Few will dare dispute the power of reality television. From Survivor to Star Academy, a once American phenomenon has become a truly universal one. Go figure. Perhaps out of recognition of the medium’s ability to penetrate the masses, one entrepreneurial Israeli production company has crafted its own novel version of reality TV. Its mission? To airbrush the image of Israel and Israelis at large. Launched last November, Hashagrir, (Ambassador), features fourteen young Israelis engaged in tight competition to sell their wares. It’s makeover time, ladies.
Hashagrir’s debut episodes have featured all manner of contexts, from the group presenting their case to students at Cambridge University, to creating a one-minute ad to be aired on MTV. The young adult contestants include a lawyer, a communications student, a graduate student in chemistry, and immigrants from Holland, Ethiopia and the United States. The program’s press image features the photogenic group posing in front of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (the logic in that PR tactic is lost to this writer).
Much like the US program The Apprentice, in which participants vie for a management post under business magnate Donald Trump, a three-member panel including an ex-security chief and a former army spokesman eliminates one contestant each episode in brutal fashion. In the end, the victor will be the person who best demonstrates the qualities of a professional advocate, presenting Israel in the most positive light. What’s behind door number two? An all-expenses-paid year working as an Israeli public relations liaison in New York with a group called Israel At Heart.
Why the sudden concern about Israel’s image? In March of 2004, “secret” Israeli Foreign Ministry documents were leaked revealing that Israel ran the risk of being branded a pariah state on the scale of apartheid-era South Africa. The report cited the separation wall being built between Israel and the occupied territories as one among several issues that have opened the state to attack on human rights grounds. Incidentally, an International Court of Justice ruling last summer citing the illegality of the wall has likely not helped Israel’s case.
Hashagrir taps into an already well-established market for reality shows on Israeli television. Other Israeli reality TV programs mirror those in the US, with local versions of Idol, The Bachelorette, Big Brother and The Last Comic Standing. A far cry from starving on an island whilst clad in a pink bikini or turning people into instant celebrities, the Israeli program is an uncanny phenomenon, at best. When reality TV gets co-opted in diplomatic efforts for a nation, you know you’re getting desperate. Hashagrir gives us one more reason to love globalization.