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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

HBO’s “Our Boys” – Anti-Israel propaganda or an honest look into a harsh reality?

HBO's TV series - Our Boys reveals many aspects of Jewish and Arab lives, some Israeli claim it portrays Israelis as violent murderers

The summer of 2014 was one of the worst summers in the bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The chain of events that deteriorated into a war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza began with the abduction of three young Israelis – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel.

The teenagers, who were trying to hitchhike from their boarding school back to their homes, were kidnapped by Palestinian operatives of Hamas in Hebron and apparently murdered soon after being kidnapped, their bodies hidden.

For about three weeks extensive searches were carried out for the boys. The discovery of their bodies led to another murder. A Palestinian boy, 15-year-old Muhammad Abu-Khdeir, was kidnapped near his Jerusalem home by Jewish extremists and burned to death by his kidnappers. The events of that year, the murder of the four, the three Jewish boys and Abu-Khdeir, are seen as severe trauma, a stage on the way to Operation Protective Edge, an IDF military campaign in Gaza that led to dozens of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian deaths.

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Living in Israel at the time, I can testify that the memory of that summer, five years ago, is still a fresh wound, one that will not heal for a very long time.

The American cable network, HBO, has recently released a TV series, “Our Boys” revolving around the events surrounding these kidnappings and murders. “Our Boys” documents the killing of Abu-Khdeir by Jewish extremists, and the efforts of the State Security Service (Shabak) to catch and prosecute the murderers.

The series, directed by three Israeli directors, two Jews and an Arab (Joseph Cedar, Hagai Levi, and Tawfik Abu-Wael) is an American HBO production, mainly aimed at American audiences, but as a conscious artistic decision, the characters in the series speak the original language – Hebrew or Arabic. This decision, that will limit the appeal of the series for English speaking audiences, who don’t like to read sub-titles, is what makes this series a true artistic achievement. The result is incredibly realistic and the characters, accents, dialogue, and feelings created in the series are very believable.

So far, two episodes have been broadcasted in Israel on the local satellite network ‘YES’, and in the United States four episodes. I watched the two episodes, and returned to that summer, feeling again the variety of feelings of fear, hatred, anxiety, and compassion I felt then.

The series is so true to reality that it is hard for me to understand how could anyone who is not Israeli understands the subtleties of the events on the screen.

  • Is it possible for anyone who knows only superficially the Arab-Israeli conflict to understand how Abu-Khdeir works in a burger joint in the west of the city (where his friends advise him not to speak Arabic), and returns home by light rail to the East Jerusalem area, Shu’afat neighborhood, where he lives – a territory occupied and annexed by Israel, in which living is very different from life in the ‘Jewish’ west of the city?
  • Would an American or Indian viewer understand why the policeman was reluctant to accept Abu-Khdeir’s father’s complaint?
  • Why the father is held for a full day at the police station when the police know that his son is no longer alive?
  • The relationship between the policemen, members of the force that enforces Israeli law in the east of the city, and the population that does not want to abide by this law?
  • Will he understand the conflict between the heads of Shabak and the agents from the ‘Jewish division’ of the same service whose job is to monitor extremists in the Jewish population?
  • Will he differentiate as the filmmakers differentiated between different clothing details and different facial hair as a key to the origin and ideology of the heroes?
  • The wild hair and beard of the “extreme settlers” and the black and white attire, the neat hair of the “Oriental Yeshiva student”?

All of these are meticulously detailed in the series, in a manner true to the subtleties of the ethnic and ideological diversity of its heroes. But I guess the non-Israeli or non-Palestinian viewers, who will not be aware of these fine subtleties will just be swept away by a fascinating story, and a touching human drama.

Indeed, compassion is the sentiment felt for all characters, the “positive” and the “negative”, Jews and Palestinians alike.

The abducted boy’s family is portrayed in its moments of horror and loss, in a truly empathic manner, from the moment the boy was first seen on screen, and we know his unavoidable future.

But the killers are also portrayed as human beings with a storm of contradictory emotions that leads them to the terrible act. The character of one of the murderers, a fallen Yeshiva (Jewish religious school) student, torn by questions of faith, constantly struggling within himself, going after an older friend, portrayed as a charismatic psychopath, finally committing the horrible murder, is presented in a complex, gentle and compassionate manner.

But despite the excellent acting, the exact script, and the fine production values ​​typical of the HBO network, the series was not received positively in Israel.

Many complained that the series portrayed the Israelis as a group of bloodthirsty murderers and that while it emphasized the murder of the Palestinian Abu-Khdeir, it belittled the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish boys.

Another complaint is that while the Palestinian killers have been praised and glorified on the Palestinian street, Abu-Khdeir’s killers have been widely condemned by their Jewish compatriots, apprehended by the security services, and sentenced to severe penalties, but the series does not present these differences.

Families of Jews, victims of Palestinian terrorism, approached the HBO network demanding that this matter be made clear to viewers, but their request was denied.

In my opinion, these complaints are not well-founded. It is a well-known Israeli argument being repeated over and over is that while Israeli society sanctifies life, Palestinian society is sanctifying death. Because Israeli society condemns the killing of innocents, while Palestinian society encourages terror.

In my view, this argument is meaningless. Since the murder of the four boys, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed, and the two societies indulge in a never-ending bloody conflict, where each party is sure of its justice, and each side blames the other for the continuation of the conflict and setting the fire ablaze.

The sad truth is that the burning of the Arab boy Abu-Khdeir was not a single event that was widely condemned, but one in a chain of Jewish terrorist acts, which was horrifyingly continued with the burning of an entire Palestinian family, the Dawabsha family, in the village of Duma, about a year later (those suspected of the murder are currently on trial, and their verdict has yet to be decided.)

The kidnapped Jewish boys were also not the last victims of Palestinian terror, and afterward, there were dozens of other victims, the last of whom, 17-year-old Rina Schnerb, was murdered in an attack that left her father and brother seriously injured, but a week ago. Perhaps watching a series depicting the loss, grief, sorrow, and compassion that accompanies the murders will bring both sides to think where they are headed.

So, anyone who wants to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a little more deeply, and enjoy a TV series that displays excellent acting, and depth in the research, script and character development, can watch “Our Boys”.

The series accurately portrays the events and watching it can conceptualize to a non-Israeli viewer the harsh and complex reality in which Jews and Arabs live in our region, far beyond the bleeding chronology reflected in the news releases.

Gal Amir
Gal Amir
Living in Eschar, Galilee, Israel. A reform Jew. An accomplished novelist and a PhD at Haifa University, Law faculty. Research fellow at the Jewish-Arab Center. Contributor to The Eastern Herald.

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