Contains references to episode one of Our Boys. No spoilers beyond that!
Let’s start with the words of Israel’s Prime Minister on Twitter and Facebook:
“The propaganda Channel 12 Keshet has produced an antisemitic series called Our Boys… I am not surprised by the fact that Keshet is besmirching Israel’s image, since I am used to Keshet doing the same to me every day…”
The series Our Boys dedicates only a few minutes of cold impersonal archival film to the murder of the Three Boys. Immediately afterwards, and for the entire length of the rest of the series, the plot disconnects from the story of the horrific murders, and concentrates on a single incident – the murder of an Arab youth in Jerusalem, a shocking but rare incident.
Some 120 grieving families from the Choosing Life Forum came out with a heart-breaking letter against the series. Merav Hajaj, the mother of Shir Hajaj z”l, who was murdered at the Promenade of Armon HaNatziv, wrote: “People see the series abroad and think that Jewish terror is equivalent to Palestinian terror. That we kill them and they kill us. The reality is completely the opposite. The State of Israel acted decisively to catch and punish the murderers of Abu Khdeir. In contrast, the Palestinian Authority pays and praises murderers of Jews. In summer camps and in schools they praise and educate to follow in their footsteps.”
Ever since the series opened a month ago, many of you have turned to me and asked what can be done. My recommendation is clear: Don’t watch Keshet or programs by Keshet… avoid watching Keshet and Channel 12 for their choice to darken our name with lies throughout the world.
Is the Prime Minister correct? Or more relevantly, where is he correct and where not, and why?
In this Culture Connection we’ll try to work through the various accusations for what they reveal about Our Boys, their resonance in Israeli society, and their motivation.
The Jewish “side” is not presented
“The series “Our Boys” dedicates only a few minutes of cold impersonal archival film to the murder of the Three Boys. Immediately afterwards, and for the entire length of the rest of the series, the plot disconnects from the story of the horrific murders, and concentrates on a single incident – the murder of an Arab youth in Jerusalem”
This is difficult to refute.
The show has been received with anger and hurt by many Israelis, and in particular by those who identify with the national orthodox sector.
For some reason, the kidnapping of these three teens hit the Israeli public even harder than the wave of terror of the Second Intifada that killed over 1000 civilians in under 5 years. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of what had initially seemed like a kidnapping and not a murder, or perhaps it was the nobility of the boys’ parents.
The parents of the three boys projected a calm and a dignity that captured the heart of the whole country.
It would be fair to say that this is not how the parents are portrayed in the HBO series. Indeed, as Prime Minister Netanyahu points out, the parents are not “portrayed” at all: We only meet them through press footage, at public events. Likewise we do not ever “meet” the three teens. Their kidnapping is only reported upon.
By contrast, say critics of the show, the inner world of Muhammed Abu Khdeir and his parents is fully, empathetically explored. Their humanity is gently and carefully embraced. These critics have no problem with exploring the Palestinian family at all. But they do point to a serious emotional imbalance.
A sin of omission, not commission.
So on this accusation, the Prime Minister is correct – in his description, if not necessarily in his attribution of antisemitic motivation (we’ll come to that later).
We at Makom are able to offer a remedy to this omission.
We recommend watching – or screening – this excellent documentary recently created for Keshet TV by Yoav Limor – Hatifa BeZman Emet – Real Time Kidnapping. It was produced in the awareness that the HBO show was on its way, and focusses specifically on the story of the three teens’ kidnapping, murder, and the efforts made to save or find them. The moment we at Makom heard about this film, we urged Keshet to add English subtitles to their work and make it internationally available.
They moved swiftly and generously. (Although not quite swiftly enough for me to get this August Culture Connection out before the end of the month!)
You can watch the full 50 minute documentary here.
Real Time Kidnapping
The documentary not only allows us a glimpse into the way in which the police and army approached the search for the boys’ killers. It also brings us inside the way in which the kidnapping and murder were experienced by Jewish Israelis, in particular the boys’ parents.
Watching the documentary explains why some Israelis maintain that Our Boys is exploitation of the very worst kind. Certain people, goes the accusation, are making a great deal of money on the backs of others’ suffering. Furthermore, it does not even honor their suffering. Rather than representing the Frenkels, Shaers and Yifrachs as parents doing the best they can, and an entire country offering them support – the show portrays the parents as wild-eyed religious crazies who unknowingly release demons into the world. This might be particularly hurtful, given how the parents were so careful at the time to urge against revenge, and were so revolted by the murder, as can be seen in Real Time Kidnapping.
