Series

“Our Boys,” a Clever Israeli TV Mystification

The Story of a Hit Series · Based on the murder of a Palestinian teenager by three Israeli settlers in the early summer of 2014, the Israeli series Our Boys is carried by strong scripting and excellent acting. But by focusing on a single victim of criminals from the religious extreme right, it ends up ignoring the fate of the Palestinians at a time when the Israeli army was pounding Gaza.

The poster for the Our Boys series
HBO/Keshet

In a disturbing scene in the middle of episode 3 of the TV series Our Boys, broadcast on Canal+ in France, a Palestinian man is waiting in the interrogation room at an Israeli police station in Jerusalem. A table, two chairs, shabby walls. The man paces around, gripped by anguish. He has come to reclaim his confiscated mobile, but more than that, to find out what has happened to his son Mohammad, kidnapped by men he suspects may be Israeli settlers.

But Mohammad has already been horribly killed the night before, burnt alive, and the police know it—the boy’s body has been recovered. But the cops who take turns coming to see the man interrogate him as though he is himself guilty of something. They say nothing about his son’s terrible fate. For a short while, he would be the ideal culprit: social media hate networks, especially strong among the extreme right Israeli settler movement, have been circulating rumours that his son was gay, and thus the victim of a Palestinian honour killing. These allegations have reached this man, who is a simple stonemason who loves his son and sees him covered in shame although he is already dead.

This powerful scene sums up a reality: when it comes to the Palestinians, Israel does not care about the truth, and resorts to lies and deceit. For its politicians, cops, religious leaders and a large part of its public opinion, when the truth lies elsewhere, it is ignored. This is the dilemma at the heart of Our Boys. It is a merciless exposure of the religious right settler ultras, but at the same time, while clearly trying to empathise, it ignores by omission the overall situation of the Palestinians.

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A lesson in subtle propaganda

This series certainly criticises the monsters which Israel has produced, its children, “Our Boys.” But at the same time it is a clever piece of TV sophistry which in the end leads to the conclusion that there is ultimately, thanks to the stubbornness of a “good cop”, some justice for the Palestinians. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Boys is based on the murder on 2 July 2014 of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Abu Khdeir, but the series manages to ignore the fact that in that same summer of 2014, Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” killed 1,843 Palestinians in Gaza.

A strong story, committed writers, a solid, well-financed production: on paper, Our Boys has everything going for it. What’s more, when it came out in September 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu’s shrill cries of “anti-semitism!” taken up by the powerful hate networks among the Israeli settlers, gave it a sort of sympathetic halo in left-wing world opinion. But nevertheless, despite compelling scripting and some very good actors, the feeling of unease grows episode by episode. One ends up concluding that Our Boys, under cover of sympathy for a Palestinian victim, is just one more episode in the pro-Israeli battle for influence, that hasbara which has driven Israeli propaganda for decades and which is based on denying the military occupation of Palestine. In the end, the public is supposed to conclude that, yes, the country produces criminals, but does not hesitate to punish them. Unless they are at the head of an occupation army which regularly massacres Palestinians. There can be no equating the odd rotten apple with a whole system of oppression.

A solitary and punctilious inspector

The story, which is real, goes back to the summer of 2014. On 30 June, the dead bodies of three young Jewish settlers, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel, who had been kidnapped three weeks earlier, are found near Hebron. In Jerusalem, thousands of people demonstrate, chanting “Death to the Arabs!” and in several towns, Palestinians are grabbed and beaten up. The next day, Mohammad Abu Khdeir, a young Palestinian from the Shuafat quarter of East Jerusalem, is also abducted, beaten and then burnt alive in Jerusalem forest. A few days later, a 29-year-old inhabitant of the Adam settlement, and two of his young nephews (15 and 17) are arrested for the crime.

