Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

‘Transparent’ finds new conflicts on trip to Israel


Over the course of its four seasons, “Transparent” has been creating groundbreaking conversation about gender identity, telling the story of a family in which one parent is going through gender transition. It’s also become known as one of the “Jewiest” shows on TV, pushing deeper into issues of secular Jewish identity and introducing many to epigenetics, the idea that trauma — in many Jewish cases, Holocaust suffering — is hereditary, passed down from the generation that experienced it, to echo in future generations.

These conversations are complicated, and with the fourth season now available on Amazon Prime, “Transparent” adds another controversial topic: the Israel-Palestine conflict. (The following includes spoilers from Season Four.)

Throughout the series, the Pfeffermans have struggled with boundaries, definitions and fluidities; characters push against and dismantle binaries, rejecting constructs like “black/white” or “male/female” in favor of multiplicity and expanded perspectives. In Season One, Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) transitioned to become Maura, a decision that reshapes the family journey moving forward.In the new season, Maura is invited to speak at a conference in Israel and makes a discovery that further impacts the definition of family. The Pfefferman children — Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) — struggle with nonconforming identities and relationships.

The tour bus full of Pfeffermans shleps with it the traditional baggage of old and new American-Jewish perspectives on Israel: An older generation argues for Israel’s position as a safe home for Jews after pogroms and the Holocaust but is unable to see any nuance to the current conflict and is unwilling to criticize the Israeli government. The young see the black and white of suffering and inequality, whether it’s a stark imbalance of Western Wall plaza space for women or oppression of Palestinians.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian storyline, the Palestinian narrative gets the most visibility. In Ramallah, the youngest Pfefferman, Ali, hears stories from her activist friends and the Palestinians who live there, of Israelis blackmailing Palestinians and exploiting their vulnerabilities, such as sexual orientation, to recruit them as informants, and that some of them can’t visit Jerusalem without permits. She asks if checkpoints are “along the border” and is quickly corrected that “there is no actual internationally recognized border, just one big, ugly wall and hundreds of checkpoints all over the place.” It’s life on the ground for the Palestinians and their activist friends, without any larger context: There’s no acknowledgment of why the wall is there, and the one person who says, “Not every Israeli is here to get rid of Palestinians” is all but drowned out as others talk over her.

Responding to her family saying that Israel was created to be a safe place for Jews post-persecution, Ali says, “We do not need to make the Palestinians unsafe just so the Jews can be safe.” But there’s no discussion of the reason for the existence of the divider and the outcome, that it is believed to have increased security for Israel by severely curtailing suicide bombings (although violence continues, as this week’s shooting in the West Bank demonstrates).

Ali always has been the millennial searcher, looking for truth, equality, love and acceptance. Her sense of right and wrong is only partly innate, and ignited and amplified by the people she meets and loves. But it would have been even more interesting if she had to navigate conflicting narratives, each of which was making compelling — and passionate — points and presented by people with whom she shares a peer-level respect and an emotional connection.

These scenes paint an unbridgeable gap: The previous generation is living in the past, unable to step away from its narrative to see any negative outcome, and the younger generation is passionate about Palestinian rights as part of an overall quest for justice but divorced from the region’s history as context. Each perspective sees no other choice; each perspective has its valid points and its blindnesses, all forged in history and emotion, with no room for nuance or compassion.

In real life in the modern American-Jewish community, when it comes to “the conflict,” there are extreme positions that mirror the extremes in the Pfefferman clan. But those of us who don’t adhere to edges or subscribe to extremes are, perhaps, more silent because we’re seeing both sides but don’t have answers, and perhaps more disturbingly, don’t have any confidence that either side is willing to listen.

Throughout, the Pfeffermans’ visit to Israel is underscored by the songs of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a soundtrack both geographically appropriate and subversive as a score for a Jewish family’s tour of the Holy Land. For example, take “Everything’s Alright.” Its lyrics — “Try not to get worried/try not to turn on to/problems that upset you, oh/don’t you know/everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine” — indicate a kind of wishful thinking. “Close your eyes/close your eyes/and relax/think of nothing tonight” may be a good, in-the-moment coping strategy for a fictional, rock ’n’ roll opera Jesus, but it doesn’t solve systemic problems, whether they are Pfefferman family conflicts or regional ones.

Much has been written about the unlikability and selfishness of these characters. “Transparent” is intentionally disruptive and seems built to make the characters, and viewers by extension, uncomfortable, making it a perfect tonal match for the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which self-interest is a necessary guiding principle and discomfort reigns as conversational default.

If there’s one thing we should be learning from the Pfeffermans, it is perhaps that pushing against social limits and rejecting binary definitions, even — or especially — in a conflict as emotional and deeply rooted as the one in the Middle East, reveals the space between extremes. It is there, not at one pole or another, that we can do our individual work in discovering identity and exercise our sense of nuance and compassion.

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