Caught in the undertow

A participant in the 1967 Third Wave experiment will share his experiences at JEST’s production of the eponymous play.

JEST cast (photo credit: Courtesy)
JEST cast
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It began with a question, posed innocently enough by a high-school sophomore in California in 1967: “How could the German people claim ignorance about the slaughter of the Jewish people?” It’s a question with no easy answer, so history teacher Ron Jones decided to conduct a radical experiment with his students that would go on to shock the world. In his own classroom, he tried to recreate the conditions that lead to a fascist autocracy.
Since the experiment was first performed, it has been adapted into a TV movie, a book, a documentary and a play. Opening this week in Jerusalem, The Third Wave, written by Jones and Joseph Robinette, is being performed by JEST, the Jerusalem English Speaking Theatre group.
“It has a very powerful message,” says the play’s director, Leah Stoller, “and the message is that almost anybody can be drawn into something if they’re whipped up and given a purpose and a reason for being and togetherness.”
To demonstrate this reality to his students, Jones began a five-day experiment in which he gradually introduced his students to the conditions inherent in an autocracy.
And like any effective autocracy, it needed a strong central figure, a role that Jones was ideally suited to play.
“He was charismatic as heck,” says Mark Hancock, one of Jones’s students in the experiment. “He was always smiling and always positive. He made you feel really good when you were around him, and I still have my class notes. And on a paper where I didn’t do so well, I got a C, he wrote, ‘Great start.’ So that’s the kind of guy he was.”
On Monday, the first day of the experiment, Jones drilled his students about the importance of discipline, forcing them to sit straight, stand when asking a question and address him only as “Mr. Jones.” On the second day, he lectured his students about the strength of community and led them in a chant: “Strength through discipline.
Strength through community.”
Each subsequent day, Jones rolled out new orders and expanded the scope of the experiment, eventually settling on a name for the group – The Third Wave. But several days in, the dynamic changed, Hancock says, and what had begun as a game quickly turned sinister.
Halfway through, Jones told his students that the experiment was a ruse and that they were actually part of a larger youth movement that was sweeping the nation.
“He said to us, ‘This is not a game. This is real,’” Hancock recalls.
Jones then issued membership cards and informed his students of a secret police that would report traitors that spoke out against The Third Wave. Mock trials were held for students suspected of disparaging the movement or violating orders, and those found guilty were kicked out of his class. He said that active participants, “good party members,” would receive the grade of an A, and those who protested against the group would receive an F.
“Many became very much into it,” says Hancock, “and some boys became very aggressive… You could no longer trust even your best friend.”
The experiment continued until its dramatic conclusion, when Jones called for a rally on Friday afternoon.
He gathered more than 200 students in the school’s auditorium and informed them that a televised announcement would be made by their national party leader. He turned on a TV, and after several minutes of static, he played a video demonstrating Nazi Germany during the Third Reich.
“He ran the Nazi films and told us, ‘This is what you’re becoming, and this is where you’re headed,’” Hancock says. “It’s obviously a very simple story, and by itself it’s a week in a high-school class, but the root of the issue runs throughout history,” he says.
According to Stoller, the universality of the message is one of the reasons that JEST decided to do the play. “It’s not only about Hitler, and not only about Nazis,” she says. “[It’s] that very few people are exempt from being drawn into something like this.”
In bringing the experiment to the stage, Stoller says they have cast 17 students representing five schools in Jerusalem and one in Efrat.
“The children aren’t professionals, so we worked with them a great deal on voice projection, improvisation… stretching their vocal equipment, their body expressions, understanding the underlying meaning of the lines.
Then you make a lovely synthesis between the lines and the character, and you get something credible and the play becomes believable,” she explains.
To further enhance the play’s verisimilitude, Mark Hancock will be present at the last three performances in March for a Q&A session with the audience.
“It’s extremely exciting to be able to share my [experiences].
I’d say it’s humbling to see so many people embrace our story and to see [the story] being used as a tool to talk about the issues,” he says in a phone interview.
Stoller says that it’s just such a discussion that she hopes the play will spark in the audience.
“I feel that a play should be edifying and entertaining,” she says. “It should send people out thinking.” • The Third Wave premiered on Wednesday and will run for six performances until March 7 at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. For more information, visit