A lot of my queer Jewish community is stirred by this TV show. So am I. It premiering in 2014 on Amazon, centering on a parent of “an L.A. family with serious boundary issues” coming out as a trans woman. Maura Pfefferman’s transition, along with the family members’ various responses, is presented with depth and humor.
Beyond this eponymous representation of gender variance, the show features diverse presentations of queerness and sexuality, as well as charmingly muddled takes on semi-assimilated US Jewish identity. The show’s writers present a multilayered depiction of Ashkenazi family dynamics, with its attendant weird stew of privilege and ancestral trauma. In these characters, you can see the ahistorical narcissism of American culture blend with the ever-present Jewish collective past… and it’s even funny.
The main characters flail recognizably in these murky waters, flaws on full display more often than not; but the just-nuanced-enough writing manages to preserve their full humanity and relatability throughout. As in life, complexity is allowed here.
As the episode opens, people are assembling at a Shabbat gathering co-organized by Maura’s daughter Sarah. Community members gather, dressed up, enjoying snacks and greeting one another as children play ethereally by candlelight. A cheerful woman offers cappuccino to Leslie, girlfriend of Maura’s other daughter Ali.
Leslie politely declines the Israeli coffee, saying “it disagrees with my politics,” and she and Ali move on. The woman returns to them, now with a confrontational tone, to clarify that Leslie has a political beef with the state of Israel. Leslie implies that she is participating in a boycott, stating “I don’t want blood on my hands.” A man jumps in, “What about the blood of Jewish children?” He cites the death of an 18-year-old soldier in his cousin’s platoon. Annnd they are off. The ensuing debate covers ground familiar to anyone who has studied, or survived, Israel/Palestine history: the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, the Balfour Declaration. And all the while, Ali Pfefferman, Leslie’s Jewish date, is visibly upset with Leslie. “Please, don’t do this,” she pleads quietly. She rolls her eyes impatiently.
Why does this affect me? Because it’s a scene I’m familiar with, having felt pressure to hold my tongue for many years in overtly pro-Israel Jewish spaces – almost every Jewish space I myself wasn’t involved in organizing. (It’s nearly impossible to find institutional Jewish ritual space that doesn’t include an Israel advocacy orientation.) On a few occasions, such as when prayers for “our” soldiers were incongruously inserted into a Yom Kippur service during a period of Israeli military assault on Palestinian neighborhoods, I’ve spoken up and been shouted down and threatened by a few strenuously angry people.
And so I looked closely at this episode. My initial response was, Wow, finally, here is a representation of Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people being made visible in a Jewish space. The riled-up defenders of the Israeli state were recognizably drawn, bearing down upon the dissenter with a familiar monomaniacal tenacity. But as the scene unfolded, it became clear that the critique of Israel was being set up to take a fall.
The pro-Israel man sneers at Leslie, “Are you even Jewish?” He then calls her anti-Semitic. The episode continues elsewhere. A tender group circle happens as part of the ritual, in which two of the pro-Israel arguers are humanized by sharing issues they care about: a monarch butterfly migration, the pandemic of homelessness in Los Angeles.
At the close of the night, Leslie and Ali walk out of the venue together. As Leslie complains about the “propaganda” present at the event, she falls completely into a big hole in the sidewalk, injuring her leg. Leslie will limp from this injury for the remainder of the season.
It’s hard to miss the obvious intention to mock and dismiss the one character speaking up for Palestinian human rights at a Jewish event. If any doubt lingers, see the show’s official description of the episode on Amazon Prime: “Ali ends the night by witnessing the pitfalls of Leslie’s prejudices.”
Very telling! By conceiving of Leslie’s support for nonviolent resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation as “prejudices,” the writers make their own allegiance to the Israeli state abundantly clear. In a political context where specious accusations of anti-Semitic prejudice are regularly leveled at people – including Jews – who wish to see the human rights of both Palestinians and Jews respected, this misleading characterization serves to obscure legitimate critique of the Israeli military state. It also makes it difficult to confront actual prejudice against Jews as Jews, when it does indeed occur.
The show offers viewers the pat slapstick of having a troublemaker get their just desserts. But beneath this facile take lies a more damaging implication. Having the only character willing to express any critique of Israel at a Jewish event be a non-Jew, an outsider, carries the implicit suggestion that the Jewish range of opinion on the subject is in fact straitjacket-narrow, and invariably upholds a simplistic pro-Israel narrative that — by denying or minimizing the Nakba, and the continuing ethnic cleansing at the root of the ongoing conflict — renders Palestinian people invisible.
In fact, many Jews are actively engaged in supporting Palestinian civil society’s call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. BDS is a nonviolent global movement designed to pressure the Israeli government to meet its obligations under international law: end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967, and dismantle the wall; recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respect the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.
As Jews in support of BDS, many of us are acting from a deep connection to Jewish and humanitarian ethics, as well as a long history of resisting injustice. We value human rights and democracy over the illusive security of a heavily militarized, Jewish supremacist nation-state.
Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, Boycott from Within, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence are working to honor the human rights of Palestinians and disrupt institutional Jewish support for Israeli state oppression. Though you might be hard put to find representations of Jewish diversity in mainstream culture, there’s actually a lot going on out there.
Internal Jewish conflict around Israel/Palestine is a living, breathing, fundamental element of American Jewish family and community life. As with many of the controversial realities that Transparent’s writers tackle head-on, it often ferments just below the surface. And in certain subcultures, like Ali Pfefferman’s young queer and lefty academic communities, addressing the Israel/Palestine conflict is downright obligatory. But the show’s writers choose to dodge this topic over and over again: at the womyn’s music festival, among Ali’s fellow grad students dishing politics, at the family’s Passover seder. Its near-inescapability makes the omission so glaring. Why are the writers afraid of representing Jewish dissent?
Reportedly, portions of Transparent’s upcoming fourth season will be set in Israel. Here’s hoping that the show’s writers have worked to broaden their understanding during the hiatus.
Thanks to Shelby Handler, Acca Warren and Cecilie Surasky.