TV soap underplays Arab antisemitism

Israeli television’s latest hit, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, may be accused of cultural appropriation. It is also ‘ahistorical, politically biased’ and fails to challenge common myths about Israel. Michael Oren pens this trenchant critique in The Tablet

A scene from The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem (Photo: Nati Levi)


Based on a bestselling novel by Sharit Yishai-Levi, the series follows the vicissitudes of the Ermozas, an upscale Sephardi family in pre-state Jerusalem. Clumsily toggling between the early 1920s and late ’30s, the drama focuses on the materfamilias, Merkada, and her sybaritic son, Gabriel. The owner of a store that appears to sell only halvah, Gabriel falls in love with a working-class Ashkenazi woman but is forced by Merkada to marry an even lower-class Sephardi woman, their illiterate housekeeper, Rosa. Played by the alpaca-eyed Hila Saada, Rosa inundates the show with a stream of tears that stretches across all 16 of its first-season episodes. And there are the Ermoza daughters—Rachelika and Luna, with the latter growing up to become the eponymous beauty queen. Their loves and disasters, longings and disappointments take place against the backdrop of Palestine from the end of the Ottoman Empire and throughout the British Mandate. (…)

Unsurprisingly, the only villains in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem are Jews. And not just any Jews, but the right-wing Revisionists of the Irgun and the Lehi. A ruthless bunch, including Rosa’s brother, Ephraim, they blow up a British officers club in 1937, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and assassinate innocent Arabs. “First we get rid of the English,” the ringleader declares. “Then we get rid of the Arabs, and then we get rid of the Mapainikim.” That third target—a reference to members of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai (the Land of Israel Workers Party)—is the most abhorred by the terrorists. For that is how they are portrayed, as bloodthirsty and treasonous.

These villains are also decontextualized. Like the Haganah, the Irgun was founded in reaction to the Arab revolts, as a means of protecting Jewish settlements and neighborhoods from terrorism. Attacks on the British began only in 1939, after the issuance of the white paper. But since none of this background is supplied or even alluded to in the show, the Revisionists appear motivated by bloodlust alone. “When did it happen to us?” a despondent Gabriel Ermoza asks. “When did it happen that we kill a man just because he’s an Arab?” Ultimately, in fact, Jews did kill Jews, in June 1948, when Israeli forces led by Ben-Gurion opened fire on the Revisionist arms ship, Altalena.

Ahistoricism and heavy-handed politicization are not, unfortunately, the program’s only flaws. Produced by the makers of FaudaShtisel, and Tehran, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is certainly destined for the American market. And yet by casting Ashkenazi actors—Michael Aloni as Gabriel, and Irit Kaplan as his mother—in its lead Sephardic roles, the series is liable to receive allegations of cultural appropriation. It might lend credence to the widespread American view of Israel as a majority-white country. American viewers are also likely to take umbrage at the series’ depiction of Arabs, all of whom are docile or decadent stereotypes.

But Americans, especially those unfamiliar with the seminal events in Israel’s history, will probably not resent—or even notice—the absence of any mention of the Mufti, the Arab Revolts, or Nazism. This is the series’ tragedy. Rather than reminding American audiences that the conflict did not begin in 1967 or even in 1948, but in the 1920s and ’30s when the Arabs attacked all Jews, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, the series lets the distortion stand. Instead of showing how the Arab resistance movement was riddled with religious fanaticism and hatred, the program ascribes precisely those attributes to Jews. And though Zionists spearheaded one of the earliest and most successful campaigns against colonialism, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, transforms freedom fighters into psychopaths and the imperialists into victims. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees flooded Palestine during this period and showing them, or even alluding to their presence, would have recalled the need for a secure Jewish state, but The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem fails to present the most basic context to the story it purports to tell.

These and other missed opportunities mar the series far more than its soap opera-ish characters and lugubrious pacing. Most distressing, though. is the producers’ assumption that Israelis would watch the show and not find anything amiss. Forgetfulness might be unfortunate for Americans, but for Israelis it is dangerous. After all, why defend a country whose founders fought against a perfectly peaceful mandate and willfully killed Arabs? Why remain in a state whose very foundations are steeped in ethnic and religious strife? And how beautiful can any queen really be if her realm is built on myths?

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