Swept along by The Wave

The historic 1967 experiment in fascism continues to have rippling effect for student and filmmaker Mark Hancock.

A poster for the film Mark Hancock produced, ‘Lesson Plan.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A poster for the film Mark Hancock produced, ‘Lesson Plan.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many of us have been to Germany and, for that matter, Austria or several other countries that were party to the Holocaust.
Presumably, we generally go about our vacation time business there or, in fact, business matters, without giving too much thought to the nefarious deeds perpetrated against Jews, and other “undesirables”, such as Gypsies and homosexuals, within living memory. After all, time has moved on, and today Jews generally live peacefully in those countries.
But have we really moved on? Are the horrors of a totalitarian fascist regime a thing of the past? Or is there a germ of evil constantly bubbling under, just waiting for its moment to emerge and spread, like a cancer, across the ranks of ordinary Joes and Helens?
That was at the core of the infamous Third Wave experiment conducted by Californian high school teacher Ron Jones back in 1967. Jones was a young history teacher, and a popular one at that, who swiftly and efficiently martialed his class students into a cohesive group the members of which quickly and willingly gave themselves to “the cause.”
The previously typically unruly teenagers became a mostly tight-knit disciplined bunch, enthusiastically responded to Jones’s demands and blindly following his lead.
The experiment, and how it unfolded and soon careened out of control, became the subject of 1981 TV movie The Wave, award-winning 2008 German film Die Welle, a book and a documentary called Lesson Plan. The latter 2011 endeavor featured interviews with Jones and several of the class students, including Mark Hancock who also produced the film.
Now, a 67-year-old resident of Seattle, Washington resident, Hancock, who is not Jewish, is currently in Israel, among other things to attend a Hebrew-language production based on his and his former classmates’ life-defining teenage experience. Hancock’s Israeli itinerary also takes in attendance of the Holocaust Education: Time, Place and Relevance conference at Yad Vashem.
The play will be performed by the Orna Porat Theater, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, at 11:30 a.m. on Shabbat. The show will be followed by a talk, in English, by Hancock who, for some years now, has been touring the world to attend portrayals of the Third Wave, and talk about the lessons to be learned from it. The onstage story has been presented all over the globe, including in India, Venezuela, Hong Kong and Mexico, and even as a rock opera in Canada. And this is not the first time Israeli audiences will get to see the storyline acted out. Hancock has been here several times, including in 2013 when he caught a production by JEST, the Jerusalem English Speaking Theatre group.
Over half a century on, Hancock’s life continues to be tellingly informed by the Jones project. “I remember it very clearly,” he says. “It continues to be one of the more distinctive experiences I have ever gone through.”
Hancock says that, like his pals in the class, he was easily attracted to the idea of the Third Wave. “It seemed like a really fun thing to do, with our favorite teacher,” he recalls.
But things soon turned sour. “It became stricter and more strident, but it was confusing. He [Jones] was saying things like, ‘we’re going to save the world and change the country and all that good stuff,’ but then he had all this military behavior to go with it.” Hancock’s impressionable teenage psyche was having trouble accommodating the mixed messages, and the heady sense of idealism that was sweeping the class along for the ride with their beloved teacher. “It became confusing and I was trying to figure out what was going on, and how I might want to respond. Finally, in the end, I was terrified.”
The Third Wave undertaking was sparked by a student responding to Jones’s explanation of how Nazism took control of most Germans in the 1930s, by asking how people there could just stand by and not do anything to prevent acts of violence, humiliation and murder being perpetrated against innocent Jews and others. Before long the students were unwittingly drawn into a similar unquestioning mindset.
Hancock says Jones had a receptive audience for his rudely enlightening trial. “The history class was called Contemporary World. It was a great class. He would teach us about the world at that time. He taught us about Russia during the Cold War, and China when they had the Cultural Revolution going on. Then we learned about Africa, which was being decolonized at that point, and then he told us about the social conditions which caused World War One and caused World War Two, although we never studied the wars themselves. Lastly, after The Wave, we spent the last six weeks of the school year on Vietnam. The topics were fascinating. We were only half an hour from San Francisco, so we were in a pretty politically-oriented region, and Vietnam was a hot topic.”
For Hancock and his mates the latter was the clincher for the experiment. “We had friends who were serving over there, and we were going on 16, so when we were 18 we were going to be drafted and sent over to Vietnam. A lot of us didn’t agree with what that war was about. There was a lot of [politically-fueled] energy at that point, and Jones tapped into that.”
Hancock believes the ramifications of the Third Wave project  are just as relevant today as they were back in the days of flower power and anti-Vietnam War demos.
“I’ve seen our story on right wing web sites, and I’ve seen it on left-wing websites. We have to tell people that our story applies all around. It’s not a left story or a right story. It’s a matter of critical thinking. We need that on all sides.” That, he says requires individual input.
“You have to have sources of information and you have to have curiosity. That leads back to democracy. You need to have democracy to have freedom of speech, and freedom of the press and religion, freedom to discuss and to dissent, and all those basic democratic human rights. We need to protect democracy, but it is also something we need to participate in.”
For tickets and more information: http://www.tamuseum.org.il/