For the JC by Jenni Frazer
In June 2014, Israel’s Foreign Ministry decided to revive a project, inviting Jewish journalists from abroad for a week’s intensive media discussions.
During the week of our visit, I, and the other Jewish journalists in Jerusalem, naturally tuned in to the big news story of the day: the fate of the three teenage boys, Naftali Frenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon, Gilad Shaer, 16, from Talmon, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, from Elad.
The boys had been abducted from a popular hitch-hiking bus-stop in Alon Shvut, deep in the heart of the West Bank’s Etzion bloc. The Foreign Ministry, perhaps hoping to provide local colour, even took a batch of us to see the graffiti-ed bus stop in question.
What was obvious to us, as reporters, but had not yet been made public, was that the boys were clearly dead. They were kidnapped on June 12 and their bodies were not located until June 30, in Hebron; but a weird limbo ensued in Israel, with powerful whispers in around government and media that the boys were almost certainly murder victims, while in parallel, a huge tranche of Israeli society, primarily from the religious right and settler communities, staged massive “Bring the Boys Back Home” demonstrations, complete with intense prayers for the teenagers’ safety.
During that hot, vicious summer, a horrific revenge attack took place — the kidnapping and burning to death of a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. And the volatile atmosphere — for the perpetrators were Israeli Jews — escalated and ultimately led to the Gaza War of 2014, which ran from July 8 to August 25. In what was named Operation Protective Edge, Israel had begun a military crackdown on Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’s apparent masterminding of the three teenagers’ murder; and the Palestinians fought back with rocket fire, both sides ultimately claiming victory after the August ceasefire.
Fast forward to 2019, and the febrile events of those days have been transformed into a lightly fictionalised account, a 10-episode TV “thriller” called “Our Boys”, jointly made, in Hebrew and Arabic, by HBO and Israel’s Keshet Studios.
The series has been showing in the US and Israel since August 12, but has already attracted unwelcome attention at the highest level — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Facebook to attack it. He described the programmes as “propaganda that besmirches the good name of Israel”, and called on Israeli audiences to boycott Keshet’s Channel 12, despite the fact that “Our Boys” has not been showing on this channel.
But you don’t need to go as far as the prime minister — who has his own, separate problems with Keshet over what he claims as “witchhunt reporting” of his alleged corruption — to find Israeli viewers unhappy with “Our Boys”.
Some people have refused to watch the programme on the grounds that it makes a moral equivalence between the killings of the Israeli teens and the murder of the Palestinian abu Khdeir, abducted from outside his family’s home in Shuafat, East Jerusalem. “It draws a parallel between an act of terror, and a crime in which the perpetrators were tried in a court of law, found guilty and sentenced”, one Israeli woman told me.
And to an extent, the critics have a point. We learn about the deaths of Shaer, Frenkel and Yifrah only in the first episode. Thereafter the entire focus is on the gruesome killing of Mohammed abu Khdeir, (Ram Masarweh), the tracing and eventual capture of the three Israelis responsible, and the court case and conviction which ensued.
The creators are two Israelis and a Palestinian, who have joined forces to tell the story of “Our Boys”, a title which may be taken to refer as much to the troubled young people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as to the four murder victims.
The three men behind the series are Hagai Levi, the Israeli co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair”; Tawfik Abu Wael, a Palestinian filmmaker, director of “Last Days in Jerusalem”; and Joseph Cedar, a New York-born, Israel-raised writer and director, whose most recent film starred Richard Gere, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”.
The initiative for the programmes, Hagai Levi told the New York Times, came from HBO. As far back as 2015 HBO was interested in making a series about the murdered boys. Levi recruited Cedar and Abu Wael, who remembered that one of the first things they did was to go to East Jerusalem to speak to Mohammed abu Khdeir’s parents, Hussein and Suha. He said: “We went to their house and told them we were going to make a series. It was a big relief for them to understand that I was going to tell their story”.
So as far as Tawfik Abu Wael is concerned, there was no doubt from the start that the intention was to tell the story from the Palestinian point of view. And yet that is not entirely the case. There are two key fictional characters in the series, each an amalgam of several people working in similar areas.
One is “Simon”, played with great subtlety by Shlomi Elkabetz, the Shin Bet intelligence officer whose work in tracking down far-right Jewish extremists leads him to be chief investigator against the three accused Israelis.
And the other is the religiously observant psychiatrist Dr Dvora Segal, played by Noa Koler. Again, there were in fact several psychiatrists involved in the real-life events, but Segal’s pivotal role in the story — apart from being a welcome female voice in an otherwise heavily masculine drama — allows “Our Boys” to illustrate the unique forms of pressure and intimidation in various levels of Israeli society.
For as the programme unfolds and we meet the perpetrators of the abu Khdeir murder, we learn of a complex family structure based in a West Bank settlement. There is Rabbi Shlomo Ben-David, a grandfather of Moroccan origin who is the head of a Sephardi yeshiva; there is his son, the somewhat manic Yosef Haim Ben-David, one of 11 siblings who has slightly relinquished his attachment to religious life, and instead has heady ambitions to run a string of optical shops; and there are two of Yosef Haim’s nephews, given the pseudonyms Avishai Elbaz and Yinon Edri. Yosef Haim, Avishai and Yinon were the three Israeli killers. (Avishai, the youngest of the three — just 16 when the killing took place — is played by Adam Gabay, whose Cupid-shaped bow lips lends a spooky touch of damaged goods to the role.)
Yosef Haim and Avishai are both patients of Dvora Segal, whose testimony as to their mental state becomes vital when the case comes to court. And even as the killing shocked Israelis, who could not believe that Jews could be responsible for such a premeditated death, there were still those on the religious right trying to justify the action — and pressurising Segal as they did so.
Perhaps a gap of five years is too close to the real-life events to turn into dramatised TV. And certainly it is a difficult 10-episode watch. The programme-makers are still in discussions for a UK platform, though “Our Boys” has just been bought by France’s Canal Plus, and it’s hoped it will screen here soon. Alert viewers will see some familiar Israeli names such as Shtisel’s Michael Aloni, here playing a Shin Bet agent, and Lior Ashkenazi, a wonderfully convincing Israeli state prosecutor.
The acting palm, however, must go to Johnny Arbid, playing Hussein, Mohammed’s anguished father, speaking Hebrew and Arabic, trying to be a decent person, and pushed over the edge into demanding, fruitlessly, for the homes of his son’s killers to be demolished.
Everyone who watches “Our Boys” will take something different from it. But Hagai Levi, its co-creator, is in no doubt as to its core message. He says: “It’s about the huge power of incitement. The killers are one of us. They are our boys. What this series does is try to figure out how to deal with that”.