Adam Etzion

Fauda, Israelis, Palestinians and the Numinous

*Note I: This piece contains extensive spoilers for the Israeli television show Fauda.*

*Note II: While this piece starts out as a review for a TV show, it slides into a deeply personal perspective at some point. This is a blog, and as such, I feel like there’s place for this type of perspective here. I share it with the hope of providing a very personal point of view on the show and Israeli society in general.*

I recently finished binging on the Israeli action-drama “Fauda.”

For the uninitiated, the show follows an elite team of Israeli undercover operatives – Mista’arvim – as they maneuver through Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank, in an attempt to hunt down a notorious Hamas field commander.

Things get complicated – as things often do in this type of show – when personal connections are made between the Israeli soldiers and their Hamas counterparts. The widow of a man the unit killed in one of their operations takes personal vengeance by carrying out a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv club one of the team members frequents, killing his girlfriend. The team’s commander falls in love with Shirin, a beautiful Palestinian doctor, who also happens to be the cousin and object of affections of Walid – the Hamas field commander’s right hand man.

In short, everything is personal, messy and highly emotional. The show’s narrative is driven by an unlikely form of providence and coincidence which taxes its believability, but the remarkable cinematography, acting and world-building kept me engaged and my disbelief suspended. The way in which Palestinian and Israeli sides are presented is balanced, and despite the show’s obvious roots in Israeli military service, its narrative manages to avoid clichés, presenting a human, understandable and even sympathetic Palestinian perspective alongside the Israeli one.

One of the most interesting things the show does is blur the lines between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather than portraying two disparate societies at war, due to the nature of their professions its characters continually cross the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Boaz wins the blonde, Ashkenazi Daria over by whispering romantic Arabic phrases to her. Nassrin, the fresh widow and suicide bomber, only allows herself to break down and mourn her husband in an Israeli club, when she is dressed as a Jewish clubber. The Hamassnic involved in countless terrorist attacks and in charge of driving bombers into Israel is nicknamed “the Jew” and sports neck tattoos and earrings that look more at home in Tel Aviv than in Ramallah. Doctor Shirin rejects most of her Palestinian suitors but inadvertently sees something in Doron – as does Abu Ahmed in his search for a man to carry out his biggest bombing ever.

Naor, Doron’s teammate and wife’s secret lover, is threatened by a gun-wielding child, but that child is Jewish rather than Palestinian.

Abu-Ahmed is finally killed not by the IDF but by Walid, his faithful follower.

When Doron has a gun to his head and is instructed to pray before he is executed, he begins with a Muslim prayer and then organically switches to a Jewish one.

In short, the show makes it clear that Israelis and Palestinians are – or have become – made of the same substance. They are attracted to each other and to themselves as much as they feel hatred and animosity, and the threats they face from within are equal to the threats they face from without. Individuals on both sides are manipulated equally by their nation’s leaders and military forces as they are by their enemies. Or, as I have told in exasperation to many foreign friends when asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s complicated.

And yes, as many of my Palestinian friends would probably protest, there is definitely a problem with presenting both sides as equal. Palestinians suffer under Israeli martial law while Israelis are free. The occupation is not mutual nor is it symmetrical in most other ways, and the show’s narrative symmetry is therefore a dangerous position to adopt. But the blending of cultures is real. Israelis are more similar to Palestinians than to any other nation on earth, and this is an uncomfortable truth that both sides would rather ignore – and that Fauda continually brings to the surface.

For me, one of the show’s most striking aspects was the abundance of prayer.

Many of the show’s characters have an immediate relationship with either Judaism or Islam:

Boaz, the youngest and most hot-headed member of the team (as well as the brother-in-law of Doron, the show’s main protagonist) is into Jewish Kabbalah and gives Daria, his girlfriend, an amulet imbued with Kabbalic significance. In his apartment, the wall above his bed is painted with the Kabbalic Tree of Life.

