I imagine that for some, seeing one own’s home state/country/city on TV is an exciting and purely happy prospect. But whenever I hear of a new book or movie or series about Israel, my heart fills with trepidation. My home country is a minefield, I know, and a tightly knit one, that so easily implodes. But I was excited for an artist as attentive as Jill Soloway to set her eyes on it.
I binge-watched the entire fourth season of Jill Soloway’s Amazon show Transparent in a single night. That is indeed the rub in a show that is so meticulously and beautifully crafted; the cinematography is impeccable, the soundtrack absolutely perfect, and it is hard to tear oneself away.
It’s Ali’s journey in this season of Transparent that I most relate to. The youngest Pfefferman child is deeply uncomfortable in her body. She doesn’t feel comfortable with the binary construct of gender. Of all the show’s characters, Ali has been perhaps the most childishly self-involved and politically self-righteous in the past, but the wonderful thing about Transparent, which sets it apart from so many other comedies (for it is, apparently, a comedy) is that its characters do grow and evolve. Ali has now found her calling in academia, and feels more secure in her future.
At the beginning of the season, after finding out her ex has written a deeply graphic poem about her “pussy” in the New Yorker, she chooses to escape to Israel with her transgender mother, Maura.
She says she wants “to stand on that ground and […] feel all that history and the suffering and the bloodshed and all that real stuff.” But soon after she lands, she is swept away by an activist named Lyfe to Ramallah, where she meets Palestinians who open her eyes to the realities of living in the West Bank.
Unlike Ali, I don’t personally feel uncomfortable with my gender. But when it comes to Israel, I have often been asked to choose a binary identity. I can either have sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, or I can feel love for my homeland. Like I wrote way back in 2015 (augh, it feels weird to quote my younger self): “When it comes to the Jewish state, we want a flawless and passionate marriage or a complete divorce.”
Some days, all days, I feel uncomfortable in my Israeli body. Often, travelling the world, I feel uncomfortable telling people where I’m from. How do I explain what I feel about my country?
When I tell people where I am from, they seem to choose a binary for me. They believe that they already know how I feel about my country, especially when they find out about my military service. In France, I’ve had people flat-out refuse to talk to me because of where I come from.
When it comes to her body, her sexuality, and her gender identity, Ali’s journey might arrive at a more grounded place. Maybe, as her family floating in the Dead Sea joked (I have to admit, I felt a little uncomfortable with that particular scene, which seemed a bit derisive towards gender non-binary people), she might decide that she is non-binary. She might want to change her preferred pronoun to “they.” But until she voices that decision, she is on murky ground. A ground I feel, that in relation to Israel, I might stay in forever.
In the show, Ali’s character travels freely between binaries. She walks confidently between the men and the women’s section of the Western Wall. She travels freely between the West Bank and Israel and settlements. She is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and perhaps, she is neither man nor woman. In certain ways, it weighs her down, especially within her body; in others, it frees her in this world, where she is white, American, and privileged.
I will be forever shackled to my Israeli identity.
In a way, Transparent is about being in that confusing, grey, uncomfortable space. It is about how messy our relationship is with our bodies, our sexuality, our place.
Perhaps the show does lack a certain political intensity when it comes to Israel. Even at the checkpoint where Ali loses a friend after he gets detained by the IDF, the gravity of the moment escapes us. Soon, she will be wading into the Dead Sea, and that incident will be forgotten.
I know some people will complain that the show didn’t go far enough to show the suffering of Israelis or Palestinians, that it didn’t show houses being demolished, that it didn’t show bloody stabbing attacks. But Transparent has never been one for exploitation porn; it has never used graphic scenes to manipulate its viewers. Its historic first scene of a naked transgender person is done in an empathetic, sensitive way. There was nothing sexy or risqué about the scene—it just showed a body as it is. And while Transparent does not shy away from painful and sensitive topics, it never needlessly triggers its audience. It treats them with care.
By showing Palestinian people living in the West Bank as human beings, and not as props or terrorists, the show has done something few other Western shows have managed: to make Palestinians more visible, more empathetic, and more relatable, much as it did with transgender bodies.
More importantly, Transparent does something that no other fictional American TV series has shown before. It shows us Tel Aviv, the Western Wall, Ramallah, checkpoints, settlements, and the wall. It shows them as facts and scenery, and in a certain way, and lets them speak for themselves.
And while there are characters in the show who disseminate what some might call propaganda, both from the Israeli and Palestinian perspective, Transparent never takes a side. It leaves us in a less comfortable place. One in which we feel that we both understand more about Israel and Palestine, and at the same time, less. Perhaps that is the best anyone can do. Certainly, that is how I feel about my country of origin every day.
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video