Reality check: Does Israel employ a double standard on tolerating Holocaust humor?

Two contestants on Israel’s ‘Big Brother’ were chastised for giving a Nazi salute but allowed to remain in the game, despite similar behavior resulting in evictions overseas

Amy Spiro

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

'Big Brother' contestant Netanel performs a Nazi salute as a fellow contestant applies a blob of wax to her upper lip, July 2022. (Screen grab/YouTube)
'Big Brother' contestant Netanel performs a Nazi salute as a fellow contestant applies a blob of wax to her upper lip, July 2022. (Screen grab/YouTube)

It was an almost unthinkable scene.

Over the weekend, a Jewish contestant on Israel’s “Big Brother” reality show walked into a room, delivered a Nazi salute and declared: “Heil Hitler.”

Unsurprisingly, calls immediately poured in for the competitor, Netanel, to be ousted from the game alongside fellow contestant Shahaf, who inexplicably had done the same salute several days earlier, with little comment. Both men appeared to be joking, with the former making the gesture after watching his showmance partner apply a blob of wax to the center of her upper lip.

Producers of the show, which airs on Reshet 13, opted against kicking out the contestants – despite their violation of show’s rules – saying that after holding “extended discussions” on the issue, they believed the situation was best served by an in-house conversation.

In a statement, the producers said that evicting the pair would be “the less complicated decision,” and instead they sought to “handle the issue in a different manner, and deal with the root causes.”

So in an episode that aired Saturday evening, Reshet waited until the last 15 minutes of a 90-minute show – that had the usual drama, back-stabbing, shouting and tears – to address the occurrences, bringing in Orna Ben Dor, the daughter of Holocaust survivors and a filmmaker who explores Holocaust memory in her work, to facilitate a discussion.

Not everyone was buying it, with many viewers and observers accusing the show of using the incident to cash in on ratings. After all, the show could have evicted the two men involved and also held a discussion in the house about its significance.

“Big Brother” is the biggest ratings-getter for the otherwise struggling Reshet, and is the most-watched show in the country most nights that it airs.

Just last season, a contestant named Yehuda was kicked off following a verbal altercation with another competitor. During the show’s fifth season, which aired in 2013, two contestants were evicted by the producers for racist and homophobic comments they made to fellow contestants. Others have been removed for violent incidents or repeatedly breaking the house rules.

But the contrast is more telling, perhaps, when compared to the approach in other countries. Last year, a contestant on “Big Brother” in Portugal repeatedly gave a Nazi salute in an attempt at humor. He was immediately kicked off the show, which said it could not tolerate such behavior.

At the time, the Israeli Embassy in Portugal tweeted a quote from an article about the incident commending the decision and saying that the contestant’s behavior “undermines the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust.”

In 2016, a contestant on the UK celebrity version of “Big Brother” was evicted for making a Holocaust joke to a Jewish housemate. The move was welcomed at the time by the Board of Deputies of British Jews umbrella group, which tweeted approval for the decision to stymie “bigoted views” on a show seen by “millions of younger people across the country.”

Over in Israel, however, the two men received barely a slap on the wrist.

Is there a double standard at play? Do Israelis tolerate certain behavior at home that they excoriate in other countries? Is it legitimate for Jews to employ Holocaust references and humor yet still take offense when non-Jews do the same?

There is no one approach to dealing with insensitive, offensive and objectionable occurrences on and off the TV screen. And not all incidents are created equal – intent matters, context matters and the deliverer matters. It is logical and sensible to hold politicians and elected officials to a higher standard than reality TV show contestants and comedians.

A 2016 documentary, “The Last Laugh,” explored the taboos of Holocaust humor, with a wide range of Jewish comedians weighing in. Famed comedian Mel Brooks, who wrote and directed the boundary-pushing black comedy “The Producers,” said in the film that making fun of Hitler was his “revenge” on the Nazis and “I really don’t give a shit what’s in ‘good taste.’”

Mel Brooks doing a Hitler bit in an interview for ‘The Last Laugh,’ director Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary about Holocaust humor. (Tangerine Entertainment/via JTA)

But it remains undeniable that Holocaust-based humor is accepted in Israel in large degrees even when it is often condemned abroad. And comments and behaviors that would elicit condemnation overseas often fly under the radar in the Jewish state.

When interior designer Moshik Galamin conducted a now-infamous tour of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem in 2015 alongside Sara Netanyahu, he cracked a joke while surveying a large dining room cupboard: “I think Anne Frank must be hiding behind here.”

The throwaway comment didn’t even raise an eyebrow in Israel, where the focus was solely on the always-contentious wife of the former prime minister. But several years later, the clip ended up on the HBO show “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, who could not let the remark pass by without comment.

“So apparently, at no point in the editing process for that, did anyone, either in the prime minister’s office or elsewhere, say: ‘That all looks great, maybe lose the Anne Frank joke,” Oliver said, hitting the nail on the head.

In 2018, popular Israeli sketch show “Eretz Nehederet” aired a skit that could best be translated as “International ‘That’s Not the Holocaust’ Day.” In an “Inception”-level gag, the show makes fun of both those people who compare things to the Holocaust and those who aver that nothing can possibly be compared to the Holocaust.

And in an episode of the satirical TV show “The Jews Are Coming,” which aired on the Kan public broadcaster earlier this year, the show poked fun at the popular Israeli version of the “Married at First Sight” reality show. In the simultaneously hilarious and cringeworthy clip, the show explored what would happen if a participant in the show – where couples meet for the first time at their wedding – was married off sight unseen to… Adolf Hitler.

Undoubtedly, there are those who would argue that if anyone is allowed to make Holocaust jokes, it’s the Jews. But that can’t mean Jews get a free pass for any such behaviors, or that nothing said in jest can be found to have crossed the line.

Israeli officials and envoys have been known to police jokes by those made abroad that they deem to be antisemitic. But when it comes to such behavior inside the Jewish state, the voices are noticeably quieter.

If we label a Portuguese “Big Brother” contestant’s bizarre attempt at humor with a Nazi salute as antisemitic, what do we call the same gesture by a contestant on the Israeli version of the show?

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