Abu-Ahmed, the Hamas mastermind the Israeli team is hunting, is a devout Muslim and is often seen praying and reciting passages from the Koran.

Many of the Mista’arvim team are shown praying in Arabic, according to the Muslim faith, as part of their cover.

Finally, unlike his other Israeli comrades, Doron is shown praying in Hebrew twice during the show. In both instances his prayers are arguably some of the most important in the Jewish prayer book – Kaddish and Shma’ Yisrael.

I know they are important because these are the only two Jewish prayers I can easily recognize, myself.

Prayer is as natural to the characters of Fauda as eating or shooting guns is.

Before Doron returns to his insane undercover mission he takes time to talk to his commanders, see his family – and to say Kaddish over the fresh grave of his brother-in-law. It is an important part of the Trinity that makes up his identity: Nation, Family and Faith, and indeed the dramatic tension between these three pillars drives many of the show’s main characters, be they Walid, Abu-Ahmed or Boaz.

And as I watched the scene where Doron says Kaddish – the prayer not complete without his voice cracking and tears welling up from unknown depths as its recitation progresses – I was reminded of all the times I’ve seen others say it and the similar emotions it evoked in people in my own life. My uncle and cousins as they stood over my aunt’s grave after her long fight with cancer, brothers in arms at military funerals of friends from school and my own unit, as well as funerals in my Moshav’s community. Everyone seems to find some meaning in the short Aramaic passage praising god in multiple ways.

But I don’t.

Prayer has always been an alien concept to me. I see people do it and I don’t understand why.

A few months ago I spoke to a Rabbi who was an invited guest at my mother’s Buddhist Sangha in the Arava desert. He led the Buddhist community there in Jewish prayer, and when the Buddhists returned to their studies of ancient Tibetan texts, he helmed a workshop about modern prayer for their guests – myself and my father among them. Before we got to what I think was supposed to be the workshop’s main objective, I inadvertently derailed the discussion by saying that I don’t understand what prayer is.

My bafflement was so fundamental that despite the Rabbi’s best efforts he was unable to create a meaningful frame of reference for me (and for my father) to work with in understanding the function of prayer.

I have met this impasse in many other conversations with friends and colleagues about the place religion holds in their lives.

I am simply unable to understand the concept of God – and by extension any form of interaction with that concept. It always comes down to using a “religious experience” I was supposed to have at some point in my life as a frame of reference.

In his book “The Ideas of the Holy,” when Rudolf Otto attempts to explore the religious experience, or what he calls “the numinous,” he states at the beginning of chapter three:

“The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further; for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who can recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings.”

So according to Otto, and to many of the people I have discussed this issue with, I lack some sort of basic human experience. Just as one cannot explain color to a blind person, one cannot explain god or prayer to me. The Trinity which drives both Israelis and Palestinians in Fauda – Nation, Faith and Family – does not apply to me. I am missing an essential pillar in this form of identity, and the structure cannot, therefore, bear its own weight. No wonder, then, that nationalism, which, in our part of the world is deeply intertwined with faith, has already waivered and collapsed for me as well.

And so, from what was supposed to be a story presenting the conflict from a fresh perspective which nevertheless retains its “insider” status, I finished watching Fauda with a sensation I often feel whenever I discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli society and the future of my country with fellow Israelis – a deep form of alienation.

My shared experiences of language, culture, military service, my love for this country’s weather, geography, food – all serve as a stark backdrop for one simple fact: The deep mechanism which drives most people here, be they Israeli or Palestinian, Sabras or Olim, leftists or right-wingers – is different from my own.

At its core, Fauda presents an optimistic point of view; despite their historic animosity, Israelis and Palestinians are very much alike, and the infrastructure for a shared culture and a shared future is already being laid down. But personally, as I look to that shared future, I can’t help but wonder, with a deep sense of sadness, if I, and people like me, are doomed to be left out of it.

About the Author
Born in Israel, raised all over the world, Adam is a climate activist, writer and consultant currently located in Tel Aviv.
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