In Haifa, the smell of frying falafel balls competes with the din of Israelis eating, yelling and slapping each other on the back. Every few seconds, they'll glance sideways at the television screen, watching the nightly Israeli news report that is also vying for their attention.
But this isn't the city of Haifa, and they're not in Israel. It's the Haifa Restaurant on Pico Boulevard, just one of many businesses and homes in Los Angeles that are receiving daily Israeli television by satellite, including news, sports and soap operas in Hebrew.
Like other foreign-language-speaking communities in Los Angeles that tune into media in their own tongue, the local Israeli community has long had newspapers (there are now three Hebrew ones). But since 2001, they have also been able to watch Israeli television on the Israeli Network.
The Israeli Network provides eight hours of original content from two of Israel's main stations (Channels 1 and 2) -- in a 24-hour loop -- available through the satellite TV provider, Dish Network. The advent of the network has allowed Israeli expatriates to experience their native culture again, without the filter of American eyes. Watching Israeli TV allows them to be directly back in touch with Israel.
"We are currently broadcasting to a peak American audience of approximately 250,000 people during prime time, and we average 120,000 to 150,000 viewers during [the rest of the day]," said Golan Shaked, the Israeli Network's vice president of marketing, estimating that they reach about half of the estimated 400,000 Israelis in America. As might be expected, Los Angeles and New York are the network's strongholds, with an almost identical number of subscribers.
Most people watch the Israeli Network for news and current events, Shaked said. In fact, many Israeli Americans prefer daily news reports beamed from Israel to the 24-hour U.S. news channels, especially when it comes to Israeli affairs.
"I prefer to watch news shows in Hebrew, because they cover more worldwide issues," said Ariella Tenenbaum, a subscriber for almost a year. "I'm very happy we have it.... They showed live news about the [death of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi], and you see it from the Israeli perspective, the Israeli point of view, not the Americans' point of view. That's very important."
"Israeli news shows you things that in America they don't like to publicize," said Zipi Carmelli, a subscriber for three months. "[It's] more immediate and live; they film everything, even during terrorist attacks. And afterward they speak to witnesses on the street in Hebrew. CNN can't do that."
Like CNN, which gained a hold on America during the first Gulf War, The Israeli Network was also born of crisis. It first launched operations just one week after Sept. 11. News and current affairs remain critical to its business. It is most obvious immediately following Mideast upheavals.
"We definitely see it in our call center," Shaked said."People are sometimes interested in connecting as soon as possible, [especially] when violence reaches high levels in the region."
When the second Gulf War began, the network got more subscribers, Shaked said.
"Today, we [have] about 300 new families joining the network every month."
But news and crises are not the whole story. For people who want to connect to Israel on matters besides current events, there are four other program categories: Israeli culture (including music, comedy and soap operas), Israeli sports, children's shows and Jewish tradition.
"There are Israeli comedy shows and entertainment on the weekends [and] it feels more like you're in Israel when you watch it," Carmelli said.
A common worry with Israeli immigrants to the U.S. is the loss of culture and native language that their children will experience with American life.
"[Israeli] parents are interested that their children know the culture, know the language [and] experience the Jewish holidays the way their parents celebrated them in Israel," Shaked said. At least by exposing them to the Hebrew language, Israeli television may have some mediating effects on the power of American assimilation.
Following its success in the Israeli community, the Israeli Network plans to add English subtitles to news and current events programs, so that non-Hebrew speakers can watch Israeli TV as well.
"We feel that we can expose the Jewish American population to what Israelis are really watching and doing on a daily basis," Shaked said, adding that English subtitles should begin on Network's news programs around September.
If the network's popularity does manage to spread between both the Israeli American and non-Israeli Jewish communities, its most powerful influence may yet lie in changing the perception of Israel in the United States.
"It's really interesting to watch when there isn't a big crisis, because then you get the real story about Israel," Carmelli said. "You would never get that on American stations. It's only when something horrible happens that you see Israel on American news."
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