Screen grab from Real Time Kidnapping
Naftali’s mother emerged from shiva, only a week after her son’s burial, to pronounce to the press:
“Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.”
To take this voice away from Racheli Frenkel was, critics say, an act of cruelty in the name of politics. Hence the Prime Minister’s accusation.
“Keshet is besmirching Israel’s image”
Netanyahu would also seem to be outraged at the choice of the HBO series to present a particular narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In only portraying Palestinian victims, and mis-representing the Jewish victims, he and his supporters assert that the production was deliberately weighting audience affections towards the Palestinians and against Israelis.
By contrast, Netanyahu’s opponents would say that Our Boys was absolutely correct in moving the emphasis of the story away from the Jews. While it was far from representative of Jewish Israeli mainstream sentiment, there was no doubt a powerful cry for revenge from a loud minority of Israelis the moment the teens’ death was reported. As shown in the opening episode, Palestinians recall this as a time when they would avoid speaking Arabic in the hearing of Jews for fear of their safety.
This side of the narrative, they would say, also has validity and urgency, and it is a side rarely told inside Israel. We need only look at the documentary just mentioned, Real Time Kidnapping, to see that Israel’s mainstream mentioned but showed limited curiosity for the Palestinian perspective of that terrible time. In this excellent documentary, the horrific murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir is mentioned, and the Jewish Israeli parents’ fury and disgust at those who murdered him is shown clear and sharp, and at the same time this takes up exactly one minute of the fifty-two minute documentary.
The Prime Minister’s opponents would also dismiss the concern that the series besmirches Israel’s good name. They would argue that Our Boys is a true-life story: The occupation is real, the horrific murder was real, Jewish Israeli racist attacks are real, and if the show is “bad for Israel” it is only because the reality on the ground cannot be prettied.
The response of grieving families
“Some 120 grieving families from the Choosing Life Forum came out with a heart-breaking letter against the series.”
This is certainly true. It is also true that a different forum for grieving parents – The Parents’ Circle-Family Forum – a joint forum for Israeli and Palestinian parents – has come out in support of the show. There is a consensus in Israel that the feelings of those who have lost loved ones to the conflict must have their feelings respected, although “respect” and “acquiescence” tends to depend on political tendencies. The Parents’ Circle holds an alternative Yom HaZikaron Memorial Day ceremony every year, with Jewish and Palestinian parents taking part, and it is picketed by shouting protesters every year. Many grieving parents argued against freeing the Palestinian murderers of their loved ones in order to guarantee the release of Gilad Shalit: They were respected but in practice ignored.
“The State of Israel acted decisively to catch and punish the murderers of Abu Khdeir. In contrast, the Palestinian Authority pays and praises murderers of Jews.”
This is pretty difficult to argue with. The Palestinian Authority’s ambivalence at best, or support at worst, for Palestinian attacks on Israelis is well documented. It is also true that the State of Israel did indeed act decisively to catch and punish the murderers of Abu Khdeir.
What is ironic is that the entire series of Our Boys is dedicated to this latter point.
Even from the opening episode it is crystal clear that the State of Israel was committed not only to capturing and punishing Abu Khdeir’s murderers, but that it was also committed to preventing such acts of revenge in the first place. Not wishing to pre-empt the rest of the series, it looks pretty clear that a hero of the show is shaping up to be the Israeli guy who wants to prevent and then punish the murder.
Is Our Boys “an antisemitic series”?
Are the bad guys in the show Jewish? Indeed they are, though we’re given hints even in the opening episode that they may be more mad than bad. Are the victims in the show Palestinian? They certainly are.
Yet is this enough to charge a show with antisemitism? Even when the good guys are also Jewish? It feels tenuous to me.
Even if the show were to be judged “anti-Israel”, is that enough to stain it with antisemitism?
(My answer is not always “no”. If you’re interested, get in touch and we can look at a well-known drama whose anti-Israel sentiment I would say slides into blatant antisemitism. Our Boys, in my opinion, does nothing of the sort.)
