Monday, September 16, 2019 -
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How could they? How?

I kept hearing about the newly released HBO series, “Our Boys,” whose title is code for evoking the painful summer of 2014. While I’m not much of a TV viewer, it felt important to watch this mini-series and understand what people were talking about when they spoke of the bias in the production.

The truth is, I hate to say it, but while I think this is a very flawed, very biased show, at the same time, in other respects, it is compelling. I was drawn into the story. There were parts that were truly difficult for me to watch. It was hard to see some of the footage with terrifying cries for “revenge.” I shed tears for the innocent murdered Arab boy and his family, the subject of the miniseries.

Which is precisely why this mini-series is so upsetting.

Initially, upon hearing the title of the show, I was curious to see how the producers wove the story and pain of “Our Boys” — the golden trio whom we all came to love — Eyal, Gilad and Naftali — into the storytelling medium of TV. “Our Boys,” Ha-Ne’arim, as this holy and tragic brotherhood from that accursed summer of 2014 came to be known.

Despite having never met them, it is these three boys, this forever young triumvirate, who somehow lit up the soul of a nation. We prayed, we hoped, we cried for them.

Well. Was I in for a rude awakening. Before anything else, I feel duped by this clearly, intentionally, misleading title.

Johnny Arbid, left, plays the grieving father of a slain Palestinian teen in ‘Our Boys.’ (Ran Mendelson/HBO)

Our Boys” is not, after all, about Our Boys. In fact, they seem to have been killed once more, this time by the producers, relegated to the cutting room floor. It’s a sinister use of the term. “Our Boys” is actually about one particular Arab Palestinian boy and a few Israelis, decidedly not Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. Rather, their diametric opposites. It’s about what followed in the wake of the shattering news that Our Boys had been found — dead, murdered. It’s about an outlier, the terrible tragedy of the innocent Mohammed Abu Khadir, who was horrendously murdered in a vigilante act by an unhinged Jewish Israeli.

In the scene where the mini-series’ Simon, the protagonist, a high ranking Shabak (Israeli internal security) operative, finds out the devastating news of Our Boys’ deaths, the text message he receives reads: “They were found. Bodies.” Bodies. This is precisely the producers’ treatment of Our Boys throughout this miniseries. Simply dead, lifeless, bodies. This is even less than one dimensional — in great contrast to the intimate, developed, family- and community- centered story of Abu Khedir and the empathic characters in the narrative surrounding him. For Our Boys, that is simply, altogether absent.

Yes, the first episode in the mini-series makes reference to the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, but only via the sterile medium of TV reports. That’s it. Their abduction, murder and the searing impact it had on their family, friends and, ultimately, an entire nation are simply not there. Rather, the news of their kidnapping is opportunistically used as a jumping off point for the producers to tell the story they are choosing to see and tell, a story that feels like a carefully crafted, narrow keyhole perspective on a much deeper, much more complex story.

Before even watching one minute of this mini-series the bias of the directors is quite evident, for in manipulating the affectionate appellation “Our Boys,” the three kidnapped Jewish Israeli teens, grafting it onto the outliers who committed the utterly depraved act of murdering innocent Abu Khedir, the message is clear: Our [Jewish Israeli] Boys are wanton murderers.

This manipulation of the title is particularly painful. How could the producers take this away from an entire generation of youth who experienced this trauma of their peers being kidnapped and murdered, an act of terrorism that developed into a life of its own, a momentum, almost into a movement, that blew up in their face so painfully? These thousands upon thousands of youth, the finest of Israel, were in fact so utterly restrained. Never mind restrained in violent action, but even in their discourse. For the most part, what I saw were broken teens in tears, teens cathartically singing, in pain and in solidarity, coping in dignity with the overwhelming loss and fear.

Interestingly, due to the outlier nature of the crime, the initial overall assumption of the Shabak is that it was not a Jew who committed the murder. “Jews don’t do this [burn a body].” Yet, from the outset, Simon seems pretty set on the fact that a Jew is in fact the one who committed the murder. Of course, Jews are human beings like anyone else; their behavior and inner demons can descend into darkness. But when the information came to light that, sickeningly, it was an observant Jewish Israeli who had murdered Abu Khedir, it is almost with a sense of smugness that Simon says, “our killers are Jews.” Call me crazy, but it feels like I can hear the producers themselves saying this with, dare I say it, quiet gloating.

Aside from the almost laughable, empirical inaccuracy of the implication of Our Boys as murderers, it’s curious how it seems OK to point an accusing finger at an entire generation of Jewish Israeli youth as murderers, when, in actual fact, the unfortunate reality is an epidemic among some Arab Palestinian youth stabbing Jews to death, engaging in car rammings and otherwise terrorizing Jews, or, if not doing it, then approving it. The voice from the liberal side of the spectrum, often associated with the arts community, is to decry painting people in stereotypes, such as “all Arab Palestinians are bad or terrorists,” a point with which I couldn’t agree more. So why is it somehow OK for the producers of this miniseries to manipulate an outlier and present it as though it were the mainstream — a stereotype already embedded in the title of the production, “Our Boys”?

That’s the thing about this mini-series. It raises a lot of strong, thought-provoking questions.

For example, what is the psychological mindset of a vigilante murderer that would trigger him to commit such a heinous murder and body-burning? What is the role of prayer? Is holding onto hope the best path? Is there a theological challenge in coping with unanswered prayers and a crisis in faith this can generate? Given the information that is classified but accessible to Shabak, what is the most effective and safe way to deliver bad news that can be crushing and possibly lead to radical responses? Should information that is unclassified be withheld? To whom does a nationalistically motivated martyr belong to — is it a private death to be mourned, or is his loss transposed into a national death?

My disappointment is that these and other important issues are treated superficially, simplistically, and with an obvious bias. The conspicuous lack of context — using the tragedy of Our Boys superficially and opportunistically, as but a springboard instead of story in and of itself, is the fatal flaw of the show.

This is not a mini-series that develops a robust, gritty, complex perspective that is a nuanced sophisticated framing of of Palestinian-Israeli tensions in the summer of 2014. While the mini-series holds your interest, it doesn’t hold it in the sense of expanding your curiosity about what might come next, or of deepening your understanding of the conflict and its complexity, because the mini-series becomes so predictable.

The producers chose a one-sided story to tell. If the story were told from the reverse perspective, substituting a Jewish Israeli for a Palestinian Arab, it would most likely be deemed highly superficial in the arts community. While there is a faint attempt here and there to stick a platitude about the Jewish observant community that doesn’t paint them as all bad, ultimately the takeaway feeds into negatives and stereotypes of the Jewish religious community. While it is important to address ways in which we in the observant community need to refine and repair, to go straight to highlighting that, when the primary story of that summer was in many ways a story of three mothers, their heads wrapped in scarves, signifying their deep commitment to observant Judaism, women who time and again called for unity, love and peace; and who succeeded in uniting a people, from the unaffiliated to the chasidic, from right wing to left wing. These noble women, almost Biblical in their stature, who dug so deep inside and publicly, resiliently, rose above their personal pain to inspire a nation, are absent in this miniseries.

The lacuna is glaring.

Intentional or not, a symbol in the show is eyeglasses. To me this signals the idea of seeing things from different perspectives. Right at the beginning, the Shabak defines a boundary in the search for the Jewish Israeli kidnapped boys by the fact that one of the boy’s eyeglasses are found. A few other times, reference is made to working in an eyewear store. Maybe the eyeglasses and eyewear store were, in fact, part of the story. Maybe the producers were implying the Jewish youth they highlight can only see only through their own narrow, myopic perspective. Ironically, though, eyeglasses serve only to highlight the producers’ myopic perspective of championing a narrow, biased, harmful perspective, which they admit is, in part, purely fictional.

What shocked and confused me the most, though, was the usage of live footage of the mothers of Our Boys. And other live footage. Due to this feature, I initially thought I was watching a documentary. A biased documentary, but a documentary. At a certain point in the plot, the penny dropped, that this was fiction. On closer look, prior to the episodes, the producers write something to the effect of the following being a dramatization of the events of 2014.

What?

My blood froze.

Throughout the show, I tried to overlook every transparent bias after bias and focus and reflect on the difficult story at hand: a gruesome murder committed by young, observant, Jewish vigilantes, with the Jewish state going to great lengths to serve justice and arrest the Jews who shed the blood of an Arab.

But to cynically and manipulatively make out inspirational Jewish prayer rallies to be brainwashing scenarios, intentionally orchestrated as such, by showing a microphone amplifying the sound of the call of the shofar in contradistinction to the Arab muezzin’s call to prayer as calming, meaningful and respectful — as if that which solely occupies the minds of many Arab Palestinian teens is the stuff of adolescence, the typical angst with parents, trips to Istanbul, girls, dancing, friends, the usual hijinks of teen-hood, in contradistinction to Jewish teens, whose biggest problem is whether to continue studying in a yeshiva so as not to drown out their bloodthirsty, revenge-seeking murderous impulses; as if it unusual or dangerous for Palestinian Arabs to work in Jerusalem when, in fact, Palestinian Arabs are part of the tapestry of the city and need not hide their identity, as is implied — I looked away from all this, and much more, as much as I could.

But to use the live footage of the three mothers — their visages, their voices, their pain lending credence and authenticity to this miniseries, as though it were a documentary, when it is but a biased dramatization that actually cuts these mothers out — how could the producers do this? Not to mention their veiled yet grotesque corollary, as though it is these noble hopeful mothers’ prayer vigils, replete with love, kindness and hope, that actually triggered the vigilante murder?

How? How could they?

Not from a religious or secular point of view. Not from a right or left wing political point of view. But from humanity. Bereaved parents. Still living among us. Still with fresh wounds. Five summers ago. How??

Even more, where is the integrity? The producers know the rarity and reality of Jewish vigilante violence, versus the ubiquitous terrorism against Israelis perpetrated and celebrated by the Palestinian Arab leadership.

Address racism. Address the fear of percolating radicalism. But please, with humanity, sensitivity — and integrity.

“Our Boys” airs on HBO in hundreds of countries. Most viewers are clueless about Israel and the harrowing summer that was the prelude to the brutal murder of Abu Khadir. Worse yet, the show is convincing, buttressed by the manipulative footage of the three mothers. The little nods to nuance that were planted here and there will go over these viewers’ heads. There is no text preceding each episode that states the statistic of how many Jews have been and are unfortunately routinely slaughtered and murdered by Arab Palestinians. There is no text preceding each show about how Abu Khadir’s murder was condemned in Israel and the Jewish world across the board.

Is it extraneous to state the obvious, that the murder of Abu Khadir is heartbreaking? And I confess that there were moments in the series that were difficult for me to watch — to see the poison that is percolating in parts of my own community. As marginalized as this is, I know it’s there. It hurts me and worries me. But a mini-series such as this is not the answer.

At one point, Simon is accused of being “emotionally detached,” when in fact he comes off as obtuse in his misunderstanding the role of prayer in the lives of the Jewish community. Like other times throughout the series, again it seems the producers speak through Simon. Indeed, they project an “emotional detachment” in hearing and seeing their very own story. Their very own people.

When Abu Khadir’s father just wants to mourn and bury his beloved son, he is distressed by what he perceives as disrespect, or at least infringement, when Palestinian teens carry on with Abu Khadir’s body in a way that does not speak to the father. “He’s my son,” he says, as Abu Khadir’s covered corpse is being pulled away from him. “He’s not only your son now,” his friend replies.

Our boys. Those three innocent, beautiful, beloved Israeli boys, abducted and murdered. Eyal. Gilad. Naftali. Through love, prayer, hope, connection and, most importantly, through their mothers, they became a nation’s children. Does this mean these mothers are, to paraphrase the comment above, “not only the boys’ mothers”? Are they fodder to be exploited for the benefit of movie producers to use as material for their careers, for making an international name in cinema?

So I suppose that’s another thought provoking question this miniseries raises: What are the ethical limits of the TV and cinema industry, or are there any ethical and humane limits in excavating and manipulating real life tragedies as material for dramatizations? And what exactly is the responsibility and integrity of producers to create even a somewhat balanced narrative, especially when the stakes of misrepresenting the Israeli narrative are so high?

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park


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