‘Our Boys’: The Fight for Narrative in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I have not written in these blogs for several years, feeling discouraged since the election of President Trump over the chances for the two-state process as he takes negotiation chips off the board. The further entrenchment of Bibi and his corruption, the growing racism in everyday discussions, and the discriminatory Nation-State Law left me pessimistic and disillusioned. To that point, the continuous withering of the Palestinian Authority, has empowered Hamas, whose usual show of human carelessness and cynicism moves forward unabated. Peace undoubtedly is still far from the horizon.

However, two recent events have given me a small sliver of optimism. Not necessarily for peace, but for change within Israeli society. The first and most obvious: the recent election victory (vote-wise) for Benny Gantz. While Netanyahu is not assured of defeat, and I expect him to try every machination to keep power, denying him outright victory may finally suggest that Israelis are fed up with his myriad faults. Bibi is the truest impediment to change, and any alteration of the political landscape could snap Israelis out of the trance they have been caught in more or less since Rabin’s death and the disintegration of the peace process set off by the Second Intifada. While Bibi currently has the mandate to create a government, coalition talks seem to be at an impasse. With internal dissent bubbling within the Likud, his defeat is inching toward the realm of possibility.

The other, less obvious, but no less important event has been the airing of HBO’s limited series, “Our Boys.” Focusing primarily on the kidnapping and immolation of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year old Palestinian, by three young teenage Jews in 2014, an act set as revenge for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians. The four murders were the touchstone in starting the 2014 Gaza war, which cost more than 3,000 people their lives, once again leveled Gaza, and revealed the extent of Netanyahu’s failure to control Hamas.

The first HBO show to be made in Hebrew and Arabic, “Our Boys,” has engendered no shortage of controversy internationally and within Israel, especially amongst Jews. Those who decry the show – like the Prime Minister – have labeled it anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. They believe the show to be, like BDS, Iranian threats, and Hamas rockets, yet another tool in the efforts to delegitimize and destroy Israeli state. Others celebrate their show for “proving” that Israelis really are that monstrous, cold, calculating, and nationalistic. They hope to use the show as a propagandistic tool to advance their decidedly anti-Israeli opinions.

Both sides miss the point entirely, and their arguments actually serve to delegitimize their larger claims. BDS, Iran etc. are all actual threats; “Our Boys” is not. If Israel is worried what sort of impression the show will make, especially in America, they should do better to cultivate the opposite impression instead of say turning Israel into a partisan issue. In the show, the father of Yosef Chaim Ben-David, the killer, laments that people will now think that all Jews are like his murderous son. They are not, and those who are using their show as proof of Israeli evilness risk wading into anti-Semitism.

Rather, the show accomplishes something entirely different. It holds an unvarnished mirror up to a strain of Israeli society that is racist, deeply religious, and purposefully desirous of scuttling any peace initiatives. Further, it criticizes the average Israeli for their blasé attitude towards the Palestinians and utter lack of knowledge about the small effects of the occupation. The prosecutor in the series, Uri Korb, is a perfect example of the latter. At one hand, he seems sympathetic to the Arab perspective; on the other, he fights to tear down the houses of terrorists’ families, while not doing the same for the Jewish killers.

Highlighting the small ways the often-justified antagonism towards the Palestinians has eroded the ability for Israelis to see Palestinians as human is not anti-Semitic, it is accurate. As President Reuven Rivlin has said, there is a sort of “sickness” that has encompassed Israelis. However, those who would suggest that it is indicative of some innate trait of racism in Israelis are badly mistaken – Israelis too of course are human, and humans react badly when they are cowed and attacked. Seeing the humanity of both sides is an essential goal of the series. Yes, there is an inherent criticism of the occupation in the show, but that is its primary motivation.

The show does not pull punches when it comes to the Palestinian side. The entrenched hatred of Israelis, the lack of understanding of Israeli fears, and the use of the dead boy as a political pawn are all touched on and criticized. The contrast is particularly stark between the quiet sensitive boy, and his parents mourning for him, while rockets are launched as revenge in his name. Cynics attack rather than pursue peace.

The show does not paint a pretty picture, but it paints an honest one. It allows the viewer to understand the intricacies of both sides, without pushing either. It is undoubtedly naïve to believe that the marginal election of Gantz and a TV show can break a seemingly intractable conflict. What it surely can do is offer something different: the beginning of a tidal wave that breaks the trance and leads to change, introspection, and ultimately human understanding. For Israelis, especially, watching this show is essential, if only to understand the Palestinian’s humanity before the peace process truly takes its last gasp of breath.

About the Author
Benjamin Davidoff is a graduate of Columbia University. He currently resides in New York.
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