The series itself focuses essentially on the investigation led by a punctilious and solitary Shin Beth inspector, played with restrained anger by that fantastic actor Shlomi Elkabetz. Two interesting points emerge. Firstly, the extraordinary electronic surveillance techniques available to the Israel police, which Netanyahu in fact decided on 17 March this year to use in the battle against coronavirus in order to monitor the sick and virus positive. Secondly, it goes on a deep dive into the world of the extreme religious right living in the occupied Palestinian territories. The father of the main culprit is one of those inflammatory rabbis in the settlements. More of a psychological than a political affair, the series, moreover, dwells heavily on the personal flaws of the three killers, two of whom had been treated by a psychiatrist who was herself an orthodox Jew.

Cultural intelligentsia on manoeuvre

The three writers are all products of the crème de la crème of the Israeli cultural intelligentsia. The first, Joseph Cedar, notably produced the film Beaufort in 2007, adapted from the novel by the acclaimed author Ron Leshem. Taut and bitter, the film shows the absurdity of war and the misfortune of the soldiers in the last days of an Israeli fort in south Lebanon before the withdrawal in 2000. The second, Hagai Levi, for his part wrote the series BeTipul which was to become In Treatment, Israel’s most widely adapted TV fiction series, with more than 20 versions worldwide. The French version is currently being filmed. The third writer, Tawfik Abu Wael, is a Palestinian director with Israeli nationality, who in 2011 filmed Last Days in Jerusalem, an intimate drama about a couple drifting between desire for exile and an inevitable breakup.

Though he wasn’t in at the conception, producer-director Shlomi Elkabetz maintains he had a say during filming. He has the starring role of Shimon, a Shin Beth police inspector, and stamps his strong presence on the series. With his sister Roni, who died in 2016, he co-directed a gripping trilogy of films: Taking a Woman, The Seven Days, and The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Coming from the Israeli extreme left, he has also produced several Palestinian films, including in 2017 I’ll Dance if I Want, by Maysaloun Hamoud.

The producers also are not among the friends of the Israeli right. The Keshet Media Group runs two TV stations, Channel 2 and Keshet 12, whose news programmes are regarded by Netanyahu as leftist hotbeds. Keshet also owns Mako, the country’s third-biggest news site, which may be largely given to infotainment but is none the less not without weight among the country’s secular youth. In his constant battle with the media, the outgoing prime minister has long had this group in his sights. MoviePlus Productions, an independent Israeli production house linked to Joseph Cedar, and the American HBO, part of the Warner cable TV group, complete the lineup.

So Our Boys had everything going for it (from our point of view). Moreover, the series skilfully decodes the racism which blights Israeli society, vis-à-vis the Arabs but also between Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. Shimon, the cop played by Shlomi Elkabatz, is an oriental Jew who lives with his pious elderly mother and goes to the synagogue, but wouldn’t hesitate to lock up the religious. And the Ashkenazi prosecutor Uri Corb (Lior Askenazi), who is investigating the crime with him, shows sympathy towards the parents of the Palestinian victim. But a few months later, without turning a hair, he orders the destruction of Palestinian houses in that same Shuafat quarter.

Dodging the Palestinians

But the problem with Our Boys is its extreme simplification of the Palestinian situation. At the beginning of the series, the reaction in Israel to the abduction of the three teenage settlers is shown in detail, backed by a lot of archive footage, but when it comes to the Gaza war it’s a totally different story—it is shown fleetingly, from afar, with no detail or account. The Israeli anti-occupation militant and founder of the online news site +972, Haggai Matar, thus believes that “more than anything else, Our Boys serves the Israeli narrative and hasbara, Israeli diplomatic propaganda.” For him, “depicting and focusing on the murder of Abu Khdeir actually helps to redeem Israel” by ignoring the numerous other crimes committed against the Palestinians.

Also, as Eness Elias and Rajaa Natour observed in Haaretz on 12 October last year, “Unlike the Israeli characters in the series, the Palestinians are stereotyped, shallow, and lack complexity.” For them, the series “leaves many unanswered questions. In the end, Our Boys is not a political series. Yes, the Palestinian characters have a part, which is enormously important in a political and artistic landscape that crushes them flat. But the road ahead is still long, and the next challenge for Palestinian directors will be to bring the modern Palestinian to the screen: not the Jewish Palestinian, but the Palestinian Palestinian.”

On the screen, even when the fate of one of its children is at the centre of a story, Palestine remains a phantom.