The most important element of comedy is timing -- and in Israel, comedy and timing can be friends or they can be foes. No matter how funny the election campaign videos are, we live in a serious, disastrous neighborhood, and sometimes the reality calls for seriousness. Last week, two soldiers were killed in the north in what, for a moment, seemed like a promo for another regional war. It was a tragic reminder that the reality here is less SNL and more S & M. Needless to say, no funny sketch was released that day.