The dust-up in Israel regarding HBO’s 10-part mini-series Our Boys began even before its August 12 premiere. Israelis on the right, having seen only the trailer, were incensed. They remained so when the show aired. Were they correct?
Our Boys, a Jewish-Arab Israeli collaboration, explores the 2014 arrest and trial of three Orthodox Israeli men—an uncle and his two nephews—for the murder of a Palestinian youth. It’s important to recognize that as faithful to events as the creators tried to be, the recounting is fictional. Some actual personalities were merged into a single character, the scope of TV and film having limits. The writers also created dialogue, revealing conversations they’d never heard, to add to the drama. I don’t know if they accessed transcripts of interrogations and the trial.
Critically, the show’s opening scenes lay the groundwork by marking a painful moment—there have been many—in Israel’s history. Eighteen days before Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder, Palestinians kidnapped three young Israeli Yeshiva students: Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. Israelis prayed and demonstrated for their safe return. When the students were discovered murdered, the nation mourned. Many on the Israeli right erupted.
Had the creators begun with the killing of Mohammed, ignoring the Yeshiva students’ murders, negative response to the show would easily be understood. Israelis would see themselves simplistically rendered as haters of Arabs (some are, hardly all) and wanton killers.
But Our Boys portrays the revenge murder as wrong and a violation of Jewish values. Yet it never condemns Israel. Rather, it calls to task those who would kill illegally in the name of the state and lauds Israel as a nation dedicated to morality, law and peace.
What’s the problem? As I mentioned, pushback began when Israelis saw only the show’s trailer. Seventy years of attacks by Arab states and Palestinian terrorists have left their mark on the Israeli psyche. Yet to be legitimate, dramas like Our Boys must present complexity and subtlety. The reason is obvious: Human beings are complex and subtle. Murder horrifies us yet we’re often struck by the desire for revenge—more murder. We can celebrate our best attributes only if we confront our worst.
Speaking of complexity, Our Boys presents Mohammed’s parents, Hussein and Suha, sympathetically. They’re human. They’re Mother and Father! Yet the right may fail to note that the show also presents many Palestinians as ardently desiring Israel’s destruction and in thrall to the concept of martyrdom that fuels terrorism against Jews in Israel and (non-Jews included) elsewhere. Many Palestinians disregard the wishes of the mourning parents. Israelis who don’t see the show can’t know this.
Three months after the deaths of the three Yeshivah students, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian suspects in a shoot-out. The three killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir received prison sentences ranging from life down to 22 years for the youngest, an emotionally disturbed teen.
The challenge any people confront when struck by violence is that killing, or convicting and imprisoning suspects, doesn’t necessarily bring matters to a close. Deep wounds heal slowly if at all.
Five years later, Israelis and Palestinians remain at loggerheads. Peace—true peace—seems unreachable. Our Boys touches emotions still raw. If negative Israeli responses seem off the mark to me, they’re nonetheless understandable.
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