2020 Annual Assessment

In recent years, technological and artistic changes have boosted television as an important and powerful cultural arena. Television has become digital and global, and the market is replete with series from a variety of countries and cultures. Israel, where for various reasons television broadcasting began significantly later than the rest of the Western world, is today a player in the global television industry.1 The success story of Israeli television series is a new chapter in Israeli entrepreneurship, which is expanding into cultural fields. Numerous Israeli series are sold to foreign networks and broadcast all over the world. Two of the most prominent, “Fauda” and “Shtisel,” have enjoyed great international success (joining these recently was the series “Teheran,” which has been sold to Apple TV but not yet broadcast). The series reveal aspects of the Israeli reality to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, and influence viewers’ knowledge and perceptions of Israel and their connection to it.

This article is a preliminary summary of a study that aims to describe the main aspects of this phenomenon.

The Study: Questions and Goals

  1. What impact do Israeli series broadcast overseas have on:
    • Viewers’ knowledge of Israel;
    • Political and general opinions on issues related to Israel?
    • Attachment and connection to Israel?
    • Jewish identity.
  2. What is the nature of the main content and representations of the series? And how do the series reveal trends and changes in the social discourse about Israel and Israeliness today?

Methodology


The study is based on qualitative analyses of the series themselves and of the articles and reviews written about them. Another main element of the study is taken from the posts and conversations in international Facebook groups devoted to “Shtisel” and “Fauda.”2 These groups are lively and active with dozens, sometimes hundreds of posts published every month.

The largest group, “Shtisel – Let’s Talk About It” has over 20,000 members, while the smallest, “Shtisel Discussion Group,” has more than 3,500. The groups span the globe and have participants from the United States, Australia, Africa, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel and even – in the Fauda group – from Arab countries like Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia. (According to the Netflix “Top 10” list for the most recent month of Ramadan, Fauda was first in Lebanon, third in the UAE, and sixth in Jordan.) The groups constitute a data base of critical information and many hundreds of posts have been read and analyzed for the study.

A survey of 500 respondents (series viewers in the United States) was conducted on social media, particularly in designated groups related to Israeli television and series.3 The sample is not representative of the American viewing audience generally or the American Jewish population in particular. Nevertheless, it does offer additional insight into series viewers active on social media. Most of the respondents were American Jews (83 percent), the others were American non-Jews.

Initial Findings


Knowledge and learning about Israel: The Israeli series influence the viewers’ level of knowledge about Israel and their connection to it. In the Fauda Facebook group, one U.S. participant wrote that thanks to the series, he “met” Israelis and Palestinians for the first time in his life and learned about the conflict between them. Another participant noted that she had learned a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while another added that she experiences Israel and life there by watching the series. The following was written by a non-Jewish viewer of the series “Srugim”:

As an American, gentile (goy?), non-Hebrew speaking black person, I appreciate Srugim for giving me a window into a culture I would not otherwise have experienced… I appreciate Srugim because I got to see multi-faceted dati leumi going about daily life in Jerusalem. A plane ticket from MSP [Minneapolis] to TLV is $1,900, so my subtitled DVD is the only place I would have been able to experience this world. On one level, I watched the acting and stories as entertainment, but I also watched as education on Israeli life, religion and pop culture. I mean, I know it’s a TV show not a documentary, but still…

“Srugim,” a fairly early series, aired in Israel from 2008-2012 and has been in US distribution since 2014.4 It is still available (on Amazon Prime and Hulu) and has gained popularity. Its Facebook page is very active and many of the participants in the other groups mentioned in the study recommend it as one of the best Israeli series available. The quotation above exemplifies how series serve as a channel for learning and a kind of “voyage” to Israel.

Reinforcing Jewish identity: For Jews, the Israeli series represent more than a “voyage of discovery” in regard to Israel. For some, the connection to Israel is a central component of Jewish identity, and therefore the TV series meet a Jewish-identity need. For Jews who strive for a significant connection to Israel in their daily lives, the series represent a convenient “opportunity” to reinforce this connection. Compared to other ways of expressing the connection to Israel, such as visiting and having homes there, the advantages of watching the series are clear. Watching a TV series rests upon a significant basis of enjoyment and fascination and can provide emotional catharsis. The Netflix revolution offers easy, inexpensive access to them on American channels. As various Facebook group participants attested, the series allow them to “jump” to Israel on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis. One participant in the Facebook group put it this way:

I think that watching Israeli television shows connects people to Israel.  For those who have visited there, they see sites that they’d seen while there.  For those who have not been to Israel, it excites them to want to visit to see it first-hand. I think it sparks the Jew in everyone and brings them closer to their roots.

Further evidence of the implications for identity reinforcement is the principle: “any show as long as it’s Israeli.” The principle is simple: viewers tend to intentionally choose Israeli shows selectively, that is their primary interest in any given series is connected to its being Israeli. This principle held as a prominent finding both in the survey and in the Facebook fan groups. Numerous posts reflect a consistent pattern in this vein: expressing enthusiasm for one Israeli series and then soliciting recommendations for other Israeli programs. Even when the phrasing is more general, for example, a recommendation for a similar series, the responses mention other Israeli series almost exclusively. Furthermore, most survey respondents reported having watched or currently watching more than one Israeli series. In other words, this is not a choice based on theme or genre but rather on being Israeli and dealing with Israeli society. Most Shtisel viewers said they also watched Fauda. These two series are very different from each other, which strengthens the argument that the common interest in them derives mainly from their Israeli provenance.

Israeli television and connection to Israel among different Jews: In the following chart, based on data from the survey, one can see that watching Israeli television series has the effect of strengthening attachment to Israel (among American Jewish viewers). The chart relates to four groups of Jews with different levels of connection to Israel. In the first group are Jews with a very strong attachment to Israel; in the second, Jews who have a strong attachment; in the third those with a weak attachment; and in the fourth, those whose attachment is very weak. The division of the respondents into the different categories was made according to an index of connection to Israel, based on the sum of the respondents’ answers to questions about Israel: concern for Israel as a component of my Jewish identity (30%); level of knowledge about Israel (30%); number of visits to Israel (30%); residence in Israel (10%). The chart shows that a positive impact – a strengthening of the connection to Israel as a result of watching – becomes more evident the stronger the connection to Israel was to begin with. In the study, we will seek to further examine the impact watching the series has on different groups of Jews.

For non-Jews, the Israeli series are a means of discovery and learning about Israel and the Israeli reality. For Jews, the series are also a cultural channel for strengthening both Jewish identity and attachment to Israel. In the full study, additional data on the series’ impact will be presented and aspects of and changes in Israeli society that the series uncover will be examined. In this sense, the series are also an inward-facing mirror and a catalyst for contemporary trends in Israeli society.

Endnotes:

  1. Television for general audiences only launched in Israel in the 1960s, compared to the late 1930s – Mid 1940s in the West.
  2. The groups are: “Shtisel – Let’s Talk About It,” “Shtisel Discussion Group”, “Shtisel Addicts,” “Fauda” (Fan discussion group)
  3. The poll was published on a number of Facebook groups related to television series in general and to those of the Israeli series, Shtisel and Fauda. Similarly, it was disseminated in a number of academic groups unrelated to television, as well as among friends and acquaintances in the United States.
  4. Srugim was first broadcast on the Yes Stars channel on Israel’s Yes satellite network, and the first series also aired on Israel’s Channel 2. Its second season was broadcast on Yes in 2010 and later also on Channel 10.
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