I was intrigued by a wire story in the New York Times this week which reported that the production company which owns The Apprentice has sued the production company which owns a similar Israeli show, The Ambassador (Ha-Shagrir, Hebrew-language site). An Israeli business news site posts a more complete article.
What surprised me was not the lawsuit, as it appears that The Ambassador is a pretty blatant rip off of The Apprentice. Plus, so much of low-brow Israeli popular culture is derivative of European and U.S. models anyway–it doesn’t surprise me that an Israeli TV channel would see dollars signs in Donald Trump’s successful program and rip it off.
No, what struck me was the premise and subject of the show. 14 Israelis are asked to become good will ambassadors for Israel abroad. A Yahoo! article describes the premise:
In “The Ambassador,” 14 contestants were forced to present Israel in the best light in front of hostile international audiences — including the Cambridge University Union in England.
I started scratching my head when I read that sentence: what kind of cockamamie show is this? You ask 14 people to battle to the death over the issue of who can make Israel look best to the outside world? And what do they win? As one blogger stated:
The winner of the show will serve as a spokesman/woman for Israel in the eyes of world media (what is known in Hebrew as hasbara)…”
You have got to be kidding.
Apparently, Haaretz’s TV critic was thinking along the same lines (and he actually watched the show!). His review is as scathing as it is funny:
You watch the cascade of preposterous promo spots, hear the bombastic declaration by the three distinguished judges, and ask yourself: Have they all lost their minds? Don’t they sense how ludicrous they look? You might think, for a moment, that television broadcaster Keshet is substituting for the Foreign Ministry – if not for the entire government – and taking upon itself to salvage Israel’s public relations overseas, single-handedly. Any moment now, and Keshet’s CEO…will be responding to peace signals from President Assad. “Teenagers need to take responsibility for their country,” says Jacob Perry, former Cellcom boss and spy chief [and judge]. “You can make the world understand us,” says former IDF spokesman, Nachman Shai. “This is a battle for global public opinion,” the voiceover intones.
What are we talking about here? Another run-of-the-mill television series that is several sizes smaller than its public relations hype. Even the title is outlandish: “The Ambassador”
A true ambassador? No, all we’re really talking about here is a public relations director for an organization whose name we have just heard for the first time. And where? In New York, where even Silvan Shalom meets with a round of applause. Why not in Paris or even London? Well that’s “a not-easy place,” as Channel Two’s senior political correspondent Rina Matzliach says.
Beneath all of the grandiose wrapping and dramatic aesthetics (which, it can’t be helped, bear a great resemblance to “The Apprentice”), was what boiled down to a boys vs. girls competition, which was as interesting as any boys vs. girls competition. The reason for the girls’ failure was transparently obvious: It’s better for Israeli public relations to talk about English soccer, as the boys did, than about the occupied territories, as the girls did (“We didn’t take anything from the Palestinians,” Ofra told students at Cambridge, and was greeted by gales of scornful laughter).
No wonder that sentence was highlighted in the editing. Somebody has to be kicked off the show, so why not Ofra? After all, Zionism can’t be given the ax.
By the last episode of the season, judges had whittled the contestants down to three and finally announced a winner. This is how Sha! described him:
the …panel crowned Eitan Schwartz — the uber-slick, entertainment journalist — as the winner…
With his media background and native English, [he] is totally at home in front of the cameras. Unfortunately, he doesn’t create a whole lot of empathy. In fact, you might be tempted to call him a smug, smirking, self-satisfied little git. (Ha’aretz refers to him as a “mini Bibi”, which I understand from them is not a compliment).
In his profile on The Ambassador site, Schwartz lists one of the reasons he should win (translated into English here):
I simply really-really-really love Israel.
It’s that third “really” that really gets to me. And this is the guy in whom we place such faith that he will win over the world to Israel’s side?
And who does he admire most? Paul Auster. Now, I’m really bummed out. He actually admires a really fine writer. By the way, he also graduated from Columbia University’s School of General Studies as I did. Whoa, this is getting too weird!
Sha! describes the runner up thus:
Runner-up Mehereta Baruch came to Israel from Ethiopia when she was a kid. [She] does not speak fluent English. But she does have a stunning natural presence and a warm personality. Also, the impact of having a black woman serving as a spokesperson for Israel — especially given the repeated cries by the Palestinians and the extreme left that Israel is a racist country — should not be underestimated. I was rooting for Mehereta.
Indeed, you wanted a black female face in order to counteract criticism of Israel. How interesting. You’ll note that the author of Sha! sees Israel’s “extreme left” as the same as hostile Palestinians and the hostile outside world all of which he hopes Mehereta will be able to win over…with her blackness. Hmm. Something a tad disturbing about that.
In my inner ear, I hear Monte Hall chanting: “Come on D-O-W-N!! And what does our winner win?” (You’d have to be “of a certain age” to get this reference). In this case, a job working for a New York-based pro-Israel group called Israel at Heart. I took a look at their site and how they describe their mission:
We believe that Israel has been unfairly portrayed in the media. It is not simply that it has gotten a bad deal from the world press, but more importantly, its significance as the only free democratic society in the Middle East has not been conveyed to the public at large. …If people truly understood what their Israeli counterparts are going through, they would be more supportive of Israel’s struggle.
…We have specifically chosen college campuses as the centerpiece of this effort. By targeting the leaders of tomorrow and one of the most misinformed groups, we think we can have the greatest impact. Accordingly, we think Israel’s best ambassadors are likely well-educated students that are fluent in the language of the country they visit. These Israelis have completed their military service and are between the ages of 21 and 27. They carry opinion sets and life stories that demonstrate the diversity within Israeli society-one of its greatest assets. By simply telling the stories of their lives, we hope they can begin to change the way people see Israel and its people.
We hope our efforts will convince more people to take a trip to Israel, study after high school there, do a junior year abroad program at one of its many universities, call a friend to let them know they care, buy an Israeli product, and most importantly, educate themselves about the conflict, so they can defend Israel against verbal attacks by its enemies.
…The success we’ve seen has been overwhelming, and we have just completed our biggest trip yet. We find that no matter who is in the audience, because the stories these Israelis tell are so real, people’s views are changed forever.
Gee, I know mine would be. I find my eyes tearing up right now as I write this…
At least The Apprentice winner gets a chance to enter Donald Trump’s world and has a chance to make or build something. The Ambassador winner gets a chance to tour college campuses and speak before “misinformed” groups about what a wonderful place Israel is. Now I too know why Ofra was greeted “with gales of scornful laughter” at the Cambridge Union. The situation won’t be much better for Mr. Schwartz when he tours U.S. campuses. I don’t think all those “misinformed” students will take too well to the glib Schwartz when he tries to set them right.