Satirical portrayal of top rabbi sparks outrage, debate over freedom of speech

Amid conflict with Haredi community over lockdown violations, critics call ‘Eretz Nehederet’ skit of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ‘disrespectful and offensive’; others see it as brave

Actors on the "Eretz Nehederet" satire show portray Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson on January 27, 2021 (Screencapture/Channel 12)
Actors on the "Eretz Nehederet" satire show portray Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson on January 27, 2021 (Screencapture/Channel 12)

A popular satirical television show sparked outrage on Wednesday with its portrayal of a top ultra-Orthodox rabbi, with politicians and members of the public calling the skit disrespectful and offensive to the religious community.

However, the skit from the hit show “Eretz Nehederet” (A Wonderful Land) also won praise from many for its “courage” in tackling the issue at a time of increased tensions with the Haredi community over defiance by some of its members in the face of efforts to impose a coronavirus lockdown.

The past week has seen widespread rioting, clashes with police trying to enforce lockdowns, and open rebellion despite virus rates being significantly higher in ultra-Orthodox communities.

The “Eretz Nehederet” skit focused on Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, widely acknowledged as the preeminent living Ashkenazi Haredi sage, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relationship with him, which has been criticized as overly deferential.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson at Yaakov Kanievsky (L) at the former’s home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The skit opened with anchor Eyal Kitzis welcoming the prime minister of Israel to his show, but instead of Netanyahu, an actor playing Kanievsky, 93, was wheeled out, accompanied by another actor portraying his grandson, Yaacov (Yanki), who acts as a spokesman and surrogate for the rabbi.

The portrayal had Kanievsky mumbling mostly incoherently into his beard in Yiddish, while his grandson asked him questions and interpreted the answers in an exaggerated Ashkenazi Hebrew accent.

A short while later Netanyahu showed up, begging the rabbi for permission to do almost everything: come on the show, sit down, or take a sip of water.

A brief attempt by Netanyahu to assert his authority was immediately shut down by Kanievsky’s grandson suggesting that the ultra-Orthodox parties will support Netanyahu’s rival Gideon Sa’ar in the upcoming election, which quickly had Netanyahu promising to shower the community with money.

The skit was largely a parody of the situation where Netanyahu has had to repeatedly beg the ultra-Orthodox to abide by lockdown rules and keep schools closed, often with minimal effect. Critics have accused Netanyahu of avoiding cracking down on the Haredi public in order not to anger his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

A bus set alight by a mob in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Israel Police)

Earlier this week, Netanyahu was asked why he recently spoke with Kanievsky’s grandson about closing schools during the lockdown and not with the rabbi himself.

“Rabbi Kanievsky isn’t available. Everyone who speaks with him speaks with the grandson. I also spoke with the grandson. I don’t see this as an insult,” the prime minister said during a press conference.

Although the portrayal was largely a criticism of Netanyahu, it sparked outrage in ultra-Orthodox circles and from religious politicians.

“The exalted Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is the rabbi and spiritual guide for many Jews in Israel and around the world. Creating a hurtful and disparaging imitation of him is deeply hurtful to religious sentiments,” wrote Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich (Blue and White), the first female ultra-Orthodox minister.

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich protested against the “harm to the honor of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.”

“These satirists are not just mocking the rabbi but the entire traditional, religious and ultra-Orthodox communities who revere the sages of Israel,” he tweeted.

Eyal Kitzis, the host of “Eretz Nehederet”- on the set of filming a new episode of the Israeli satirical television series, at a filmstudio in Herzliya, central Israel. February 16, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Channel 12, which airs “Eretz Nehederet,” said that presenter Kitzis’s telephone number had been shared widely on social media, with people urged to “personally harass” him.

Another of Kanievsky’s grandsons, Aryeh, told Chanel 12 they were not amused by the portrayal.

“This really hurts a lot of people. My grandfather is a spiritual guide to hundreds of thousands of people who do not make a move without him. For them this is difficult,” he said.

However, many others defended the show and the portrayal as an important beacon of free speech and a mirror to Israeli society.

“If a satirical show has to think twice about imitating a rabbi, as great and respected as they may be, then we need to reexamine the levels of freedom of speech in our country,” wrote Yesh Atid MK Yoel Razvozov.

Others compared the incident to the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in France.

“The level of courage from Eretz Nehederet this evening: Charly Hebdo,” wrote social media personality Raz Tsipris.

The long-running topical sketch comedy show is known for skewering Israeli politicians and other figures, as well as making fun of other sacred cows.

This is not the first time “Eretz Nehederet” has sparked ire among religious communities.

In 2018 the show was accused of anti-Semitism for using tefillin (phylacteries) to recreate the signature hairstyle of Israel’s Eurovision song contest winner Netta Barzilai on the head of then-education minister Naftali Bennett.

In 2016 the country’s top rabbinical authorities condemned a promotion showing the cast standing around an open Torah scroll in a synagogue.

A 2008 skit depicted an Israeli family celebrating a bar mitzvah in a synagogue — a move that sparked a similar outcry.

Also, in 2018 Netanyahu panned the show for a segment he said made light of the Holocaust.

But the skit now comes at a time of sky-high tension involving Haredi communities because of COVID-19 contagion.

Nearly-daily violent clashes with police enforcing the closure reached a peak on Sunday when protesters in the predominantly Haredi city of Bnei Brak damaged two buses, one of which was torched and its driver attacked, suffering light injuries.

Police clash with Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during enforcement of coronavirus regulations, in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, January 24, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The violence drew broad condemnation, including from Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, who called the perpetrators “young delinquents” and “rioters” who are “desecrating God’s name,” while urging the Haredi community to denounce them.

There have been numerous instances of flagrant violations of the lockdown in Haredi communities, with schools, in particular, remaining open, even though the current lockdown orders require shuttering the entire education system with the exclusion of special education institutions. All nonessential businesses have also been closed.

Kanievsky is a hugely influential leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers.

He was confirmed to have the coronavirus in October, just two days after the Haaretz daily reported that he violated quarantine, hosting visitors at his home in Bnei Brak despite being required to self-isolate due to his exposure to a confirmed coronavirus carrier.

Kanievsky has faced intense criticism for his handling of the pandemic and rulings given to his followers, and has at times instructed schools to reopen in defiance of government decisions, leading hundreds of institutions to illicitly open their doors during the pandemic.

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