Fake News From the Holy Land

Israel's satirists believe laughter helps preserve sanity. But can they really lighten the mood?

TEL AVIV—When a European Union court ruled in December that the Palestinian militant organization Hamas should be removed from the EU’s list of designated terrorist organizations, Israeli newspapers across the political spectrum made the news their top story. But one of them, an online publication called The Israeli Daily, took a decidedly different angle.

Hamas to EU: Put us back on terrorism blacklist immediately,” read the headline. The story’s author quoted a Hamas spokeswoman as saying, “We’re very upset over this. We’ve worked hard to build a brand name for ourselves, including some serious brainwashing of children. … What will it take to remain on the list?”

The Israeli Daily is a satire site, one of a crop of eager young publications, in both English and Hebrew, that have joined the crowded Israeli media market in the past year. Taking their inspiration in part from the American satirical newspaper The Onion, the editors and writers of these low-budget sites are staking a claim over the region’s news and attempting to spin it into comedic gold. The stakes are high, emotionally and perhaps even physically. Making fun of extremists, as the world saw in last Wednesday’s massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris, can have horrific consequences.

But the way Israel’s new web satirists describe it, their goal is less to lampoon fundamentalists than to get their friends and neighbors to lighten up. The subjects in the news here—terrorism, extremism, and the endless replay of the same grinding war—are deadly serious. The specter of loss follows everyone. That’s precisely why it’s important to keep laughing, the editors say.

“People, especially Americans, have a very dark view of this region,” A.E. Stahl, a 39-year-old Atlanta native who has lived in Israel for 12 years and started The Israeli Daily with his own seed money last July, told me. “We’re trying to show a different side of it, to show that there’s a much lighter side.”

Israel has one of the highest concentrations of foreign journalists in the world. Many Israelis I’ve spoken with feel that the press is disproportionately obsessed with their little country, and that the constant scrutiny over occupation, terrorism, and Israeli-Palestinian relations has unfairly sullied Israel’s image in the world. Stahl is among these media critics. He launched his site with a British colleague, Alexander Giles, during the thick of last summer’s war with Hamas, when Israel’s punishing air assaults on Gaza—which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained were in response to nonstop rocket fire on Israeli cities—were sparking international condemnation and cries of genocide. The site, they say, had been in the works for a while, but the timing for the launch felt ideal.

Today, a staff of six writers, half of whom are based outside of Israel, churn out about a dozen stories per week, poking fun at everything from the weather (“Hamas blames Israel for massive rain pour”) to the prime minister’s reelection prospects (“Netanyahu to seek political asylum in the U.S.”) to the proliferation of rival terror groups across the region (“ISIS member unsure about bringing al-Qaeda girlfriend home for the holidays”). Perhaps because The Israeli Daily’s particular brand of humor takes Middle Eastern reality and roasts it, American-style, most of the readership comes from the United States, but Stahl and Giles hope to expand their reach among expats in Israel. They believe that if anyone will get their jokes, it’s the English-speakers who grapple daily with Israeli life.

Beneath the irreverent headlines and the bald-faced mockery of ISIS, however, Stahl told me he hopes his site can inject some sanity into what he sees as the overwrought narrative of Israel. “This is a scary region, and it’s scary to live here. If you don’t find some humor in it, you can lose your mind,” Stahl said.

He also hopes laughter can jumpstart dialogue between Israel’s supporters and detractors. When a person laughs, Stahl explained, he lets his guard down. He becomes vulnerable. In a country where newspapers align themselves with political parties and readers often approach the news media with their opinions already set, humor is a potent tool to crack open the conversation and insert some perspective. Extremism, as Stahl sees it, works only in black and white, while satire is all color, treating nothing as sacred. Charlie Hebdo, for example, skewered Muslims, but it also skewered Jews, Christians, and atheists. And Israel’s emerging satirists express a similar desire to be egalitarian in their barbs.

“If we poke at Israelis, we also poke at Palestinians. If we poke at Hamas, we have to poke at the IDF,” Stahl said. An average week’s headlines run the gamut from stories about Iran and the Israeli election cycle to Hamas in Gaza and Jewish celebrities in Hollywood. No one is off-limits, he said, because those who can’t laugh at violence are the most likely to commit it.

Perhaps it was with this sentiment in mind that on Thursday, less than 24 hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack, another Israeli satire site, PreOccupied Territory, published a dispatch from heaven. In the piece, “God, angels laughing riotously over Muhammed cartoons,” the Holy Father and his archangels roar with laughter at the sad situation on earth.

