“The Lesson,” an award-winning Israeli show created and written by Deakla Keydar and directed by Eitan Zur, is not in any way a didactic or moral tale. It’s a show of more questions than answers, and because of that, it has a lot to teach.
Originally titled “Sh’at” Efes,” or “The Zero Hour,” “The Lesson,” which is now airing on ChaiFlicks, tells the story of a classroom political debate that derails the lives of its two participants: Amir, an idealistic civics teacher played by Doron Ben-David (“Fauda“) and Lianne, a 17-year-old misfit student played by actress Maya Landsman, who won a Canneseries award for best actress for her raw, magnetic performance.
It all starts with a classroom debate, one that is meant to be a last chance for Lianne to prove herself after she’s failed by another teacher during linguistics class. Amir offers her to make up for it with a civics assignment in which she has to make a cogent argument about something, anything. She struggles — until a moment at the pool, where Lianne and her friends get humiliated and heckled by a group of Arab kids. It’s the kind of watershed small moment that plants the seeds of racism and intolerance. She presents her story, then makes her case: to forbid Arabs from entering Israeli pools.
Amir, incensed and taken aback by Lianne’s argument, compares her desires to kick Arabs out of public spaces to Nazi policies, and after a heated back and forth, he not only fails her for the assignment, but tells her she fails as a human, all while some students in the classroom chant “death to Arabs.” When she questions his decision, still inflamed, he asks Lianne, who struggles with living in a larger body, “What if the sign said ‘no fatties allowed?'”
Lianne feels pushed into a corner, by an education system that doesn’t understand her, by an absent dad and an overly critical, unaccepting mother who always sees the worst in her (played by a genuinely terrifying Irit Kaplan, who played another fierce mom in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem”) and finally, by her teacher, Amir. Her radical opinion makes her feel seen and empowered in a world where she feels powerless, marginalized by her body and by everyone who is meant to accept and support her.
Amir’s life is also in shambles. He has separated from his wife, Tamar, played by Alma Zak, after her infidelity and is obviously still reeling. His two teens, both students at the school where he teaches, are stuck in the middle. His daughter Keshet has taken his side in the divorce, and through the series, you see her trying to coddle and “parent” him at great personal cost.
The only thing that he has left is the classroom, and in empowering his students. Amir sees potential in Lianne, maybe because he has a savior complex — he wants to be the teacher that saves her, that sees her, that assuages how damning an education system not made for her is. Yet it’s exactly those tendencies that damn him and her to this fight and its engulfing consequences — in which his idealism about his place in the classroom is put in direct conflict with his personal beliefs about justice.
It’s hard to label what this show is, how to describe what we’re watching as these events unfold. At every turn of its six episodes, Lianne and Amir could stop this terrible snowball that starts in the classroom and spreads to viral TikToks and news reports and violent protests and, at its very end, to actual, terrible violence.
Keydar herself still isn’t sure how to categorize the show she’s written. Is it a political drama? A thriller? The award-winning show certainly has elements of them all. And yet neither feels exactly apt.
When we talk over Zoom, Keydar feels self-conscious about this quandary. She is, after all, like Amir, a teacher, though she sees in these two broken characters halves of herself. She often tells her scriptwriting students that they need to know the genre they’re writing in before they start their work. And yet here she is, with an award-winning show in her hands that she still can’t classify.
But the question at the heart of the show is clear, and it’s one that feels very apt in today’s political climate in both the U.S. and Israel: What does it mean to be the adult in the room? The parent, the teacher, the figure of authority – maybe even the politician?
There were two events that inspired Keydar in writing “The Lesson,” which came out in Israel back in January of 2022. One was deeply personal — the death of her grandfather. As she wept for him at his funeral, she turned to her teen daughter. “She looked at me and I asked myself, can I be now a grandchild? Or should I be now a parent?” It’s a question many parents face — what does it mean to have your children rely on you when you are in pain? When you don’t feel like an adult in control?
