There are so many elements to unpack in the extraordinary Israeli drama “The Lesson” — which is based on a true story and won the best series award at the Cannes International Series Festival last year — that it’s hard to know where to begin.
The starting point of this gripping six-part miniseries, which premiered this month on ChaiFlicks, the Jewish streaming service in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, is a confrontation between an outspoken student and her civics teacher in a high school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba that rapidly spins out of control.
When a class gets into a debate over whether Arabs should be banned from the local swimming pool after incidents of sexual harassment, it’s not long before the students break out into chants of “Death to Arabs!”
The liberal teacher — Amir, played by Doron Ben-David of the popular Israeli TV series “Fauda” — tries to tamp down passions and admonish the student who started it all, Leanne, played by Maya Landsman. But Amir inadvertently calls her a “fatty” and later loses his temper at Leanne in a tirade that besmirches Israeli soldiers — and the whole incident is captured on video and goes viral on social media.
All hell breaks loose.
“It’s about being hurt and fighting back harder, and I feel that is the fuel of many conflicts,” said screenwriter Deakla Keydar, who wrote the series. “This is the cycle of pain.”
Keydar, 48, sought a way to bring a story ripped from Israel’s headlines to the screen. The result is a riveting drama that touches on difficult moral issues: the treatment of Arabs in Israeli society, shifting power dynamics between teens and adults, the challenges of living in the glare of social media.
The series came was inspired by a rash of conflicts between Israeli civics teachers and students in recent years that extended beyond the classroom. In 2020, an Israeli school in Rishon LeZion made headlines after students complained of their civics teacher’s pushback following classroom discussions in which students said all Arabs should be killed and that assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin “deserved to die.”
In the end it was the teacher, a 30-year veteran of the job, who was fired after parents and students complained about him sharing his left-wing opinions and using the class as a “platform for expressing opinions that do not concord with the state’s education system.”
The teacher said his goal was to “challenge students, to teach them to think independently and to conduct a dialogue.”
Keydar, who also teaches writing classes and is a book author, said she became obsessed with these disputes and didn’t understand why they weren’t getting more attention. So she started writing “The Lesson.”
The miniseries, which is directed by Eitan Zur, references various flashpoints in Israeli society, including riots by Arab Israelis during Israel’s May 2021 operation in Gaza and the 2016 point-blank killing of an already-incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron in 2016 by IDF soldier Elor Azaria. Hailed as a hero by some Israelis and condemned as a killer by others, Azaria eventually was convicted of manslaughter and served nine months in prison.
The show also gets at more universal themes, including romance, being overweight and whether people on opposite ends of the political spectrum can disagree civilly. It’s poignant, sometimes funny, and filled with emotionally complex characters, and includes a moving scene evocative of the “Oh captain, my captain” scene in “Dead Poets Society,” the Oscar-winning 1989 film.
Ben-David, who played one of the Shin Bet operatives on “Fauda,” delivers an emotionally wrenching performance as Amir, the teacher and recently divorced father of two teenagers.
Landsman shines as Leanne, the sharp-tongued student who is self-conscious about her weight, suffers emotional abuse from her mother and struggles with figuring out right and wrong amid the conflict with her teacher. She also finds herself in a budding romance with Asi, a classmate played by Leib Levin whose brother was irrevocably wounded by Arab terrorists.
Keydar said she wanted to tell this story because she is fascinated by how social media makes people angry even when the facts are unclear.
“In real life, we’re very suspicious. We’re very cautious,” she said. But with social media “we get attached very quickly.”
In Israeli civics classes it’s hard for teachers to abstain from airing controversial views or challenging students about their own views. But that’s the point, Keydar says.
“You cannot really teach about democracy unless you use examples from reality,” Keydar said. But, in today’s environment, if you do you may “get to the edge and might find yourself without a job.”
Keydar sees some of herself in the character of Leanne. Born in Buffalo, New York, but raised in central Israel, she too struggled in school and was pugnacious toward teachers. Like Leanne, she had a physique that made her stand out — in Keydar’s case, considerable height.
Keydar eventually got a degree in script writing from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. She first worked at an ad agency and at a financial newspaper, but she wanted to do something more creative. So she started to edit TV and film scripts and write novels and short stories.
In “The Lesson,” the story takes off when Amir challenges his students for condemning all Arabs for harassment at the pool. He points out that Jews, too, perpetrate sexual harassment, noting that the former Israeli president Moshe Katsav was sent to prison for rape.
“Harassment is a problem. Women’s status in Arab society is a problem. But attributing a trait to race, saying that men harass because they’re Arabs, is racism,” he says.
Leanne responds: “Let them swim in their own pools, with the Arab girls who go swimming in their pajamas.”
Amir shoot backs: “Ever wondered why they come to your pool? Because they don’t have one. The Arab municipalities are poor. They have no pools or parks.”
After a student condemns Amir for his “liberal, lefty talk,” it’s only a moment before the classroom erupts into chants of “Arabs into the sea!” and then “Death to Arabs!”
Amir tells Leanne, “You get a zero on the assignment, and a zero as a human being.”
Keydar says she hopes that this series will give viewers an opportunity to consider others’ viewpoints in a way they might not be able to in real life.
After being released in Israel last year, the show (called “Zero Hour” in Hebrew and produced by Kan 11 and Yasmin TV), won the award for best drama from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television. It also has been aired in many Israeli classrooms.
“Stories still connect people, make them ask questions,” Keydar said. “It’s amazing for me when I see students and teachers in Israel that sit together and watch it.”