Why HBO’s ‘Our Boys’ is a victory for Israeli hasbara

By calling to boycott HBO’s ‘Our Boys,’ Prime Minister Netanyahu misses the fact that the series ends up erasing the occupation’s greatest iniquities while supporting the dominant Israeli narrative.

An Israeli police officer stands alongside a Shin Bet officer in a scene from HBO’s “Our Boys.” (HBO)
An Israeli police officer stands alongside a Shin Bet officer in a scene from HBO’s “Our Boys.” (HBO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked controversy in both Israel and across the world late last week when he published a post on his official Facebook page denouncing HBO’s widely-praised series, “Our Boys,” as anti-Semitic. The prime minister called on Israelis to boycott the Israeli media company Keshet, which partnered with HBO on the series, and whose subsidiary news company has been publishing exclusive materials from the pending criminal investigations against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is riding a wave of right-wing criticism of “Our Boys,” the dramatization of the murder of the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish Israelis in the summer of 2014, shortly after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians. Israeli right-wing journalists have slammed the series for choosing to focus on the brutal murder of 16-year-old Abu Khdeir, which they consider an exception to the norm in Israel, as opposed to the killing of Israeli civilians at the hands of Palestinians.

Critics claim that by choosing such a rare event ­— one that came from the extreme fringes of Israeli society and was denounced wholeheartedly by the vast majority of Israelis — and by choosing not to focus on the many attacks by Palestinians against Israelis, HBO and Keshet are either playing into the hands of anti-Semites or are simply anti-Semitic themselves.

However, judging by the first four episodes that have aired so far, the critics have it the other way around. While “Our Boys” is a complex and thoughtful series that includes some of today’s finest Israeli and Palestinian actors, the series does more of a service to the Israeli narrative and to hasbara, Israeli public diplomacy, than anything else.

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In fact, it is precisely the choice to portray and focus on Abu Khdeir’s murder that actually helps redeem Israel. The second episode, for example, shows how deeply convinced Israeli security forces are that Jews could not have possibly committed such a heinous crime. In the episodes to come, show creator Haggai Levy has promised to show “how deeply shocked Israeli society is by the fact this murder was committed by Jews. I hear people around the world reacting [by saying]: ‘Look at how strong Jewish society is for taking this so seriously.'”

Then there are Israeli critics who have defended the series, and believe there is no point in telling the story of Palestinian terrorism — since it is so commonplace — as opposed to exploring the psychological factors that lead Israelis to commit such acts.

It is precisely this kind of mentality that provides a boon to hasbara, which portrays an ostensibly peace-seeking Israeli society that is forced to contend with bloodthirsty Palestinians. Reality, however, tells us a completely different story.

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, between the 2009 war in Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) and July 2019, a total 199 Israelis have been killed in attacks carried out by Palestinians (101 security personnel and 98 civilians). During that same period, Israel killed 4,928 Palestinians, at least 2,535 of whom were not involved in hostilities. While the sheer brutality of Abu Khdeir’s murder was indeed exceptional, his death is but one of thousands.

The list of victims includes 142 Palestinian families wiped out in air strikes on Gaza, journalists and paramedics. It also includes another 16-year-old boy, who was gunned down by soldiers while returning home from the swimming pool. The soldiers, who receive full backing from the Israeli establishment, were rarely put on trial. None of these killings will ever be the focus of an HBO series, nor will the actions of the soldiers challenge the way Israelis view themselves, as a peaceful and benevolent country. By exceptionalizing the murder of Abu Khdeir, “Our Boys” ignores and even normalizes the killing of Palestinians whose deaths were not as high profile.

Mohammad Abu Khdeir’s funeral procession, as portrayed in HBO’s “Our Boys.” (HBO)
Mohammad Abu Khdeir’s funeral procession, as portrayed in HBO’s “Our Boys.” (HBO)

The series’ support for the Israeli narrative can also be found in its dramatic characterization of “the conflict” as a struggle between two equally-powerful adversarial “clans,” another mainstay of mainstream Israeli thinking. Each of these clans has its own fanatics, moderates, and bereaved parents mourning their slain children. While this portrayal is effective as a dramatic backdrop for the series’ unfolding events, it is far from reflective of the reality of occupation, of Jewish-Israeli supremacy, and of a broken Palestinian society that is oppressed by another people.

The misrepresentation of life under military rule continues with the show’s decision to focus on one man who can stand between these two clans: the Shin Bet agent, who represents law and order and tries to bring back a semblance of normalcy while chaos reigns in Jerusalem. As Israeli TV critic Amir Bogen noted, it is the Shin Ben agent who represents Israel’s trustworthy justice system, one that “keeps Israeli democracy afloat, setting it apart from religious dictatorships around us.” Even Haggai Levy admitted that “this is what the series is actually about.”

The Shin Bet, however, is no neutral player, but rather the mastermind behind some of the occupation’s most egregious abuses. It is the Shin Bet that blackmails Palestinians into becoming collaborators, that imprisons them for indefinite periods of time without trial or charge, and tortures thousands of detainees with full impunity. As for the Israeli justice system Bogen praises, it is the same one that ensures soldiers are hardly ever held responsible for killing unarmed Palestinians, and which has given the green light to Israel’s apartheid policies in the West Bank, including its settlement enterprise, the separation barrier, home demolitions, collective punishment, and more.

Politically, there is still much value in what the series sets out to do. Unfortunately, even the mere fact that it humanizes Palestinian victims — especially at a time when Palestinians are routinely dehumanized in Israeli culture — carries a lot of weight. This re-humanization of Palestinians, alongside the humane and delicate portrayal of the murderers, portrays a complex and multi-dimensional picture of the reality in our country. In itself, that’s quite an achievement. It’s a shame, then, that such a carefully-crafted series ends up reinforcing the narrative of the oppressor.

A version of this article was published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.