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Bibi is wrong about HBO’s ‘Our Boys’

Bibi got it wrong. "Our Boys" shows Israel in all its rich complexity.

An aerial view of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Dome of the Rock. Israel's transportation minister is pushing ahead with a plan to extend Jerusalem's soon-to-open high speed rail line to the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Avraham Graicer

(RNS) — There is an HBO series that you really need to watch.

Even though Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would urge you not to watch it — and has called for a boycott of the Israeli television channel that has produced it.

Because, he says, the series slanders Israel — and is even antisemitic.

What series are we talking about that has raised the ire of the Prime Minister — at a time when he should be worrying about the upcoming Israeli elections?

It is HBO’s series, “Our Boys.”

“Our Boys” is based on true events that happened in June and early July, 2014.

On June 12, 2014, Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three boys: Eyal Yifrach, 19; Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also held United States citizenship; and Gilad Shaar, 16.

The terrorists abducted them as they tried to hitch a ride home from their West Bank yeshivas.

In retaliation, young ultra-Orthodox men kidnapped Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a young Palestinian boy from the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem.

They forced him into a car near his neighborhood mosque, a few yards from his home, as he waited for his friends to pray. The young men murdered him and burned his body, in a forest just outside Jerusalem.

The series tells the story of the murders, and the raging emotions on both sides – but it focuses specifically on two things: the anguish of the Abu Khdeir family in Shuafat, especially Hussein Abu Khdeir, Muhammad’s father — and the painstaking investigation by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security apparatus.

The dramatic series was filmed in Israel. Some of Israel’s most creative and renowned directors were involved: Joseph Cedar, who directed the films “Footnote” (which won best screenplay at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Picture) and “Norman;” Hagai Levy, who directed “B’tipul,” which came to HBO as “In Treatment;” and a Palestinian, Tawfik Abu-Wael.

It is compelling television. It is also a remarkable, accurate photograph of Israeli and Palestinian society.

In particular, it offers us a glimpse into the culture of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel — both its sweetness and its dangers.

It shows the beautiful hospitality of Orthodox Jews on Shabbat (and not just the Orthodox) — how you can go to Shabbat services at a synagogue and wind up with an invitation for a meal. It also shows the dark temptations of ultra-Orthodox ideology, and how it can all too easily segue into religious triumphalism and homicidal bigotry.

So, too, it shows the inner world of Palestinian families — as well as Palestinians in the street, screaming for martyrdom.

If you like police dramas, this is a treat. (Call it Law and Order: SVU – Semitic Victims Unit).

It is riveting to watch the Israelis working hard to find the murderers of the Palestinian boy. They use every tool at their disposal, using surveillance video to zoom in on potential susppects, coming up with instant identification and full biographies.

Their pursuit of justice emerges right out of this week’s Torah portion:

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

Why do I say that?

  • Because the police show as much fervent effort in finding the killers of the Palestinian boy as they would have shown in finding the killers of the Israelis.
  • Because the suspects’ militant ultra-Orthodoxy hardly blinds or ideologically “bribes” the officer who wears a kippah; it is sobering for him to discover the moral failures within that community.
  • Because the investigators see this as a matter of justice.

“Justice, justice, shall you pursue”: why does the word “justice”/tzedek, appear twice in the Torah passage? Wouldn’t once have been sufficient?

In the words of the medieval Spanish commentator, Bahya ibn Asher:

“Justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”

Why, then, has “Our Boys” stirred so much controversy?

Some are angry that the series pays so much attention to the murder of Mohammed, and relatively less attention to the murders of the three Israeli boys.

Some believe that it equates Jewish terror with Palestinian terror, proclaiming that the number of terror incidents that Palestinians have perpetrated far exceeds those that Israeli have perpetrated.

Some believe that the series creates a moral relativism – that “Jewish” violence that we commit is as bad as “Palestinian” violence.

Those criticisms are not unreasonable.

But, they miss the point.

At its core, “Our Boys” is about hate crimes. It portrays how hate crimes originate — with toxic ideologies.

It portrays that such toxic ideologies infect Palestinian society, and that they infect Israeli society as well.

It portrays something else — something that goes beyond the religious and beyond the political.

It portrays that just as Israelis mourn and ache for their losses, so, too, do the Palestinians.

To deny that, or to minimize it, is to deny our very humanity — and a large piece of our Judaism.

Consider Proverbs: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”

If there will be any possibility of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians, we have to acknowledge each others’ stories, and each others’ pain.

I turn to Yossi Klein HaLevi – to his wonderful book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor – which recently appeared in a new paperback edition – this time, with responses from Palestinians.

Yossi speaks to his imaginary Palestinian neighbor who lives just over the hill, where Jerusalem ends – not that far from the Palestinian refugee camp, Shuafat, itself.

We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless cycle. Not a “cycle of violence”—a lazy formulation that tells us nothing about why our conflict exists, let alone how to end it. Instead, we’re trapped in what may be called a “cycle of denial.” Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair. That is the cycle only we can break together.

 But, now, I must join those who criticize the series – not for what it shows, but for what it does not show.

For while it shows the pain of the Palestinian family and people, it fails to show how Israeli Jews responded to that pain.

  • A thousand Israelis demonstrated in Jerusalem against violence and racism.
  • Tzipi Livni, who was the minister of justice at the time, in contemplating the possibility that Mohammed had been the victim of a reprisal murder, said that such a murder would have been – and it was – an act of terrorism.

Moreover, the series does not show something that happened – which I know about – because I was there at the time.

It does not show that a group of my fellow students at the Shalom Hartman Institute, rabbis representing all streams of Judaism, went to the home of the Abu Khdeir family, and sat with them, and mourned with them.

Why, after all, is the series called “Our Boys?”

Because they are all our boys.

All four of the victims are “our boys” — to someone.