“Eli Stein believed that no home could thrive unless it was surrounded by strong walls. And so yes, it’s true. His company name, my family name, was stamped on the side of mortar shells, and rifles, and tanks, because that’s what my father offered Israel, strong walls for a fledgling nation, and that’s what cost him his life,” Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) tells an audience in a long address at the beginning of “The Honorable Woman.” Israel, she continues, is “a fledgling state no more, I think you’ll agree, but one that’s thriving within strong walls.”
The show, which premiered last night, is Sundance’s latest series to embrace political issues — earlier series have explored the lingering impact of sexual assault, the risks of the death penalty and the relationships between Native American communities and law enforcement. Unlike its predecessors, “The Honorable Woman,” which explores the impact of Nessa’s decision to turn her father’s company into an engine of economic growth and modernization in Gaza and Ramallah, has been given terrible significance by real events.
“The Honorable Woman” is propelled forward by a mystery of fact. But its real concern is a mystery of politics: Can Jewish liberalism make any real contribution to lessening the agony Israelis and Palestinians inflict on each other? And how far can that liberalism be sustained?
In the first episode of the series, its main character, Nessa, is raised to the peerage because of her work in the Middle East and swears “that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”
Queen Elizabeth is the least of it when it comes to Nessa’s loyalties. A radio interviewer questions the quality of her British citizenship, given that she possesses an Israeli passport. Her sister-in-law, Rachel (Katherine Parkinson), is confounded by the attachment Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) feel to Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal), Ephra’s former translator, who now works as the family’s nanny. Shlomo Zahary (Igal Naor), a long-standing friend of the Stein family, has been pleased by Nessa’s efforts to stimulate economic growth and lessen Palestinians’ poverty, so long as he gets contracts for the work.
“The Honorable Woman” is at its most striking when it simply captures the way people talk about Israel and the Palestinian territories. At a performance by a young artist educated at a music center sponsored by the family in Ramallah, Nessa repeats what we will come to know as a stock part of her public speaking repertoire.
She tells the story of aliens who invade Earth, and to show the seriousness of their intentions, go to Israel intending to make peace. “Their message is simple,” Nessa says. “Resistance is useless. Lay down your arms. I can’t really tell you the details of what happened next, but basically, by the end of it, your sympathy was with the aliens.” As an attempt to relieve tension, the anecdote works, but it also undermine’s Nessa’s argument that the conflict can be resolved.
The characters’ private conversations are no less fraught. When Ephra takes Atika’s son, Kasim, to a concert, Rachel bitterly remonstrates him in a later episode: “I think you wanted to present my Jewish daughters with Atika’s Palestinian son, just so the world could see the United Colors of Stein.”
Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea), who heads MI6’s Middle East desk, finds himself at a dinner party that turns rancorous. “Do you make these arguments because you’re genuinely an Israeli apologist, or is simply the fundamental default of being a Jew?” one guest asks another. “Do you ask this question because you’re genuinely anti-Semitic?” his antagonist demands to know.
Convincing others is not the only challenge: Nessa and Ephra must constantly assess the cost their own work charges against their safety and happiness. They made their first payment as children, when their father was murdered in front of them. Nessa sleeps in a sealed chamber, concealed behind a wall in her home. Rachel resents the security that Ephra insists they hire after an attack on the family, but is even more traumatized when a protester splatters her with blood at a luncheon, crying “Sumeria belongs to Israel! Sumeria belongs to Israel!”
How much can the Steins endure? How can they possibly tally up the hatred and adoration aimed at them from both Israelis and Palestinians into a comprehensible ledger? Nessa believes that honor is crucial to effectiveness. Both “The Honorable Woman” and events unfolding in the Middle East suggest the terrible consequences of mistaking the ability to endure and inflict pain for a measure of true change.