There’s a great moment in “Activist,” a web drama series about student political action, based in part on the struggle of the Open Hillel reformers inside the Jewish community, when the heroine, Sam, is leading an anti-occupation demonstration and looks up at a window of the college building to see her mother, Carole Finnigan, a university dean, looking down at her with shame and rage. Everything is implied in that look: you’re hurting our school and your future.
Sam, played by Marie Karcher, pauses for an instant in her demonstration, stops chanting; and then goes on. The disapproval barely registers. (It’s the beginning of Episode 2). It’s a great moment because it shows the way that issues that contort and confine one generation disappear for the next one. My generation argued over what we could or couldn’t say about Israel and the lobby’s role in American institutions. The young generation is past that– or in this series they are.
“Activist” will be getting an award for “best web series” next week at the Big Mini Media festival in Brooklyn. (The festival is happening Nov. 11 & 12 at Long Island University. The first two episodes of the show will be screened on Nov 12 at 7 pm).
You can see the first six episodes here, and what animates them is the show’s celebration of young people’s political engagement, and their definition of the terms. The most uncomfortable emotion in the series is NOT between Sam and her mother the dean, that old Jewish establishment family fight. It’s the tension between the two Palestinian students and the white activists when the white activists go about planning BDS demonstrations without consulting them, the people who actually experience occupation and exile. Episode 4, below. The characters of Ali and Omar, played by Munir Atalla (right below) and George Abraham, are both wry and restrained, and a little goofy too, a living departure from the caricature of Arabs we usually get.
These activists are imagining community in different ways than my generation of Jews did. And so when Jeffrey Goldberg says that Jewish students are “anti-intellectual” and “ill-equipped” to see reality when they adopt a Palestinian narrative—well Activist shows just how insulting that idea is. These students are interested in activism on Palestine because they want to be engaged in a real progressive movement, and they are not hung up by technicalities like the 67 border or the miracle of Tel Aviv. They are for equal rights.
“My college experience was defined by organizing,” says executive producer Amelia Dornbush, who was active in the Open Hillel movement at Swarthmore. “I was engaged 24/7. These moments in the show are blisteringly real.”
Just consider the climactic moment of the first season, the end of Episode 6, when Sam, wrapped up in some petty disagreement with a friend, walks into a room with a bunch of young people around a television. “Israel just bombed Gaza,” someone reports angrily. This is as serious a moment as antiwar activists grappled with in the 70s; and these young people’s moral response is as serious and noble. BTW, that moment fed the breakup of the American Jewish community as we know it.
Dornbush helped lead the liberation of the Swarthmore Hillel in the wake of the Gaza slaughter. When her chapter chose to hear about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Hillel International threatened them with legal action. Her chapter ultimately changed its name to be free of the parent, but she was smeared as an anti-Semite. “When someone calls you a kapo, my stomach still drops, it still does a somersault,” she says. Being part of a wider community gave her the emotional support to get through those moments.
But when I asked writer/director Joshua Wolfsun, also a veteran of the Swarthmore actions, how much the show plans to deal with issues of Jewish identity and the Holocaust, he said, “That’s not this show. Our characters are not just imbedded in the Jewish community.”
He elaborated: “The Jewish piece is definitely there and very crucial, and we will explore some of that. But the question of white privilege is also in the narrative. We’re dealing with a lot of that without naming it.”
Dornbush says the show also doesn’t want to be programmatic. “Josh and I didn’t want to do a show that was, here’s all the reasons why you should support BDS. People are doing great work on that, and there are videos about that. But in terms of cultural production and telling stories, there is value in a show that wrestles with the processes of doing organizing.”
I hope they do a second season, to tease out more of the contradictions inherent in this season: from intermarriage and entitlement to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Meantime, we should all be grateful for the mirror that they have held up on young pro-Palestinian activism. Maybe it will help older people break out of some very tired and encrusted thinking.
The battle between Sam and her mother involves issues many of us are struggling through in an era of entitlement and inequality. When Dean Finnigan, played devilishly by Kristie Speck, warns her daughter that the Palestinians kids’ actions, like putting up an apartheid wall on campus, are “going to ruin your future, your prospects, your reputation,” Sam responds in a vital, generational way. “Fuck you and fuck your gardening, it’s not even real therapy,” she says, storming out. I want to see what happens next.