A phone company commercial currently appearing incessantly on Israel’s channel 2 depicts a somewhat thickset, balding man in his fifties sitting in an armchair watching television. The television is situated in a family room and in the background of this open-plan ground floor you can see a large kitchen and living room. The man’s teenage son bounds down the stairs in shorts and a sleeveless sweatshirt, fake-tosses a basketball to his father, and heads out the door.
What’s wrong with this picture? And what does it have to do with the destruction of Israel’s countryside?
Remember that this commercial is being shown in Israel, in Hebrew, as an advertisement for a local telephone company.
Answer: only a tiny fraction of Israel’s population lives in this kind of Brady-Bunch home. The overwhelming majority of people in this country live in two or three-bedroom apartments. According to this table from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, even the wealthiest ten percent of this country’s population live, on the average, in homes of 4.65 rooms (including living room, not including kitchen). Two-thirds of the population lives in less than four rooms. So, well-off people may have another bedroom. Few have family rooms, huge kitchens, and second stories.
So why does the phone company advertise with a commercial that depicts a kind of home that few Israelis can identify as their own?
I have a theory I call the pointed-roof hypothesis.
When my children were small and began drawing pictures, I noticed that when they drew a square with a triangle on top. That is, a house with a pointed roof.
Now the strange thing is that if you walk through our neighborhood—or in fact practically any neighborhood in Israel—you don’t see homes that look like this.
I realized that the square-and-triangle shape is an icon of a house, rather than a depiction of one. It’s not meant to represent reality; it’s like a hieroglyphic character. Like the dial phone that appears so often on computer screens to represent a phone function. My kids were all born after the age of dial phones, but they know what that icon means.
According to the pointed-roof hypothesis, the huge two-story house with family room and huge kitchen is has become the icon of the Israeli home. Houses have pointed rooms; homes have a staircase, a family room, and a huge kitchen. The image most likely derives from the cultural steamroller of American commercials and sitcoms that have become ubiquitous on Israeli screens, especially since the inception of cable tv.
I suspect that the phone company is not aiming for the high end of the market. Rather, the advertisers are using these images because a depiction of a typical Israel apartment would not register the idea “home” in the minds of most Israelis.
Icons are often innocuous. No kid is going to ask his parents to buy him a dial phone because of the icons he sees on his computer screen. But the fact that a standard American middle-class suburban house has become the icon of “home” in Israel is worrisome. In fact, increasingly, young Israelis seem to expect that this is the kind of home they ought to live in.
Israelis live in apartments because our country is small. To preserve green spaces and countryside, we need to limit the amount of built-up land. Over the last two decades, old farming towns have turned into commuter suburbs, new neighborhoods have encroached on countryside at the margins of cities, and new settlements have gone up in large numbers, not just in the West Bank but also in the Galilee and around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Now there are plans to build a string of such new settlements in the plain southwest of Jerusalem, the last large stretch of pastoral, sparsely-populated countryside in central Israel.
In these new communities, young, well-off families buy and build homes that look like the icons they see in tv commercials.
It’s the sharp end of the pointed-roof hypothesis. As icon becomes reality, some Israelis have a lot more space inside their homes. The result will be that all of us will have much less space outside.