PreOccupied Territory is The Israeli Daily’s biggest competition and another Anglo-run, Israel-based satire site. It’s a one-man show, launched in early 2014 by David Swidler, a New Jersey native living in Jerusalem. Like Stahl, Swidler grew up reading The Onion in America; when he moved to Israel in 1999, he began looking for ways to apply that paper’s sharp wit to Israeli politics.

A religious Jew who is married with six children, Swidler admitted that his site leans to the right—even its name mocks the condemnation Israel receives for its settlements in the West Bank. “I’m not in any position to judge whether or not the site is balanced. But it’s very easy to see things that are mockable, and where there is a herd mentality, when journalists all do the same thing,” he told me. “I definitely target non-right-wingers more than I do right-wingers, but it’s just because those are the stories that jump out to me as worthy of satire.”

PreOccupied Territory saw a spike in readership during this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. In a testament to the despair that many Israelis feel about the politics here, Swidler found that some of his most popular stories—“BBC Correspondent Apologizes for Omitting Anti-Israel Bias” among them—were recycled from personal blog posts he wrote in 2012, long before he launched PreOccupied Territory, and during a different Israel-Hamas confrontation.

Both Swidler and Stahl told me that they are careful not to mock genuine tragedy. But during an Israeli-Palestinian war, when identifying victim and aggressor depends entirely on who you talk to, humor, like tragedy, is in the eye of the beholder. What feels funny to an Israeli in a bomb shelter can seem grotesque to a Palestinian in Gaza City. If satire can so easily be read the wrong way, I asked Swidler, is it worth the risk? He responded that the motivation for the site was the very idea that Israelis are never cut a break, and that anyway, he writes for a specifically Israeli audience. If his jokes feel insensitive or crass, he added, it’s only because he is mimicking what he sees as the news media’s absurd headlines.

Satire has been a part of Israeli culture since before the state’s establishment in 1948, but it entered a new era when televised satire started to take off in the 1990s, after Israel got its first commercial television channel and entertainment programming joined educational and public-broadcast fare on the airwaves. One of the first satire shows to gain a following was Ha’Olam Ha’Erev (The World Tonight), which ran from 1990 to 1993. It wasn’t until later in the decade, however, with the rise of the Israeli right wing, that satire was embraced by leftists as a potential political tool.

Limor Shifman, a professor of communications and journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote in a 2012 article on Israeli satire that the country’s polarized politics spurred satirists into action. First came the heated internal conflict over the Oslo Accords (the treaties signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that were meant to eventually create an independent Palestinian state); then came the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent election of the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who has since returned to office as Israel’s prime minister. The darkness and division Israel experienced after the death of Rabin and the rise of the political right created the ideal conditions for a brand of biting humor that would perhaps have been less popular in an environment of peace and tranquility. It was in this context that Hartzufim (its name is a portmanteau of the words for “rude” and “face”) a puppet-based satirical program, shot to popularity by skewering both Arab and Jewish politicians; during the same period, Hachmishia Hakamerit (The Theatrical Quintet) used sketch comedy to spread cynicism about everything from the Holocaust to the prime minister.

Today, the televised satire market is dominated by two late-night programs, Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), an Israeli version of Saturday Night Live, and Matzav Ha’Uma (State of the Nation), a Daily Show-style fake news program. Both have devoted audiences and are considered the gold standard for aspiring Israeli comics. In fact, it was in hopes of getting noticed by these television comedy shows that the writer Hillel Cohen launched an Onion-esque Hebrew-language site in 2014.

His plan worked. That site, HaSilon (The Shrimp), isn’t pulling in major numbers in terms of readership—its accompanying Facebook page has barely broken 1,500 likes—but his headlines like “World Reassures North Korea: When We Said ‘Never Again,’ We Were Being Very Specific” and “Murder of Palestinian Teenager Will Postpone Return to Normalcy by Two Weeks” helped earn him a coveted writing job with Eretz Nehederet. “The market in Israel is really thirsty for funny stuff,” Cohen told me. “In part it’s because we’re Jews, so we have an affinity for humor. But for me, it’s also therapeutic. I get to vent, and a lot of the headlines are just truisms for what I feel is going on.”

Benji Lovitt, a Tel Aviv-based American comic who has generated a following writing fake news-style blog posts on The Times of Israel, echoes the sentiment. “People need to laugh,” he said. “Comedy often comes from frustration, and people are no more frustrated than when there is a war, or a flotilla, or we are having elections again. I think at those times, I am at my funniest.”