December 22, 2009
Fighting the New Blood Libel
How do Israeli Jews deal with the shocking return of the European blood libel? So far the most effective response has come from a small group of dedicated and underfunded satirists working in a tiny studio in a farmyard east of Tel Aviv.
Ten years ago it would have seemed unthinkable that a European newspaper would print an article suggesting that the Israeli army harvests organs from dead Palestinians, coyly inviting the reader to conclude that the IDF kills Arabs for this purpose. Yet that was the theme of a story in the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet last August.
The Swedish government deflected criticism by citing “freedom of the press” and distanced itself from the disgust expressed by its ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier. Israeli officials were accused of “overreacting” in their outrage and “playing the race card” by pointing out that the story is a modern recycling of medieval anti-Semitism.
Enter Latma. Latma is a Hebrew-language satirical Web site founded by Jerusalem Post senior contributing editor Caroline Glick. In a recent interview, the Chicago native, who moved to Israel 19 years ago, explained her motives and her plans for the future. Glick sees the Israeli media as part of Israel’s global image problem because, among other shortcomings, they don’t stand up to Israel’s critics abroad.
“Our news media don’t talk a lot about how absurd so much of the criticism of Israel is,” Glick said.
“Whether it’s the Swedish newspaper putting out this obviously false story suggesting that Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians to harvest their organs, or whether it’s the Goldstone report that accused our soldiers of committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead [in Gaza] this past December and January, we don’t have the media saying: ‘Wait a minute. Why are we discussing whether we should be investigating ourselves when what they’re saying is completely outrageous?’”
When Latma rails against that kind of media incompetence and bias, Glick said, it almost inadvertently produces video sketches that are important for foreign as well as Israeli consumption. “When we realized the international significance of some of our videos, we decided to subtitle them and get them placed on Web sites in the United States and other countries.”
One of Latma’s biggest successes to date was a video sketch responding to the Aftonbladet story and the Swedish government’s reaction. The satire “really pushed us forward in terms of viewership both in Israel and internationally,” Glick said. “The problem wasn’t even so much the report. It was that Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt then refused to condemn the report. The Swedish government said that Israel was trying to obstruct the freedom of speech in Sweden by objecting to a blood libel against our country and against our military. The absurdity of that, especially when coupled with the fact that Sweden won’t allow any criticism of Islamic fundamentalism, was so glaring to our writers that they said we have to do something about this.”
Of course, the issue of press freedom was a smokescreen from the beginning. No one in Israel said that Aftonbladet should be censored or that its editors or writers should be punished. The Israeli government simply requested that the Swedish government condemn the libelous charges.
Similarly ludicrous was the tabloid’s defense that it was not itself leveling the charges. Rather, it merely was reporting speculations made by Palestinians — in 1992! This writer was a journalist for 21 years, and the first thing any responsible reporter learns is that you don’t have license to publish something just because somebody says it. Sources have agendas and ulterior motives. You can find people who will say anything. If someone tells me that Carl Bildt beats his wife, it would be immoral for me to put that in print unless I had reason to believe it was true. To do so in the absence of supporting evidence would reveal that I harbored hostile feelings against Bildt. This is why charges of anti-Semitism in the Aftonbladet matter are not frivolous.
The sketch that appeared in Latma’s weekly Web satire show, “The Tribal Update,” opens with the Latma “news team” interviewing the Swedish “foreign minister” about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Scandinavia.
Jews are familiar with the expression, “They take in anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” But the foreign minister says that Swedes take it in with ABBA’s milk. Abba means father in Hebrew, and from that the foreign minister and the two newscasters are instantly transformed into members of ABBA, the 1970s Swedish rock group, and begin singing a parody of “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme a Man After Midnight” in which the foreign minister croons about how primitive and cowardly he is.
“What the song did was place the hypocrisy and the prejudice of the Swedish government — and, by the way, of the Swedish press — against Israel into clear view,” Glick said. “It was a very stinging response straight to their jugular. And it was more effective than we could have dreamed.”
A volunteer in Israel originally from Sweden provided Swedish subtitles for the clip on YouTube.
“Through Swedish Jews here in Israel who made aliyah, we managed to place it in some of the very few pro-Israel Web sites in Sweden,” Glick said. The next day, a news article about it appeared in Sweden’s leading broadsheet newspaper, Dagens Nyheter.
“They were surprised that suddenly there was this Israeli voice. They weren’t expecting us to give them a piece of our mind. No one here had ever done this sort of thing before. So when the Swedish newspaper published a news article about it, the news of Latma spread like wildfire. Within three days we had over 100,000 viewers, most of them from Sweden and the U.S., at our site in the clip on YouTube.
“What was even more interesting was that a lot of the talkbacks that these Swedes wrote on YouTube were Nazi-like in their anti-Semitism. The Israeli public got very angry at these Nazi comments. Army Radio reported the news, and one of their talk show hosts called on his listeners to go on to our site and ‘fight the Nazi assault.’ This really made the public feel empowered, and they flocked to Latma by the thousands. It was simply amazing.
“The ABBA parody showed that there is a hunger in Israel for this kind of Web site, for this kind of satire, for this kind of biting criticism of the media at home and abroad,” Glick said. “Our numbers have been consistently rising 50 percent a month since we launched the ‘Tribal Update’ six months ago with no advertising budget. So we’ve really been catching on.
“We’re hoping to raise money now to expand,” Glick explained. “We’re trying to raise money to expand our operations into the next year so that we can increase the number of webcasts that we do per week, and we also can increase our coverage of the [Israeli] media. With two researchers you can do this much, and with three you can do even more.”
More money also would allow more skits to be subtitled in English for the benefit of Israel’s supporters around the world. Latma is funded through donations to the Center for Security Policy in Washington, where Glick serves as the Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs.
On a recent Wednesday, this writer observed filming at Latma’s makeshift studio, the size of a Manhattan kitchen, on the edge of a plowed field near Nehalim, a short drive north of Ben-Gurion Airport.
Noam Jacobson — a musician, singer, songwriter and bandleader from Ramat Gan — explained that he and the other two actors — Ronit Avrahamof and Elchanan Even-Chen, from Jerusalem, are in it for the love, because they certainly aren’t getting rich from their efforts.
Latma is about as low budget as low budget can be, and yet their productions are unmistakably of professional quality. Most costumes and props are brought from home. “It’s the human material more than the physical world,” Jacobson said. “We mostly do it because we’re having great fun. Everything here is magic.”
After the ABBA parody appeared on the Web with Swedish subtitles, Jacobson said, “All the rats came out of their holes” with neo-Nazi talkback comments.
Playing devil’s advocate, this writer noted that Latma means “slap” in Hebrew slang. And if you slap people with insults like being “primitive and phlegmatic,” having the “heart of a troll,” the courage of a chicken and a brain “the size of a nut” — if you call someone an “annoying putz” — is it any wonder that they slap back? Further, the U.S. government doesn’t comment on the content of supermarket tabloids, no matter how outrageous. Why should the Swedish government?
“With Muslims, the Swedes have the feathery touch,” Jacobson replied. “But the Swedes have no problem telling lies about the Jews and Israelis. When the snakes slither out, you see who you’re up against.”
He was proud to have served in the IDF in defense of the Jewish people. “When you see the talkbacks, you know what you’re fighting for.”
“I don’t see myself as very right-wing,” Jacobson said, “and some of the things Latma does don’t serve my political view. But as long as it’s funny and has a point, I am for it.”