Less than a month after the October 7 attacks, “Eretz Nehederet,” a show some have dubbed as Israel’s “Saturday Night Live” and currently Israel’s most popular TV program, turned 20.
A few days later, it aired the first episode of its 21st season, in which the comedy show did something it had never really intentionally done before, despite often getting the attention of international press: It started airing sketches aimed at audiences outside of Israel, including more and more sketches in English.
Now, several millions of people across the world have seen “Eretz Nehederet” sketches in which the cast mocks the discourse in American campuses, the U.N., and the BBC’s coverage of the war in Gaza. They feature Jewish American actors like comedian Michael Rappaport, who plays Albus Dumbledore in a sketch taking on the congressional hearing about antisemitism in U.S. universities. In another episode, Brett Gelman of “Stranger Things” stars as a Berkeley professor in a sketch about the birth of Jesus and the debates about whether he was Jewish, Palestinian or both. He tells his students that he will teach them how the Jews killed Jesus without even living in Bethlehem at the time.
— ארץ נהדרת (@Eretz_Nehederet) December 26, 2023
These sketches were written under the helm of show-runner Muli Segev, who has been running “Eretz Nehederet” since its inception, along with Lee Kern, a former writer for “Borat.”
Many Israelis find them funny, as do many supporters of Israel abroad, but for most, if not all, of those with viewpoints they are trying to reach, they have a very strong cringe-factor. They’re also legitimately hurtful for some viewers, especially queer Israelis, who feel at once alienated by progressive queer activists around the world and by comedians taking a cheap shot at a populous Israel loves to use to show its progressiveness, but whose rights are still not fully enshrined in Israeli law. In these sketches, two of the show’s cast members play colorful-haired, clueless college students who say they’re for “LGBTQ-H rights,” with the H being for Hamas, and make fun of pronouns.
In the opinion of the show’s team, however, these sketches are a victory. “We’re very passionate about the woke ultra-left progressive students in colleges ripping down posters of children torn from their beds, and I think we knew it was resonating when people disliked it. It unsettled them,” Itay Reicher, a writer for the show, told Kveller’s partner site JTA in November. “It put a mirror in front of them.”
Of all their international skits, it’s perhaps the one about Hamas leadership relishing their lavish life in Qatar as their people perish that’s the most poignant. “Gaza sky is black/But Qatar is always sunny,” three of the show’s comedians, who play Mousa Abu Marzook, Khaled Mashal and Ismail Haniyeh, sing. Maybe that’s because it does something the show has actually done well since its inception — talk truth to power, and take on ineffective leadership, especially in Israel.
“Eretz Nehederet” isn’t quite a perfect parallel of SNL. While it does have plenty of funny non-political sketches, its takes on the news are way more central than in SNL, where they’re mostly relegated to an opening sketch and Weekend Update. The format is also informed by Israeli news, echoing the set design of the actual news report that precedes it and helmed by stony face Eyal Kitzis, who interviews and introduces politicians and celebrity guest panelists, all played by a team of talented comedians (who look uncannily like the people they’re playing, thanks to an incredible makeup and wardrobe team).
“It’s more political, and a little bit more rugged and hardcore [than SNL], because life in Israel is more rugged and hardcore,” Segev said in 2016 on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. Gladwell had Segev on the show because he argued, rightfully so I believe, that unlike SNL, “Eretz Nehederet” gives us actual biting satire.
The show has been sued by politicians, and has drawn a lot of ire from the Israeli right and sometimes the left. It’s not a show that’s scared to go for the jugular. A parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody” the show did after the Elor Azaria case — in which Azaria, an IDF soldier, shot and killed downed attacker Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian who had stabbed a different Israeli soldier — shows how politicians made a circus of the shooting but also created the grounds for it to happen. It was a devastating sketch.
The show also has popular sketches in which its comedians, all incredibly strong comedic actors, too, take on recurring characters that people across Israel love to laugh at and imitate, from the Tortel family, a rich but disconnected group that got its own special episode, to the wild-haired and bespectacled Shauli, played by Asi Cohen, who famously called for an Israeli civil war in a sharp 2021 sketch because “every country that respects itself has had a civil war. Look at the U.S., how it advanced them. Before it was a wild west and now they made it to the moon, allegedly.” After October 7, Cohen visited hospital beds in character. It’s that kind of humor that’s helped the show become popular and successful while still being overtly political.
It’s not perfect, by any stretch. It has its high and lows, and unfortunately, like much of Israeli TV, it lags behind when it comes to political correctness, especially in its depictions of minorities, from foreign workers to Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Arabs. And while in that episode of “Revisionist History,” Gladwell describes the show’s point of view as Israeli left-wing, one that is for a two-state solution, Segev doesn’t necessarily see it that way, saying that the shows team runs more from the central left to the more reserved right. One thing the show doesn’t really take on is the reality in the West Bank and Gaza, something a less center and more left audience, a rare breed in Israel still, takes issue with.
Still, in its 20 years, the show has shown us dark images of our future. In that 2016 episode Gladwell talks about, one sketch takes place in a classroom, where a kindergarten teacher teaches students right-wing slogans.
“What do we need for peace?” she asks the children. “What peace? Who will we make peace with? There’s no one to talk to on the other side,” a sweet-faced little girl replies.
