Was Ben-Gurion Right? Does Television Undermine Israeli Culture?

By Meyers, Nechemia | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Was Ben-Gurion Right? Does Television Undermine Israeli Culture?


Meyers, Nechemia, The World and I


Shalom Fingarhut, a religious educator, fears the influence of television but sees no possibility of keeping it out of his living room. So he tries to ensure that his children use discretion when they decide what to watch. "I think I've been pretty successful," he says. Nevertheless, he observes with mild despair, "when some torrid or suggestive episode appears on the screen, my daughter reacts by covering her face with her hand. Of course, I can't be sure she isn't glimpsing the screen through the gaps between her fingers."

Things would be easier for Fingarhut had David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, succeeded in his attempt to prevent the introduction of television to the Jewish state. Ben-Gurion's objections had nothing to do with sexual conservatism. They were motivated by his fear that TV would undermine his attempt to create a unique Israeli culture. Television reached Israel two decades after it was introduced in most developed countries, but its impact has been enormous. In retrospect it turns out that, despite television's apparent benefits, Ben-Gurion probably was right.

Israel's national television service was inaugurated as a result of the country's ongoing conflict with the Arabs. In the wake of the Six Day War, a public broadcasting station (designed along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation) was established in 1967. At the time of the war, enemy stations had directed telecasts to Arabic-speaking Israelis, regarded as the most vulnerable sector of the population. A television service was required, Israeli authorities decided, to answer that challenge. They also naively believed that broadcasting would help gain the understanding of Arabs in the territories occupied as a result of the conflict.

These goals didn't interest the average viewer. Like his counterparts elsewhere, he was primarily interested in being entertained as well as informed. Within two years, the great majority of Israeli families had purchased TV sets. Almost everybody in the country watched virtually everything shown on Israel's one monopolistic channel.

At that stage Ben-Gurion's arguments still had some influence. So while there were lighter presentations and innovative approaches, a disproportionate number of programs were heavy-handedly "educational." All shows were in black and white, and even when imported ones were screened, the color was erased. This was done--it was claimed at the time--to prevent people from wasting money on color sets. Only in 1981, as an election gimmick, was the restriction on color rescinded. Also in the 1980s, the service was expanded to include additional and commercial channels.

Prof. Elihu Katz, the founding director of Israel Television, is an internationally renowned expert on mass communications who now teaches at the Annenberg School of Communication of the University of Pennsylvania. Though the issue is completely academic today, he sees certain positive aspects in the fact that Israel once had only a single station. Its central news show, he recalls, was watched by two-thirds of the population and served as a kind of virtual town meeting.

"It became a sort of civic ritual," Katz notes, "during which society communed with itself. There was an informal norm that attendance was required and that no intrusions were allowed--no telephone calls, for example.

"The lesson of the first twenty years of Israeli television," he argues, "is that participatory democracy may be enhanced rather than impeded by gathering its citizens in a single public space set aside for receiving and discussing reliable reports on the issues of the day."

A lazy eye on the tube

Today there are two major local news shows and a choice of channels. The result, Katz reports, "is that overall viewing of television news in Israel's highly politicized society has dropped by almost half, from a nightly average of 65 percent in the 1980s to an average of about 35 percent now. …

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