he United States was a pioneer in the early years of the television industry, driven by the commercial aspirations of TV-set manufacturers, broadcasting networks, and advertisers who supported the programming. Over the years, these powerful, profit-driven entities have exercised considerable control over the content of U.S. television, with the government and citizens groups reduced largely to a reactionary role.
Contrast that with development of television in Israel, one of the last industrialized countries to introduce national television. There, the kind of debate heard in the United States as a reaction to programming took place before television was ever introduced.
Learning of the late introduction of Israeli national television piqued the interest of Tasha Oren, a media scholar and assistant professor in UWMs Journalism and Mass Communication Department.
She was also surprised to learn that before its first broadcast in 1968, Israeli television had been envisioned as an almost entirely Arabic medium, a way to reach out to Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War of 1967. Three hours of the programming was to be in Arabic and just half an hour in Hebrew.
These discoveries led Oren to write her upcoming book on what she describes as the pre-history of Israeli television.Even a Fist was Once an Open Palm: The Popular and the Politic in the Struggle over Israeli Television, is slated for publication next year.
Unlike many television histories, which begin at the point where television first comes on the scene, Orens study on Israel focused on the period leading up to the first broadcasts, hence her description of the book as a pre-history. The book discusses the debate leading up to television and explores controversial topics central to Israel, including religion, military conduct, and peace negotiations and the impact of negotiations on specific programming.
Because Oren was looking at a previously unexamined topic, archives on the subject did not exist. Rather, information was buried within other records, requiring close scrutiny of records from the Knesset, Israels parliament, and other documents.
Newspaper coverage also was a reliable source for gauging the public mood on the matter, Oren says, since Israelis tend to discuss politics and current events with the same passion that mainstream Americans reserve for sports. Oren pored over readers letters to the editor and reporters stories.
You start tracing something someone said, so you go to that day and look at somebody elses recollections of those periods, she says. Id look at what was really animating that process because a lot of it wasnt talked about until much later.
What became interesting to me was the question, What about television were people interested in? she says. Without an actual television around, how did people imagine television and what did they think it was going to do for Israel?
From 1968 to 1990, there was one station, government-sponsored but otherwise independent. Educational shows ran in the morning, and from 5:30 to 7 p.m. was childrens programming in Hebrew.
Arab-language programs geared toward families followed, then adult programs in Hebrew or English with subtitles. At midnight, the station signed off with a reading from the Bible followed by the Israeli national anthem.
But it took 10 years of acrimonious debate to arrive at that moment in 1968.
The countrys founders were, at best, ambivalent about television. David Ben-Gurion, the countrys first prime minister, was openly scornful.
The first thing he said was that the Israelis were people of the book and they do not need television, Oren says. Television was for people who didnt read or for people who didnt like to read. The reference, she says, was not lost on the young countrys population.
The perfect nightmare of the time was that it would create this kind of superficial, artificial, materialist type of culture, Oren says. It would soften young men, create teenage misbehavior, rob parents of authority, broaden the social gap between the haves and havenots, create a schism in the social fiber, and make people antisocial.
But there was also a much bigger issue: security.
Everything cycled back to issues of security, so even questions of culture became questions of security, Oren explains. The Israelis had to be united, they had to share a culture and differentiate themselves from the Arabs. So all those issues started working themselves into questions of culture, and what you got was a situation where nothing was trivial. Everything had larger ideological ramifications and political ramifications.
The most powerful argument in favor of national television was the reality of Arab broadcasting. Israelis didnt own televisions, but Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan all had television broadcasts, and their signals could reach Israel with no problem.
(Government officials) were terrified that anti-Israel propaganda would increase and become a huge component of Arab broadcasting and be targeted toward Arab- Israelis, Oren says.
They were also worried about another segment of the population Jewish immigrants from Arab countries. Israel, largely founded by European immigrants, was striving for a unified culture, one that would differentiate itself from its neighbors. For that reason, Israels founders envisioned a refined, European-style country. They saw their Arab counterparts as less educated and less cultured, as both social action projects and potential security threats.
The fear was that watching Arab programming and having a taste of Middle Eastern culture, which Israel defined itself against at the time, would prevent those immigrants from being absorbed into Israeli culture.
In their attempt to try and avoid social apartheid, they made it much worse, Oren says.
By the late 1950s, Oren says, there were actual riots and violent eruptions of anger by these immigrant Jews who discovered that they remained unequal to European Jews after settling in Israel.
The divide between the European and Oriental Jews was part of the governments argument against television, and even as the Oriental Jews power gradually increased, they didnt have a large effect on the argument over the development of television for general consumption.
They did, however, help spur the development of educational TV, which began broadcasting in 1966. But it was only shown in schools and immigration-center classrooms, and had been developed to be broadcast exclusively in those settings. Most Israelis had no idea of what television at home ought to be. Government radio provided news, which was informative but not exciting, and American-style commercial television was considered a non-viable option.
For the government it was a big headache to have television, Oren says. For the opponents it was a big threat and for average Israelis it didnt seem very exciting. So there wasnt really a compelling reason to have TV.
Things began to change in the early 1960s, when Israels burgeoning economy forced the issue. As their material circumstances improved, new and better things arrived in the countrys stores, and people were able to travel abroad, where they bought things to bring home.
A bourgeoisie emerges, and as they emerge they start buying things, Oren says. And what do they start buying? They start buying television sets. And then as immigrants arrive in Israel, they bring toasters and television sets.
After the Six-Day War, several different models emerged as possibilities, the most prominent among them an Arab-language channel aimed at residents of the West Bank and Gaza.
The final version ended up being a combination of educational and popular programming in Hebrew and Arabic. Israelis continued to watch Arab stations, tuning in American westerns, Indian movies, and belly dancers. But the most popular program was, and remains, the news.
Many followers of current Arab-Israeli events are preoccupied with placing blame and detecting media bias, says Oren, adding that neither is particularly helpful. A current saying in israel is that while everyone can see the light at the end of the tunnelPalestine and Israel as neighboring countries whose citizens are able to live safely within their bordersno one can see the tunnel.
Oren, who was born in Latvia and lived in Austria, Greece, England, Israel, and Canada before coming to the United States at 16, has been asked about the current situation, but refuses to be drawn into providing simple answers or pat solutions.
You cant explain the Middle East in sound bites, she says after emphasizing that the current situation is not her area of study. Theres an enormous history there, a complex history. Both sides have made horrible mistakes. And also, both sides have tried to make some overtures.
Oren, who worked as a choreographer, video director, and commercial television editor before earning her Ph.D. in telecommunications and cultural studies, is currently working on a chapter for an anthology on global Asian culture. She has also published work on film, dance, and international cultural policy.