The tensions behind HBO’s ‘Our Boys’
In between the sentimental “Shtisel,” the love letter to charedi Jerusalem, and the torture pornography that is “Fauda,” Israel’s version of the hit show “24,” stands “Our Boys,” a suspense-filled HBO miniseries from director Joseph Cedar, known for the somewhat comedic films “Footnote” and “Norma.” The miniseries takes place in the summer of 2014, in the weeks after three teenagers waiting at the Gush Etzion junction disappeared; the country waited anxiously and fearfully for news about whether they were dead or alive. But it wasn’t only Jewish Israelis who prayed and hoped for their children; Palestinians were also afraid for their kin. When the boys’ bodies were found, and the country went from hope and prayer to mourning, populations on the periphery suddenly lived in a renewed fear. After tragedies like this, there are sometimes “price tag,” or revenge, attacks carried out by Israelis to retaliate and punish the “guilty” population.
The show is not only about 2014 — it can be a stand-in for nearly any point in recent Israeli history. Whenever there’s a tense moment, disaster can strike. Young men get beat up, graffiti is sprayed, and mosques are burned. The volunteer organization Tag Meir visits victims of these attacks to show that not all Jews hate them, and the show inverts the classic “Fauda”-like narrative of the good guys and bad guys. Some of the main characters are the so-called “Jewish division” of the Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service. They track religious extremists: young Israeli men who are prone to revenge attacks.
“Our Boys” features contradictions and conflicts — between the religious and non-religious, between Jews and Arabs, and between the efficacy of prayer and the tactics of a heavily militarized nation when it comes to bringing the boys home safely. Even the casual tourist would recognize the backgrounds of some scenes: the Western Wall, Jaffa Street, and Machane Yehuda market. But we see the familiar through grainy security camera footage. Beneath the sense of hope lies anxiety and paranoia. There are rallies of people saying Psalms and there are security forces beyond the public eye that are keeping the peace. That’s the inherent balancing act of Israel, between hope and fear, safety and pride.
The show also highlights the gray area between good and evil — we all fall prey to speculation and irrational actions when we’re living in fear and prejudice of the other, whether we are an Arab in the street or a charedi family member of one of the murdered boys. Little happens in the hourlong pilot episode, but the viewer is waiting nervously. It’s Israel, after all, and the country is always on edge. On my flight home from Ben Gurion Airport via London the other day, a fellow passenger responded to the news that I spent the summer in the Holy Land with one question: “Is it safe?”
In some ways, it is a simple answer: Yes. But it’s murkier. The correct answer is, “For whom?” The country is usually safe for its citizens with full rights. It’s less safe for people on the periphery: Ethiopians, Arabs, refugees, and women. The show is called “Our Boys,” and the creators force us to contemplate that young men across Israel have loving parents and community members who look after them and would mourn and even avenge them if anything happened to them. The premise inverts the myopia that comes with the national patriotism that Israel is known for.
The show captures sentiments that have been felt since the summer of 2014. For instance, the anger and togetherness that occurred after the three boys were discovered also occurred in January, after Ori Ansbacher, a 19-year-old Israeli woman from the settlement of Tekoa, was raped and murdered. I was in Israel when the news broke, and there was a concert and rally in Jerusalem’s First Train Station. It was an emotionally charged event, and all it would take was one or two incensed young people to evoke a disastrous revenge attack on innocent Palestinians for the simple slight of being the same race or ethnicity as the killers. Israel, even at its best moments, always seems to be on the brink.
My biggest criticism, at least of the pilot, is that the ill-informed viewer will come away thinking that the religious population in Israel is monolithic, and not understand the nuance, for example, between an anti-occupation, dati resident of Yitzhar and a recent oleh from Riverdale to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Gush Etzion settlement bloc. It matters because this rich diversity defines Israel, and contributes both to its beauty and its tension. To underplay these differences is to undermine the conflict that acts as a driving force in the onscreen narrative.
The show offers a snapshot of the tensions that contemporary Israeli television shows that have reached America’s shores miss, and for that, I can’t wait to see the next episode.
Eli Reiter is a teacher and writer and host of the Muslim-Jewish storytelling series.