Avi Schwartzberger is convinced she’s the woman who can help Israel solve all its image problems.
The rambunctious, self-described “Canadian Jewess” who moved to Israel because “the men were so hot” parlayed her dual passions for pro-Israel activism and partying into a 2016 web series. Across social media platforms, the overearnest, oversexed young party girl offered helpful tips for Birthrighters embarking on their big trip to Israel (“Pack sunglasses, condoms and abortion pills”); frolicked at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, suggesting that if Palestinians could all just become gay, they would get a lot more sympathy; asked a horrified African asylum seeker if he would agree to have “a little part” of his penis cut off in exchange for staying in Israel; and read the riot act to “bellyaching leftist shithead” Peter Beinart.
Now Avi is back for a second season, with new out-of-the-box strategies – like Lilo the Military Lion, a fluffy Israel Defense Forces mascot. As Lilo plays alongside her, she suggests to passersby in the mall that he can be placed at checkpoints and accompany Palestinian children when they are arrested – in order to make the occupation more “fun.”
The twist, of course, is that Avi is completely fictional. She’s the creation of filmmaker and activist Aviva Zimmerman (who also plays Avi) and her producing partner, Danielle Angel. The duo created the satirical web series, which tackles Israel’s most disturbing and controversial issues through humor.
The Avi Schwartzberger character embodies everything young leftists involved in U.S. groups like All That’s Left and IfNotNow find problematic about Diaspora Jewry, in the “mockumentary” style perfected by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat characters.
Like these characters, and also in the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tradition, Avi ambushes unsuspecting interviewees, as well as trolling prominent left-wingers (this season, her adversaries include American-Jewish activist Simone Zimmerman, and writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) who are in on the joke.
As in the first season, which aired in 2016, Zimmerman’s aim is to use satire to allow young Diaspora Jews to confront the negative feelings they may have about the Israeli policies – first and foremost, the occupation – their communities tell them are taboo.
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“We see humor as the key in getting people, especially young people, to let down their defenses and open up a dialogue,” Zimmerman says.
In the time that’s passed since the first season went online, Zimmerman says Avi has become more “mature and thoughtful.”
No longer a full-time party girl obsessed with sex, drinking and dancing (“There are fewer blow-job jokes,” as Zimmerman puts it), Avi has donned a power suit and started her own PR company.
“She’s on a quest to fix Israel’s PR problem, once and for all,” explains Zimmerman. “She’s convinced she’s the ultimate cherry tomato,” she adds, referring to the salad staple that the government likes to claim Israel invented.
The first project from “Team Avi”: A public service announcement assuring young Jews that “you can remain liberal, open, progressive and vegan,” and still “find your place in Israel’s occupation.”
Speaking into the camera in that sincere, oft-repeated style that has become cliché, Avi and her team declare: “We are stronger than the forces of change. We are the forces of the status quo!”
The slogan of the campaign? “L’Occupation. The Liberal Occupation. We’ll End It. But Not Now. Later.”
Like the members of her fictional PR agency appearing in the PSA, “Avi Does the Holy Land” is a team effort. At the helm are Zimmerman and Angel, leading a group of volunteers whom Zimmerman describes as “a lovely gaggle of lefty olim [immigrants]” from the United States, Great Britain, Turkey and Canada.
The second season was crowdfunded by fans through an Indiegogo campaign.
Using satire to deliver a message of political protest is both challenging and satisfying, Zimmerman says.
“Satire is hard – especially the kind of satire we like, which isn’t always obvious,” she says. Sometimes while filming, she adds, her team worries that Avi delivers her messages too well; that her over-the-top, right-wing defenses of Israel might further convince those who agree with her alter ego’s politics.
“We have constantly found ourselves asking if it went too far – or if it went too well,” she reveals. At the same time, she says, they are always monitoring how racist and offensive they should allow Avi to be in her vilification of Palestinians in order to make their point, lest they alienate the very people whose rights they want to advocate for.
“There is constantly a major learning curve, and it’s a fine line to walk,” she admits. “The best result for us is when Avi is so convincing that viewers aren’t quite sure if she’s for real or not.”
One major change that fans of first-season Avi will be unable to ignore is her figure. Zimmerman shot the second season while pregnant with her first child, and will give birth as the episodes are rolled out. So how will that affect the third season?
Zimmerman admits the possibilities of Avi as a mother are as intriguing as they are frightening.
“Just think,” she says. “A new generation for Avi to brainwash.”
To watch more episodes of “Avi Does the Holy Land,” check out the website www.avidoestheholyland.com