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Conan and 'Transparent' give Israel the normalcy it craves

 

October 6, 2017



(JTA)—“It looks just like L.A.”

A character in the Amazon series “Transparent” says this as she gets her first glimpse of Tel Aviv, and if you work for the Israeli government, or any of a number of pro-Israel groups, you probably couldn’t be happier.

Even if the show will go on to acknowledge the political and human rights mess of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and don’t worry, it will), such glimpses of an extremely appealing and otherwise normal Israel have the feel of “mission accomplished.”

The start of the fall TV season has been very good to Israel. Anxious about the BDS movement and other efforts to delegitimize Israel, its boosters were treated to a season-long arc on “Transparent” largely set in Israel, as well as an hourlong “Conan In Israel” special on TBS. “Transparent” used Israel as background and counterpoint to its usual explorations of identity, sexuality and family dysfunction, while Conan O’Brien used his charming “idiot abroad” shtick to poke gentle fun at Jews, Palestinians and mostly himself.

Yet both shows appeared to have emerged from an earlier, less complicated era when Israel was largely seen as a regional good guy and the Palestinians as an uncomfortable but ultimately solvable nuisance if only haters on both sides would let go of their broyges.

I say that realizing that “Transparent” acknowledged the complexities and contradictions of the conflict in ways likely to anger the right. As Season 4 begins, Maura Pfefferman, the transgender matriarch of the show’s distinctly Jewish and proudly secular central family, is invited to Israel to deliver a lecture on gender and the Cold War. (All 10 episodes of “Transparent” are available on Amazon.) His youngest daughter, Ali (short for Alexandra), asks to go along, having been humiliated by a former lover in a poem published in The New Yorker. She wants to go for “the history and the suffering and the bloodshed—all that real stuff.”

Ali, a grad student, is the most “woke” of the three grown Pfefferman children, and unsurprisingly it is though her perspective that the show relates the Palestinian experience. A feminist activist scoops her up in front of the Tel Aviv Hilton (having declined to spend money in Israel in deference to the boycott), and brings her to meet a Palestinian friend at a hip cafe in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ali is amazed by the normalcy of life in the “Ramallah bubble,” although her companions remind her about the checkpoints and promise to “catch [her] up” on life under occupation.

Next stop is a nearby farm, where attractive young Palestinians (and at least one pro-Palestinian Jew) share their experiences. A gay man explains that he was jailed in Israel (he doesn’t say why) and that his jailers threatened to out him to his family. A Canadian-Palestinian says that Jews in the Diaspora have more claims to citizenship in the land than the Arabs who actually live there. Another says, “We can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t go to the next city.”

The episode, tellingly, is titled “Pinkwashing Machine,” an allusion to the charge that Israel is often accused of asserting its positive gay rights agenda to distract from its oppression of the Palestinians.

You can almost hear the clacking of the keyboards as Jewish organizations work on their news releases refuting the Palestinians’ claims, but the scene is oddly nonconfrontational for a show that is so, well, transparent in its left-wing politics. Set outdoors around a table groaning with Palestinian food (maqluba, yum), the scene is right out of a commercial for a California wine or Olive Garden. The viewer is left wondering how bad their lives can be if they live like this. Although a wide-eyed Ali seems converted to the Palestinian cause by all she sees and hears, loyal “Transparent” watchers are by now used to her various intellectual enthusiasms, which she tends to pick up and discard as easily as her ever-changing hairstyles.

In a later episode, the Pfeffermans will debate the conflict during a bus ride to Jerusalem, but the dialogue again seems carefully, and blandly, balanced. Ali scoffs when an Israeli says there never was a Palestinian people; her mom, Shelly, counters that the Holocaust made the Jewish state a necessity. Ali reminds her family of the displaced Palestinians. Maura says there were Jews in the Holy Land well before there was an Israel.

In the end, you are left with the message that “it’s complicated,” and the family goes on to enjoy a raucous morning in the Old City. On a visit to the Western Wall—“Jesus Christ, it’s like an Orthodox Jewish Disneyland!” says one of the Pfefferman kids, not inaccurately—an androgynous-looking Ali sneaks into the men’s section. Shocking? Iconoclastic? Maybe. But considering the broad American Jewish consensus in support of pluralistic prayer at the Wall, hardly transgressive. Ultimately, “Transparent” plays it safe, assuaging Israel’s critics with a nod toward the Palestinian reality and soothing the pro-Israel crowd with a portrait of a cool, bourgeois Israel that feels like home even to Diaspora Jews as disaffected as the Pfeffermans

Conan also acknowledged the Palestinians in his special, although here, too, the balance was with Israel as the most ardent Israel booster would like it to be seen. He visits the Aida refugee camp for a sober although hardly enlightening conversation with a few of its residents. But this is Conan, and he’d rather amuse than enlighten. The brief segment includes a number of complaints about the security wall and Israel’s military, after which Conan is careful to remind viewers, “To be fair, we did not have a conversation with people who dispute these views.”

Instead, the unmistakably Irish-Catholic talk-show host jokes with handsome young men and woman on a Tel Aviv boulevard, jams with an Elvis impersonator at the beach, visits the Waze headquarters for a view of “startup nation” and trains with the IDF. He even gets face time with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an indicator, perhaps, of how serious Israel takes the notion of hasbara—public diplomacy, as it were—and how grateful it was that Conan turned over an hour of prime time and a pervasive social media campaign to presenting Israel at its best.

It’s impossible not to enjoy Conan’s man-on-the-street bits, and he does the important work of humanizing both Jews and Palestinians, itself an accomplishment and a contribution in a region too often portrayed as a war zone. Pro-Palestinian social media, however, didn’t seem pleased with his visit, mocking him as naive and ensorcelled by the Israeli side.

But at least he went to Aida and Bethlehem, just as “Transparent” took its cast beyond the Green Line. Maybe it is impossible to capture Israelis and Palestinians in all their complexity without negating one or the other—activists on both sides certainly don’t make it easy.

The problem in fully understanding the conflict is that the people who seem to care the most about the issue have almost no interest in hearing the other side or having them heard. That goes for Jews as well as Arabs. So both sides attack the media and other observers for trying to get a complete, nuanced picture. And the gun-shy media, when they are not taking sides, either over-correct or play it safe.

Still, given the choice between a portrait of the region that displays its antagonists as “normal” versus one that demonizes either side, I’ll take normal any day.

 

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