For Amir, the question is pertinent — he is a father and a teacher, entrusted with the care for all these young people who depend so much on his approval and attention. And yet he struggles to be the adult in the room — both for his kids, as he tries and fails to keep himself together after the divorce, and then for his students. Over and over in this show, Amir chooses his own ego, his own bleeding heart, instead of stopping the escalation.
As for Lianne, thanks to social media, she finally gets to be the mover and shaker, the one to make real changes, feel heard and take ownership of her life. Landsman so deftly plays this girl who is both young, vulnerable, and aching and violent and decisive.
The other event that inspired this show is a much more high profile one, one that’s been haunting both Keydar and many Israelis since it unfolded in 2014: the case of Adam Verta, a teacher who was fired from his Kiryat Tivon high school after his student, Sapir Sabach, sent a letter about him voicing his left-wing political opinions in the classroom to Shai Piron, the Israeli minister of education at the time.
The case itself is featured in “The Lesson,” when Lianne googles how to get her civics teacher fired and when Amir cites a decision made by the Israeli ministry of education to allow teachers to express their political opinions in the classroom following the debacle.
Keydar struggles with the comparison. Verta and Amir are fairly different; the latter’s politics feel tame in comparison to Verta, who speaks at events for Breaking the Silence, an organization that gives former IDF soldiers a forum to speak out about their service and advocate against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Sabach led a political campaign against Verta that left him fearing for his and his family’s life.
“Without the real story that happened in Israel in 2014, I wouldn’t have made this series,” Keydar concedes, but the show is very loosely based on this case and on other cases like it. Keydar says she’s aware of five instances, mostly of male civics teachers, who have gotten in trouble for political opinions shared within and without the classroom.
As a teacher watching the Verta case unfold, Keydar had asked herself, “What would happen if something like this ever happened to me? Would I ever be able to trust the system again?”
And as a writer, Keydar is interested in tensions, in fights, in what makes them happen. In the classroom, the teacher “has all the power and everything is behind doors, but now [students] have phones and they can record everything… everything is a pressure cooker,” she says.
Keydar believes it would be a cop out to call “The Lesson” a political drama. Its take on Israeli politics doesn’t run deep — there’s no real exploration of Israeli-Arab relations, or even of internal Israeli politics. On the other hand, the social dynamics it explores are such an integral part of modern day politics, one would say, often to our great misfortune.
Like the U.S., Israeli society is filled with festering wounds, ones that are currently bubbling over into the streets full of protestors fighting for their democracy. We want to think that the world of “The Lesson” is a different world, one where political differences can be broached. One where we can have a moment of touching healing at the end, but that’s not what we get.
“The Lesson” ends with violence. It’s almost inevitable. Through half-covered but mesmerized eyes, we all see where it was going. And we are left with questions. We don’t know if Amir will ever teach again. We don’t know if Lianne will ever graduate high school or meet her “potential,” whatever that word, haphazardly thrown at teens as an accusation, even means.
“I don’t think I could write the series right now, because when I was writing it, I was very genuinely interested in seeing the other side, listening to the other side,” Keydar tells me. “When I was writing Lianne’s character, which is very far from my opinions, I wanted to understand her every sentence — it was a very difficult challenge for me. But now, everything is so radical. And the rules of the game of democracy are changing in a way that I can’t accept…. It’s a time of emergency, because freedom of speech is on the table, women’s rights and the heart of our democracy.”
Keydar feels like this show was almost made in a different world, one where things felt less dire. I don’t see it that way. Watching both the show and the political unrest in Israel unfold with my heart catching in my throat, I can’t help but see the parallels: how classrooms in which chants for “death to Arabs” echo can lead to an extremist government, one in which egos and past scars take precedence in the chambers of power.
Perhaps that is the mark of great, thoughtful art. That it is always relevant, always alive, no matter how painful it may be.