How a Young Activist Shaped Attitudes on Israel and Palestine for 'Transparent'

Shay Roman, who advised the show on issues relating to the conflict, talks to Haaretz about the series' departure from the usual way Israel is depicted on American television

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in season four of "Transparent."
Amazon Prime

NEW YORK — The new season of Amazon’s award-winning show “Transparent” takes the Pfefferman family on a multi-episode arc to Israel, were Ali, the youngest member of the clan (portrayed by Gaby Hoffmann in the series), embarks on her own journey to the West Bank and realizes her privileged position as an American Jew in Israel. Shay Roman, an associate producer on the show, acted as an adviser for issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although American news are often focused on the conflict, and it’s hard to think of a mainstream American comedy or drama that has placed its characters in Israel – let alone Palestine – for multiple episodes. “Broad City,” another show centered on the funny antics of two self-identified young “Jewesses,” recently backed down from a plan to shoot in Israel. The finale of Broad city’s third season instead resorted to hilarious narrative acrobatics as the heroines embark on trip to Israel sponsored by Birthright (called Birthmark on the show) but are denied entry to the Holy Land.

A few weeks before to the premier of the new season of “Transparent,” Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show aired an episode filmed in Israel. The star has caused a lot of excitement as he strolled the streets of Tel Aviv during the shooting, appearing in various hip and touristic places. The final product featured a warm portrait of Israel: O’Brien hang out with ordinary Israelis, visits the offices of the navigation app Waze and frolics in the Dead Sea. (He also travels to the West bank and speaks to Palestinian activists.)

The Israel portrayed in “Transparent” is markedly different from O’Brien’s. We don’t see the Pfefferman family in Tel Aviv’s fashionable bars, nor do they stop by at high-tech firms that are a source of pride for Israeli politicians. They hardly encounter or speak to any young Israelis (aside from a family drama that we won’t spoil). Instead, the Pfeffermans pay a visit to the Western Wall, where Ali is indignant about the partition separating the men and the women and observes that the women’s section is much smaller. They also visit a settlement in the West Bank, a fake, touristy Bedouin camp that disappoints them and finally, the Dead Sea.

Meanwhile, Ali embarks on her own journey of the West Bank, visiting Ramallah, a Palestinian farm and a checkpoint. Roman, who is also a member of the millennial anti-occupation group IfNotNow (their official goal is to “End the American Jewish community support for the occupation”), believes the show is a radical departure from the American media’s depiction of Israel.

“I think there has been no TV show that has gone literally into this territory. Just saying the word ‘occupation’ sounds revolutionary,” says Roman of the way Palestine is depicted in the show. “Ali talks about how the American media and the Israeli government are so conflated, she refers to them as ‘they,’ sort of like ‘the man.’ Personally, as a young American Jew, I've felt often frustrated by the one-sided Israel at all costs perspective. I think I was excited to bring in a world that we don’t get to see, and hear people’s opinions that we don’t get to hear.”

In episode three, “Pinkwashing Machine,” Ali spends time with a young, trendy crowd of Palestinian and International activists, among them an Israeli named Shmuel and Noa, and an American Jew sporting an IfNotNow T-shirt – a cameo by Roman herself). At the dinner table the conversation turns to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and Israel’s Shin Bet security service’s use of blackmail to push LGBT Palestinians to become informants, under the threat of exposure. A Palestinian women played by Palestinian-American actress Jennifer Jajeh tells Ali, “We are exhausted from having every aspect of our lives be wrapped up in this political issue. We can’t breathe. We can’t move. We can’t go to the next city, visit friends, get an education, travel abroad. And sometimes we just want to have dinner with our friends.”

Another young woman, played by Amber Fares (who also filmed the Qalandiyah checkpoint that we see later in the show), explains to Ali that American Jews like herself have a privileged status in Israel. “American Jews have more rights than Palestinians who have been here for generations. You can get citizenship, but as a Canadian Palestinian, I can’t. I mean, my family has been born here and I can’t even go to Jerusalem,” she says. ”You can’t even go to Jerusalem?” asks Ali, shocked.

This image released by Amazon shows Jeffrey Tambor in "Transparent."  Tambor was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series on Thursday, July 13, 2017
Jennifer Clasen/AP

Roman tells Haaretz that the conversation took a few days to shoot since Hoffmann, who plays Ali, and the other actors sometimes improvised, touching upon different aspects of the effects of the occupation on Palestinians’ daily lives. “It was just trying to create a lifelike sense of people who are used to talking about this every day of their lives, what they would say to a stranger, a foreigner, who is interested and open. It was important to show that this was a mixed community of locals and foreigners who care about ending the occupation, so it was a good stepping stone for Ali, who knows very little about it,” Roman says.

In what Roman refers to as a “life imitating art imitating life” moment, she herself participated in a joint effort by Palestinians and international activists to rebuild a Palestinian farm, similar to the fictional one Ali visits, just a few months ago. Roman took part in building the Sumud Freedom Camp in the village of Sarura in the Hebron Hills this summer. The camp was erected by young Palestinians, young American Jews from IfNotNow and others and it was torn down by the Israel Defense Forces, which Roman witnessed.

Shay Roman (front row, right) with IfNotNow friends.
Michal David

Roman believes that Ali’s growing interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is representative of a new generation of American Jews who are actively exploring it while rejecting the more pro-Israeli narrative of mainstream Jewish American organizations and the Birthright trips.

“Ali is at a certain place in the in the journey, a really hard one, that I think many young and millennial Jews have come to,” says Roman. “In the American Jewish community there is so much power in young voices, so it’s important we take the time to understand which side we are on in this conflict. Is it about freedom and dignity for all, or is it too complicated?”

IfNotNow activists hosted watch parties for the new season of “Transparent” in New York and LA, some of which were attended by the show’s cast and crew. Participants were excited to see their perspective reflected in an influential, highly-rated show. “I hope that is will open the conversation. I think the show really has the ability to start people talking and thinking,” says Roman.

The season ends with the possibility that Ali will become further engaged in anti-occupation activism, although Roman refuses to give out any details about season five. In the meantime, she says the change in discourse in the American Jewish discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine will continue to be fueled by young American Jews like Ali. “There comes a time where you cannot say, the politicians can figure it out for us. There is a moment in the series where Ali is grappling with the thought, ‘Am I a bad Jew for questioning Israel and Israel’s politics?’ And I can’t speak for Ali, but I can speak for myself. Judaism teaches us to question, and we can’t be afraid to do it just because it’s a change.”