So what does PM Netanyahu have against Keshet?
“The propaganda Channel 12 Keshet has produced an antisemitic series… Don’t watch Keshet or programs by Keshet”
It is true that Keshet are co-producers of Our Boys. But this HBO show is not only being broadcast on Channel 12, Keshet’s home. In Israel you can also see it on Cellcom TV, on Hot VOD, on Yes…
Put it this way: Even if one were to boycott Keshet as our Prime Minister urges, one could still get to watch Our Boys in Israel.
And then there is the small matter of Real Time Kidnapping, the documentary about the three Jewish boys’ kidnapping and murder. Who was the sole producer of this program? Also Keshet. It’s true that a separate non-drama about the Jewish boys does not balance out the emotional punch of Our Boys, but it would certainly indicate a lack of malice on Keshet’s part.
So what is going on? Why such a broad call to boycott an entire broadcasting company over one TV series it is tangentially associated with, that anyway might not be so terrible?
Image from PM Netanyahu’s twitter post
It might be to do with the fact that Netanyahu does not like the news and current affairs programming that Keshet broadcasts on Channel 12: “I am not surprised by the fact that Keshet is besmirching Israel’s image, since I am used to Keshet doing the same to me every day…”
In particular, Keshet reporter Guy Peleg has recently uncovered transcripts from the investigation into the several corruption cases for which the Prime Minister is due to stand trial (pending a hearing in early October). Damning revelation after revelation are being shared with Keshet’s viewers – a public that is due to vote whether to elect Netanyahu as Prime Minister again – in an election one of whose key issues is whether to grant him immunity from said prosecution.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu’s criticisms of Our Boys are shared by elements of the Israeli public, his choice to call for a boycott of the network rather than a boycott of the show (that is, as we said, broadcast on a range of platforms), would seem to indicate additional motives…
My personal opinion of the show
Personally I think it’s a superb piece of television. In choosing to use the kidnapping as the ignition point for the plot, rather than an element of it, the creators took a bold choice that was bound to deeply upset some. It’s a tragic occupational hazard. Especially when dealing with such a recent painful event. Especially when it’s about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
I have yet to come across a piece of art about the Conflict that someone did not condemn for bias. It comes with the territory. By its very nature art that addresses the Conflict will never be judged on its artistic merits alone, but also by its ascribed motivations, and its assumed consequences.
My only recommendation when watching Our Boys or screening it in one’s programming, would be to try not to let one’s judgment of one of these three criteria – artistic merit, creators’ motivation, and consequences of the world seeing it – prevent one from appraising all three in isolation.
Tips for screenings
If you are planning to hold screenings of Our Boys and Real Time Kidnapping, here are a couple of programming tips:
- Make sure you have a large screen and good sound (perhaps rent a projector?). Check that you can close curtains to avoid glare and aid concentration. In short – if you’re working with art, do all you can to let it work its magic.
- In post-screening discussions, always start by asking questions about the characters. What was he thinking? Do you respect her choices? Which character struck you most? The reason for this is that while different people have different knowledge levels about the issues at hand, everyone is an equal expert in what they have just watched. Best to at least begin a discussion from a level playing field. Also, asking people to respond to the characters, forces them to put aside their “set speech about the Conflict” and opens them to surprises.
- Some people do not enjoy having to immediately discuss and analyze a piece of art, especially if it has moved them. Give space before starting a discussion. At the very least, let all the credits roll before turning on the lights.
- If you are planning to facilitate a discussion, make sure you watch the episode yourself beforehand. Scribble some observations to yourself as you’re watching.
- If you don’t feel confident facilitating a discussion, you might want to print out some guiding questions for people to pick and choose from themselves. Perhaps put them on the table that has the coffee…Once you have discussed the choices and motivations of the various characters, you are welcome to draw on the questions raised in this article:
- How should the feelings of the victims of this real-life event be accommodated?
- Should the plot of the show have dealt differently with the two sets of grieving parents?
- Does the show damage Israel’s name? Why? Why not?
- Should a Prime Minister be calling for a boycott of a TV station?
- Is the show antisemitic? Why? Why not?
- Did the creators of the show do a good job? What do you mean by “a good job”?
For a free download of this article: Culture Connection – OUR BOYS & REAL TIME KIDNAPPING August 2019