Barely three minutes into my interview with Avi Schwartzberger, creator and founder of the new web series Avi Does The Holy Land, only one question on my mind stood out specifically among the others: is this girl legit?
Beginning the conversation with some rather intimate details about her personal life, the self-proclaimed “Canadian Jewess” told me of the initial inspiration for her new video blog.
“Just to show all the haters about Israel… I have always been kind of a loud-mouth. My friends call me Jew Snookie,” Shwartzberger said, jokingly referencing the reality television series Jersey Shore. “Mostly it had to do with the fact that I was like, ‘We need to do something to stop these leftists.’”
Naturally, Schwartzberger had an ordinary and traditional Jewish upbringing. Born in Calgary, she attended Jewish day school until grade three, practiced Shabbat with her family, had a bat mitzvah, participated in BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) and attended synagogue.
A couple of years after Schwartzberger graduated from Mount Royal College, she was still unsure of what to do with her life, and decided that going on a Birthright trip was her destined rite of passage.
According to her, Birthright was where she fell in love with the Holy Land and decided that she wanted to make aliyah. And she did; in February 2015, just two months after her trip, Schwartzberger packed her bags and set off for Israel.
Barely a year passed before she created Avi Does the Holy Land to document her experience. The series has already garnered considerable attention from both Jewish and Israeli media outlets. The level of coverage it has achieved is understandable, which I grew to acknowledge only after having an actual conversation with her, where she shared what I thought were her radical and seemingly outrageous political views.
In fact, listening to Schwartzberger speak made me so flabbergasted that I was left stunned and speechless.
She (scandalously) discussed attractive and eligible Israeli bachelors, former Jewish and non-Jewish flings, and some other dirty tid bits one normally wouldn’t share with a reporter. I soon realized that this was as lighthearted and charming as Schwartzberger could get, before she got down to brass tacks.
She explained the general direction of her web series and the different themes for each episode. Some of the recently-released clips explore a Jew’s guide to Birthright, how to combat terrorism in the form of clubbing, and the conception that gay rights in Israel are a form of pink-washing (a strategy to distract the public from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its defenders claim).
Schwartzberger also unveiled an episode featuring an interview with left-wing Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, and another that focuses on African refugees fleeing to Israel from countries such as Sudan and Eritrea.
But of all of Schwartzberger’s conversational pieces, what really stood out to me were her thoughts on left-wing Jewish activists. Most right-wingers don’t normally sing their praises; for Schwartzberger, however, it seemed banishing them to oblivion was not even a suitable punishment.
“I really don’t think that people should be criticizing Israel and I really think anybody that is criticizing Israel should be ex-communicated,” she told me. “I don’t think there’s a place in the Jewish community for people that criticize Israel and that is what this is about.”
Throughout our Skype conversation, Schwartzberger continued to spew her radical sentiments on leftist Jews, referring to them, specifically, as belly-aching, leftist, sh-t heads, which is exactly what she called Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism.
When asked about misconceptions concerning Israel, Schwartzberger responded, “That we ride on camels, that we eat hummus for breakfast, lunch and dinner… I think misconceptions are that Israel is a racist country, which is crazy… I see Arabs all the time and I see black people all the time.”
She then refocused her attention to the leftist movement. “This is harsh, but I really feel like they need to be separated and put into camps or something. Because they are poisoning minds… We don’t need you anti-Semitic Jew.”
As I stared at her – or really, at my computer screen – in disbelief, she continued to ramble on, discussing the common Zionistic concept of ‘the big tent’, which advocates for the inclusion of all types of Jews regardless of their political affiliation. It promotes the idea that there are many views on Israel and that Jews should be allowed to have them, thus allowing each and every Jewish individual into the metaphorical ‘tent’.
“That’s bullsh-t,” Shwartzberger said. “We should not give everybody a voice. These people need to be ex-communicated with violence. They need to be separated, they need to have their status taken away… I don’t even want to call them Jews.”
I ended the interview a little bit uneasy, shocked and confused. There was no way that this could be legitimate.
After about a week of lagging and some more research,+972 Mag, an online Jewish blog that is notoriously leftist, published an interview with Shwartzberger.
This caused me to question her even further: why would such a right-wing fanatic agree to an interview with perhaps the most leftist Jewish publication in the industry?
I sent an email to Schwartzberger demanding that she reveal whether her show was really meant to be satirical or not.
In a response that was well-articulated and did not reflect our previous conversation in the slightest, she wrote, “Avi Schwartzberger is a satirical character and Avi Does the Holy Land is a satirical web series. The point of the series is to challenge conceptions of Israel on both sides of the aisle.”
“I knew it,” I thought. As it turned out, Avi Schwartzberger was just a fictional character played by the real Aviva Zimmerman.
In an alternative interview with her true self, Zimmerman explained that her real goal for initiating the satirical web series was to analyze young North American Jews and their relationship to Israel in a humorous way.
“Many traditional communities in North America refuse to accept anyone who is critical of Israel and I believe this is isolating and rejecting an entire group of people,” said Zimmerman.
She grew up in a traditional non-observant Jewish family and studied theatre at Ryerson University. After completing her undergraduate degree in fine arts, she attended the University of Toronto to pursue her Bachelor of Education, so she could teach drama.
She then re-located to Calgary for a couple of years to direct and produce, and later travelled to Tel Aviv for six months on an internship with a film company. During this time, she managed to meet her husband and get a full-time job in the film industry.
She’s been living in Israel for over five years now.
“Sometimes I feel like the more I live here, the less I know. But what I do know is that what is going on in Israel should concern North American Jews,” she said. “If North American Jews care about Israel, they should recognize the worrying situation on the ground: the erosion of democracy, the increasing extremism of the right, and the continuation of an immoral occupation that threatens the security of both peoples.”
She added that the people she works with on the web series are aware that Aviva Schwartzberger is a satirical character. For example, when she interviewed Beinart, he was prepped to treat her as a serious journalist.
“I think many North American Jews have this idealized image of Israel, which can make it very hard to see the reality on the ground… Israel claims to be a first world democracy, and yet continues to act un-democratically, and so the international community is holding it accountable for its actions,” she said.