“So why is the world angry with us?”
“The problem is PR.”
“Who knows what we call the rest of the world?” the teacher asks.
“Antishemia,” the students answer in chorus, a made-up term for a land full of antisemitism.
It’s worth listening to Gladwell’s episode to understand the whole sketch, which he translates, and which is no longer available to view. But it was, like the show, darkly prophetic. The stark images that “Eretz Nehederet” have shown over the year keep coming true.
Now, “Eretz Nehederet” is once again tackling that “problem” of PR, joining an unofficial hasbara effort, fighting for their people in a social media-informed reality that seems stacked against them. Judging by the numbers of views, it is surely getting eyeballs, but in my own experience, I think those eyeballs are people either rage-watching and then feeling even more pushed into their ideological corners, or glibly watching with very much the same results.
The problem with these sketches is that they just open more widely the divide between Israel and the rest of the world, a divide that feels so incredibly vast already, with Israelis and most Americans living in different paradigms. And one of its main issues is that, similar to other forms of hasbara, it won’t acknowledge the images of devastating death and destruction coming out of Gaza (and also the growing violence against Palestinians in the West Bank). It flattens people marching against the war as naive and misinformed, and while some certainly are, over 20,000 people have been killed in Gaza, including thousands of children. It’s clear that for many in the States and the rest of the world, they’re marching against a war and devastation that feels unconscionable.
Yet inside Israel, “Eretz Nehederet” remains both a balm and a source of biting criticism. Professor Shayna Weiss, Senior Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, agrees that watching the sketches airing in Hebrew and the ones in English, done for the rest of the world, almost feels like watching two different shows.
Like many Israeli entertainers, the show has taken on the role of “comforter in chief,” Weiss muses, at a time when politicians can’t offer adequate words of strength and support. My own Israeli relatives call it “avir leneshima” — a breath of fresh air — at a time when many feel like they can’t breathe. The international sketches, at the end of the day, remind Israeli and pro-Israel viewers that the show is still on their side, while still being critical of the response to the war inside the country.
It’s also a show that takes strong stances on issues, from politics to antisemitism in college campuses, something that the one SNL skit about the congressional hearing shied away from — which, for fear of saying anything, actually seemed to condone antisemitism.
“They were very cautious and tried to please both sides. I think that for a satirical sketch to be effective, it needs to pick a side and say something cohesive,” Segev told Haaretz about the sketch. “I mean, who knew that there were two sides regarding antisemitism? I think they were terrified of the response of the young audience in America, which is pro-Palestinian. Being terrified of your audience is not a good fit for a satire show.”
“Eretz Nehederet,” which translates to “A Wonderful Country,” may care deeply for its audience, but it’s not scared of it. And at a time when people are told not to be divisive, it’s still putting out very poignant sketches about the political reality in Israel.
After October 7, the show changed its name to “Eretz Nilhemet” (“A Fighting Country”) for the second time in its history — the show has witnessed quite a few wars and conflicts. In the first episode since coming back, a character playing Netanyahu speaks to the public. Every time it looks like he’s going to say that he takes responsibility for what happened on October 7 under his leadership, he instead says something else like, “I’m taking… lunch.” In another sketch, Netanyahu is visited by the ghost of Golda Meir, who thanks him for making her look so much better.
In another sketch, Gal Hirsch, the Likud MK in charge of the hostage negotiations, is seen heartlessly training the families of hostages to say that their relatives in Gaza are not that great after all, to show Hamas that we’re not that desperate, in a fake ad that dubs the forum of the families of the hostages into “the forum of those people that stop us from winning.” Another sketch urges female soldiers in the IDF to wear a fake mustaches in order to be listened to, a take on the intelligence crisis that had a clear element of sexism that lead to October 7. Right-wing minister Bezalel Smotritch, currently one of the subjects of the trial at the Hague against Israel, is seen reading a bedtime story about Little Red Riding Hood and calling to flatten the big bad wolf, with no care for the grandmother or the little girl inside.
Perhaps the most devastating recent sketch is that of a soldier coming home from reserves, to a table at which nothing much has changed — the same din of political arguments surround him, the same old tired talking points and conspiracy theories. He sings a parody of the song “Kama Tov She’baata Ha’baita” — “How Good Is It That You Came Home” — a heart-warming song about the joy of having someone returning home after a long time away, but he changes the lyrics into a painful tongue-in-cheek song about how “good” it is to come home to a place where “everything here has stayed the same, like nothing has broken.”
כמה טוב שבאתי הביתה? pic.twitter.com/QMou95YXYP
— ארץ נהדרת (@Eretz_Nehederet) December 27, 2023
The wound in Israel after October 7 will never fully heal. And it’s clear the image of Israel to the outside world has also been irrevocably broken. It is very hard to see the future right now. “Eretz Nehederet” is doing what it can to try to keep a broken country afloat, making their pain feel seen, making them laugh, while still not letting politicians and leaders get away scot-free. And for many Israelis, that feels like a lifeline.
Yet just like its satire couldn’t stop the rise of the extreme right in Israel, I don’t think that it holds the secret for fixing the country’s image in the world now. Still, against all odds, it keeps trying.