The New Season of ‘Transparent’ Is Full Of Palestinian Propaganda — And That’s Not Necessarily A Bad Thing
The oddest moment of my Birthright trip occurred during a trip to Har Hertzl, Israel’s national cemetery. After encouraging us to lay stones on the graves of Meir and Rabin, our guide paused for his main performance at the grave of Max Steinberg, the lone American soldier who was moved to make aliya and serve in the Golani brigade when he visited Israel on Birthright. He was killed while serving as a sharpshooter in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.
“Thousands attended his funeral,” our guide whispered. “He was just like you.” Gazing meaningfully around the group to watch tears forming in the corners of a few participants’ eyes, he grasped the hand of a UVA sorority sister next to him and inclined his head. As our group reluctantly formed a circle, we began, for the empty graveyard, a dirge-like rendition of Hatikvah.
To me, this manipulation of a freshly dead 24 year-old’s memory to drum up guilt-based Zionism from a group of intentionally undereducated American Jews was unsettling, bordering on unethical.
To my friend Michael, this was the most meaningful and significant part of an already exceptional trip.
Whichever of us you agree with, our experience at the grave of Max Steinberg was a form of ‘hasbara.’ Hasbara is information about Israel disseminated by the Israeli governors to foreigners to make them sympathetic. It’s propaganda.
Strapping young Israelis, fresh from their service in the IDF, sent to American summer camps — that’s hasbara. Dog-eared copies of Leon Uris’ “The Exodus” passed out instead of history books — hasbara. Sugar cookies shaped like Israel, iced so as not to indicate any internal borders — delicious hasbara.
Hasbara is often true but it’s often not the whole truth. It is information without nuance. It is facts intentionally presented without context. It is designed to tug at the heartstrings, not to stimulate the mind. And it is how almost all American Jews learn about Israel.
If, like me, you participated in Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, religious school, Jewish youth group, independent Israel programs, Hillel, and Birthright, you are likely the recipient of thousands of hours of hasbara-based Israel education.
So when the fourth season of Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” gave a platform to Palestinian hasbara, it was long overdue.
Season Four of “Transparent” sees the Pffeferman family slowly performing a collective “lech-lecha” to Israel to explore a holy land to which each has a dubious connection. The Pfefferman’s youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), true to form, is drawn to the human rights crisis in the West Bank and the young activists who minister to it. Through a righteous mishandling of transphobia against her mother (Jeffrey Tambor) at the airport on the way to Israel, Ali is put in touch with Lyfe, an activist and social media celebrity who tours her around Ramallah and invites her to stay at a Palestinian family’s farm that seems to have been dismantled by the Israeli government but reclaimed by activists.
Soloway’s approach is mystifying. On one hand, we know Ali to be an incurable, aging narcissist whose perceived interest in radical equality has almost always in the past been a front for bolstering her own needs. Following her journey from kissing the linoleum at Ben Gurion to staging a righteous escape from a 10-minute visit to a settlement seems like a barbed parody of young people’s lefty Israel politics. On the other hand, outside of Ali’s self-centered ignorance, Soloway dedicates significant screen time to a gentle, persuasive explanation of the Palestinian plight. These sequences are a major, notable departure from almost every other frame of “Transparent” because they seem like they have an agenda.
Soloway presents two Palestines: the paradisiacal Eden created by Palestinians, and the cement-and-barbed-wire prison created by Israel. At an airy atrium in Ramallah filled with a fabulously young, multiracial group of coffee-drinkers, Lyfe and a charismatic Palestinian woman, Janan, gently ridicule Ali’s naive idea that a two state solution will lead to peace. They invite her to Janan’s family’s farm, where a group of international activists has created a utopia of farming and collective living on land the Israeli government has clearly tried to reclaim. Over an abundant meal under the stars, the activists, each one impossibly lovely, young, and genuine, beseech Ali directly.
First activist: I wasn’t even charged when I was detained by the Israeli army. But I was there for a total of one year. And because I am gay they were blackmailing me and saying that if I didn’t comply and become an informant they would out me to my parents.
Second activist: Yeah they use this technique with all gay people, gay Palestinians.
Third activist: They use any vulnerability, any place they can expose your vulnerability and take advantage of it.
Fourth activist: American Jews have more rights to citizenship than Palestinians who have been here for generations. You can get citizenship. But as a Canadian Palestinian I can’t. I mean, my family’s been born here, and I can’t even go into Jerusalem. I can’t even leave from the airport.
Ali: You can’t even go into Jerusalem?
Fourth activist: Not without a permit. Two different laws for the same land.
Third activist: I think it’s very clear that the goal is just total control over the land and its resources.
This instance of long-form exposition, essentially a persuasive political appeal delivered through a veneer of characters, is entirely unlike “Transparent.” It rankled and astonished me. I watched thinking, why is Soloway letting these compelling hotties say these partial, context-less truths about the situation? Why would such a complex show confront this issue from only one side? Why aren’t they mentioning the lack of protection for LGBTQ people in Palestine, courtesy of Hamas and the PLO? Where are the hot, young Israelis and THEIR compelling trauma narratives about running from rockets and the stabbing terrorism? Why is this TV show being so unfair?!
By showing gorgeous, brilliant, passionate young people speaking out about human rights and their dream of safety, Soloway utilizes every weapon in the hasbara artillery that is usually used to gain the allegiance of Jewish children for Israel. With collective community, rustic outdoor spaces, unbridled emotion, and attractive young speakers, she followed the exact steps of my Birthright guide. Everything Ali does -— maintaining total geo-political ignorance into adulthood, marveling over everything, developing immediate strong emotions, believing what she is told without question, making friends who gently mock her, and having a magical sexual interaction with someone who represents freedom -— those are the exact things American Jewish youth do when we visit Israel on organized trips. But, courtesy of Soloway, Ali does all of it on the Palestinian side. And suddenly, it doesn’t seem fair.
The fourth season of “Transparent” portrays Israel in all its lusciousness, but when it comes to the conflict it shows only one version of the truth. In doing so, it reveals truths about how we speak about it, and how we teach about it. Soloway isn’t using her platform to tell us a lie — but sometimes one-half of a truth can feel like one.
If the goal of hasbara is to ensure the protection of Israel by future generations, that approach is failing. The practice of educating and engaging through hasbara rather than history lessons leaves Jewish American youth in the dark. Without a complete, complex picture of Israeli modern history or current events, most of us don’t go to college hardened Zionists or anti-Israel groupies. We go to college ignorant. Arriving at college with a vague grasp of history that pits brave Jews versus evil Arabs, students are quickly corrected. Feeling deceived, we reach for another binary, often the righteousness of anti-Israel activism. We can thank hasbara for much of the misguided Israel activism happening on college campuses today.
Something about the Palestinian activists was strikingly familiar to me -— the wild hunger visible in their eyes when they realized a totally ignorant person was sitting in front of them. The way their urgent, persuasive tones seek to indoctrinate Ali without her knowledge. Their insistence that in sharing facts and feelings they are telling the whole story. Their refusal to imagine what might happen to the other group of people sharing the country.
This is the exact same way Israeli guides, counselors, scouts, and even American Jewish educators have always spoken to me about Israel. But the difference between them and Solloway’s Palestinian activists is that the latter are free agents speaking to a peer. The Israelis and Jews who educated my generation — and will continue to educate those to come — are being paid to do this by the Israeli government and Jewish organizations.
The finale of season four keeps Ali in Israel beyond the rest of her family’s stay. She is still in search of something. Ali loves creating binaries in her ideology, but she is beginning to break with them in her identity.
Binaries, the season suggests, simply do not serve us at all.
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny