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Why HBO's 'Our Boys' is a victory for Israeli hasbara

By calling to boycott HBO’s ‘Our Boys,’ Prime Minister Netanyahu misses the fact that the series ends up erasing the occupation’s greatest iniquities while supporting the dominant Israeli narrative.

An Israeli police officer stands alongside a Shin Bet officer in a scene from HBO's 'Our Boys' (HBO)

An Israeli police officer stands alongside a Shin Bet officer in a scene from HBO’s “Our Boys.” (HBO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked controversy in both Israel and across the world late last week when he published a post on his official Facebook page denouncing HBO’s widely-praised series, “Our Boys,” as anti-Semitic. The prime minister called on Israelis to boycott the Israeli media company Keshet, which partnered with HBO on the series, and whose subsidiary news company has been publishing exclusive materials from the pending criminal investigations against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is riding a wave of right-wing criticism of “Our Boys,” the dramatization of the murder of the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish Israelis in the summer of 2014, shortly after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians. Israeli right-wing journalists have slammed the series for choosing to focus on the brutal murder of 16-year-old Abu Khdeir, which they consider an exception to the norm in Israel, as opposed to the killing of Israeli civilians at the hands of Palestinians.

Critics claim that by choosing such a rare event ­— one that came from the extreme fringes of Israeli society and was denounced wholeheartedly by the vast majority of Israelis — and by choosing not to focus on the many attacks by Palestinians against Israelis, HBO and Keshet are either playing into the hands of anti-Semites or are simply anti-Semitic themselves.

However, judging by the first four episodes that have aired so far, the critics have it the other way around. While “Our Boys” is a complex and thoughtful series that includes some of today’s finest Israeli and Palestinian actors, the series does more of a service to the Israeli narrative and to hasbara, Israeli public diplomacy, than anything else.

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In fact, it is precisely the choice to portray and focus on Abu Khdeir’s murder that actually helps redeem Israel. The second episode, for example, shows how deeply convinced Israeli security forces are that Jews could not have possibly committed such a heinous crime. In the episodes to come, show creator Haggai Levy has promised to show “how deeply shocked Israeli society is by the fact this murder was committed by Jews. I hear people around the world reacting [by saying]: ‘Look at how strong Jewish society is for taking this so seriously.'”

Then there are Israeli critics who have defended the series, and believe there is no point in telling the story of Palestinian terrorism — since it is so commonplace — as opposed to exploring the psychological factors that lead Israelis to commit such acts.

It is precisely this kind of mentality that provides a boon to hasbara, which portrays an ostensibly peace-seeking Israeli society that is forced to contend with bloodthirsty Palestinians. Reality, however, tells us a completely different story.

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, between the 2009 war in Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) and July 2019, a total 199 Israelis have been killed in attacks carried out by Palestinians (101 security personnel and 98 civilians). During that same period, Israel killed 4,928 Palestinians, at least 2,535 of whom were not involved in hostilities. While the sheer brutality of Abu Khdeir’s murder was indeed exceptional, his death is but one of thousands.

The list of victims includes 142 Palestinian families wiped out in air strikes on Gaza, journalists and paramedics. It also includes another 16-year-old boy, who was gunned down by soldiers while returning home from the swimming pool. The soldiers, who receive full backing from the Israeli establishment, were rarely put on trial. None of these killings will ever be the focus of an HBO series, nor will the actions of the soldiers challenge the way Israelis view themselves, as a peaceful and benevolent country. By exceptionalizing the murder of Abu Khdeir, “Our Boys” ignores and even normalizes the killing of Palestinians whose deaths were not as high profile.

Mohammad Abu Khdeir's funeral procession, as portrayed in HBO's 'Our Boys.' (Courtesy of HBO)

Mohammad Abu Khdeir’s funeral procession, as portrayed in HBO’s “Our Boys.” (HBO)

The series’ support for the Israeli narrative can also be found in its dramatic characterization of “the conflict” as a struggle between two equally-powerful adversarial “clans,” another mainstay of mainstream Israeli thinking. Each of these clans has its own fanatics, moderates, and bereaved parents mourning their slain children. While this portrayal is effective as a dramatic backdrop for the series’ unfolding events, it is far from reflective of the reality of occupation, of Jewish-Israeli supremacy, and of a broken Palestinian society that is oppressed by another people.

The misrepresentation of life under military rule continues with the show’s decision to focus on one man who can stand between these two clans: the Shin Bet agent, who represents law and order and tries to bring back a semblance of normalcy while chaos reigns in Jerusalem. As Israeli TV critic Amir Bogen noted, it is the Shin Ben agent who represents Israel’s trustworthy justice system, one that “keeps Israeli democracy afloat, setting it apart from religious dictatorships around us.” Even Haggai Levy admitted that “this is what the series is actually about.”

The Shin Bet, however, is no neutral player, but rather the mastermind behind some of the occupation’s most egregious abuses. It is the Shin Bet that blackmails Palestinians into becoming collaborators, that imprisons them for indefinite periods of time without trial or charge, and tortures thousands of detainees with full impunity. As for the Israeli justice system Bogen praises, it is the same one that ensures soldiers are hardly ever held responsible for killing unarmed Palestinians, and which has given the green light to Israel’s apartheid policies in the West Bank, including its settlement enterprise, the separation barrier, home demolitions, collective punishment, and more.

Politically, there is still much value in what the series sets out to do. Unfortunately, even the mere fact that it humanizes Palestinian victims — especially at a time when Palestinians are routinely dehumanized in Israeli culture — carries a lot of weight. This re-humanization of Palestinians, alongside the humane and delicate portrayal of the murderers, portrays a complex and multi-dimensional picture of the reality in our country. In itself, that’s quite an achievement. It’s a shame, then, that such a carefully-crafted series ends up reinforcing the narrative of the oppressor.

A version of this article was published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Rivka Koen

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      I have only seen the first episode, and I thought the episode did a good job of showing how the bloodthirst for violence against Arabs and revenge was already there, and that the violence was merely a consequence of this widespread hatred of Palestinians and scapegoating of Palestinians for all of Israel’s problems and social failures.

      Watching Israelis whipped up into a religious frenzy, marching and calling for death to Arabs, etc. was disturbing for me — not because I see Israel as a good or moral state, buy because it reminded me of pogroms, of lynch mobs, of so many instances of mass hysteria leading to violence and death.

      My skin crawled at Bibi’s own role in the incitement, and at the hypocrisy of the rabbis who violated their own religious precepts against Lashon Hara and against bringing shame unto Jews.

      The first episode shows the nastiness of Israel in a way that is rarely so well collated. I’m interested to know if the following episodes demonstrate any self-awareness of the social attempts, after the fact, to say “this is not us.”

      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        I have not seen this series but we must admit that the inadmissible murder of this young Arab (whose authors are in jails and not considered as heroes in Israel ..) succeeded to the foul murder of 3 young Israeli teenagers by Arabs who are considered heroes by their community. To conclude, must we remind you that Arabs holding the Israeli passport prefer to live in the “Zionist hell” than in the “paradise” that is Ramallah ..

        Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          Pogroms, too, generally found some pretext. As did lynch mobs. It’s hard to whip people up into such a frenzy without some sort of pretext. That’s what blood libels were about: a child goes missing, and the people suspect that the Jews must have kidnapped the child in order to perform some ritual upon them, and then a general massacre of Jews ensues. It’s not good for a child to go missing for any reason, but it doesn’t excuse actions like these.

          The revenge wasn’t even carried out against the kidnappers of those three children, but against a random Arab teenager from East Jerusalem (whereas the kidnappers were apparently from Gaza?). Like any lynch mob or pogrom, it’s done in the name of revenge, but what it really is is terrorism against a demonized minority. And if the portrayal of the events leading to the murder is accurate (which I don’t doubt), Israelis were marching in the street inciting and calling for revenge before this teenager was ever murdered. What does anyone expect? Words mean something and they have consequences.

          Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “To conclude, must we remind you that Arabs holding the Israeli passport prefer to live in the “Zionist hell” than in the “paradise” that is Ramallah ..”

          Excuse me, but the occupied Arab persons NOT holding the Israeli passport (that’s the whole point, Halevy, Champion of Missing the Point) prefer not living under the Zionist Hell of the Occupation. One should actually THINK before one types. But please, by all means, go ahead, you are the best living-color, real life illustration of blitheringly obtuse settler narcissism we could expect. You’re a kind of gift. And you keep on giving.

          A point about your usages. Murders of Arabs are “inadmissible” (so prim!) but murders of Jews are “foul.”

          Finally, I love that “To conclude”. As if the second sentence had any connection to the first sentence other than a complete derailment into agitprop.

          Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Blah blah blah … Ask the Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria who hold the Israeli identity card if they want to give it up for the “Palestinian paradise”. This card gives them access to social security, care and all the services of a modern state. Most of them know that there will never be a “Palestinian state”. Besides, they would not like it ..

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy, your ability to be coldly slippery and dishonest never ceases to amaze me. The ruthless occupier boasts about his color-coded ID systems of control and subjugation, and his kindness in regards to these vicious tools of control. And then invidiously compares the “lucky” subjugated ones to the ones to whom he grants fewer “privileges.” All the while pretending anyone thinks that any part of the brutal occupation system he has created is a “paradise.” The sadistic camp commander sneeringly boasts of his “paradise.” All the while actually using the color-coded tools of control he employs to relentlessly ethnically cleanse as many of the “lucky” ones as possible. There is actually an appalling sadism to you. Again, the true hard core settler mentality exposed.

            Meanwhile you should not use this exchange to avoid Rivka’s critique. Remember, she reminds you of pogroms, while I remind you of brutal systems of color-coded control and invidious “privileges” used to subjugate, divide and expel— something not so very different from the systems operated inside concentration camps.

            Listen, I don’t write this for you. I have no illusions about you. But your cold sadism is worth dissecting, showing people what you are really doing. Q.E.D.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            I’ve never been the biggest fan of the term ‘settler colonialism’ to describe the return of Jews to Eretz Yisrael and subsequent, inexcusable creation of an apartheid state, but your comment is basically saying, “Those savages should be grateful we brought them out of the stone age.”

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            We must admit that it is the case .. We bring them work (there are Arab doctors and nurses). Israel is one of the most modern states in the world with an excellent economic situation and the Arabs benefit from this manna.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            As you can see here, the thing to realize about Overlord Itshak Gordine Halevy is that his shamelessness has no limits. You cannot shame him, you just cannot. And you cannot educate him. The narcissism is that impenetrable. (Note the gratuitous god-like manna he hands down to mortals beneath him. The settlers think they are gods that walk the Earth–and let’s face it, where else on Earth in 2019 except as a Jewish settler in the West Bank can you experience the rush of this drug of god-like power? People play video games to experience a simulacrum of this magical god-likeness but the settlers in the West Bank live inside an actual real life, carefully controlled and protected theater of magical god-likeness. You can see the addictive nature of this kind of thing. But let us also note the blasphemous character of all this. Bus as I said, you cannot shame them, you just cannot.)

            The brings us to the other thing to realize: that Halevy is not exceptional, he is not some narcissistic-antisocial outlier among the settlers, he is typical. This is an important thing to realize when you think about solutions.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            To paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, “Wish you’d stop being so good to them, Cap’n.”

            Reply to Comment
      • Rachamim Slonim Dwek

        Rivka Koen: The terrorists that abducted, tortured & murdered 3 Jewish teenagers were not Gazans. All were from Sector H1 in Hebron in Judaea. They did not live under Israeli rule. They did not have to deal with a single Israeli checkpoint or closed road. No Jews live in H1, they are banned by law and renting, leasing and/or selling property to any Jew is a capital offence under PA Law. The terrorists had to make an effort to find Jews. They had to travel.

        As for the 3 Jews who were said to have commited the abduction and murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Kheider, they are from a single family and all 3 have been institutionalised repeatedly before their crime.

        Comparing a family of mental patients to Palestinian terrorists is ridiculous. As another has commented, Jews were ashamed of that crime and promptly captured & jailed those 3 Jews. As also was said, Palestinians widely celebrated the abduction, torture & murder of the 3 Jewish teens, just as Palestinians almost always do when any Jew is murdered.

        As for labeling Abu Khdeider’s death an act pf terrorism, total fail. Terrorism is an act of ideologically-based violence where the target is not the victim, but the hierarchy under which that victim lived. Three schizophrenics who reacted to the abduction, torture and murder of 3 teenagers from their own society is simply an act of lunacy. Were those 3 taking aim at the PA? At HAMAS- the organisation to which the Palestinian terrorists in question belonged? Of course not.

        As for Pogroms & Bloodlibels, they have zero to do with anything remotely related to this case. As for demonisation, by & large Jews in Israel & abroad rarely demonise any group, let alone Palestinians. Stating that the vast majority of Palestinians hate Jews and feel nothing but joy when any Jew is hurt or killed is simply an irefutable fact.

        Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          Wow you must have learned about facts and logic from Ben Shapiro himself!!!!

          Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      “It is precisely this kind of mentality that provides a boon to hasbara, which portrays an ostensibly peace-seeking Israeli society that is forced to contend with bloodthirsty Palestinians. Reality, however, tells us a completely different story… The misrepresentation of life under military rule continues with the show’s decision to focus on…the Shin Ben agent, who represents law and order… The Shin Bet, however, is no neutral player, but rather the mastermind behind some of the occupation’s most egregious abuses.”

      Hasbara is often about lies embedded as false premises that everyone is supposed to assume even before the argument starts. And, of course, that many Israelis do assume while helping themselves to heaping doses of self-righteousness. This article by Haggai Matar illuminates this. +972 Magazine, more than any other publication, illuminates this.

      Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        The actions of most of the Shin Bet officers, in the two episodes I’ve seen so far, are rather reprehensible.

        But the central flaw seems to be that the character of Simon represents the well-intentioned, good cop, who is a myth, and the good occupier, who is also a myth.

        Israelis and Zionists living abroad are meant to watch this and identify with Simon, and say, “I am this good occupier, this good settler [or wannabe settler], the one who is well-intentioned.” No such person exists. Apartheid and state violence are fundamentally immoral.

        Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          Still I can’t help but pirate and watch something that is so upsetting to the worst people in Israel (not only King Bibi but Crown Prince Yair, too!) and contains so much Arabic and Hebrew. Are there non-Israeli productions featuring the show’s Palestinian actors?

          Reply to Comment
    3. Keiner Nit

      Can only imagine how celebratory the mood was at HBO and Keshet when Netanyahu denounced Our Boys and called for a boycott.

      Reply to Comment