Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a boycott against Israel’s channel 12 for producing the HBO mini-series “Our Boys.” He described it as anti-Semitic and slandering Israel internationally. This month I watched “Our Boys” and can recommend it not only as a docudrama but as a brutally honest retelling of how the Israeli cops apprehended 3 West Bank settlers that murdered a 16-year old Palestinian boy. They were seeking to avenge Hamas’s killing of 3 teen-aged boys who were settlers like them. What makes the show so authentic was the division of labor between Israeli and Palestinian film-makers who were determined to get the story right. The Israelis wrote the script for the Jewish characters. They were either cops or part of the West Bank settlement that bred the racism that allowed 3 men to beat a defenseless teen with a wrench until barely conscious. They finished him off by pouring gasoline down his throat and then setting fire to him.
It was left to director/screenwriter Tawfik Abu-Wael to bring the Palestinians to life. To his great credit, he has made the parents of the martyred son Mohammed Abu Khdeir two of the more fully realized Palestinian characters in any film I have seen. As the father Hussein Abu Khdeir, Johnny Arbid portrays a man being torn by two opposing forces, even to the point of splitting him in half psychologically. On one side is the Palestinian community that is mainly interested in his son being exploited as a martyr to benefit the movement. On the other is the Israeli police that needs his cooperation to help them make the arrest and prosecution of 3 settlers acceptable to most Israelis. His presence at the trial is key, even if it means defying the Palestinian political leadership. They denounce the trial in advance as being a farce that would allow the 3 to go free. His wife Suha Abu Khdeir (Ruba Blal) can accept his decision to cooperate with the police but is still distrustful enough to consider not showing up for the trial. Their drama, including the horrors of discovering what happened to their son, helps to draw you into the story.
On the Israeli side of the equation, the main character is Simon, the cop who is leading the investigation. Played by Shlomi Elkabetz, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco, he is a composite of various Israeli policemen involved in the case and likely quite a bit more honorable. Early on, he tells his boss that the viral social media posts claiming that Mohammed Abu Khdeir was gay were ultraright trolling. They were meant to support the claim that he was the victim of an Islamic honor killing. Simon was sure that given the Islamophobic hysteria following the murder of the three settlers, it was sure to be Jewish terrorists who were guilty.
Simon’s approach is instead to use CCTV recordings to track all those who went through the neighborhood of Shuafat, where the Khdeirs lived. Eventually this revealed the license plate of a Honda owned by Yosef Haim Ben-David, a 30-something owner of an eyeglass store. He lived in a West Bank settlement that is populated by Sephardic Jews like Simon. Also living there are his accomplices, two 16-year old nephews that have been going to the yeshiva. To prosecute the case against the three, Simon feels compelled to learn more about their political beliefs and their personalities. What would drive Jews to such brutal acts (a rhetorical question, dear reader.)
Going undercover, Simon injects himself into the extended family of the Sephardic rabbi and father of Yosef Haim Ben-David. He also soon learns the identity of Ben-David’s nephews, Avishai and Yinon. Of the three, Avishai seems the most vulnerable psychologically and open to pressure from a cop. He is too psychologically damaged to continue with his yeshiva studies and much more inclined to follow Ben-David and Yinon blindly because of his insecurities. He suffers from OCD, is on medication, and stutters when upset. Yinon, on the other hand, is a typical Zionist fanatic who never has qualms about murdering a stranger. As for Ben-David, he is another basket case psychologically. The same ultraorthodox psychiatrist who has been treating Avishai has also been treating him. From a criminal law standpoint, the big challenge for Simon and the Israeli prosecutor is to establish Ben-David and Avishai’s guilt. Their psychiatrist accepts that they are disturbed but not so much so that they could not distinguish between right and wrong, the litmus test for an insanity not guilty plea that was made obsolete after John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
“Our Boys” contains TV news footage of the speeches made by Netanyahu in 2014 as well as the protests Palestinians carried out against this terrorist killing. Using the excuse of the killing of 3 Israeli teens, the IDF carried out a bombing campaign that left 2,300 Gazans dead and another 10,895 wounded. The UN estimated that more than 7,000 homes for 10,000 families were leveled to the ground, with another 89,000 homes suffering serious damage. In one of his confrontations with Simon and the prosecutor, Hussein Abu Khdeir insists that the homes of his son’s three killers be torn down just as happens routinely to the houses where Palestinian militants lived. When the prosecutor tells him that there is one law for Jews and another for Palestinians, you can fully appreciate the value of having someone like Tawfik Abu-Wael on the creative team.
In an interview with NPR, Abu-Wael explained why he decided to work with Israelis:
You know, as a Palestinian director living in Israel, when I have calls from Israeli creators or directors, it have something to do with Arabs and I usually say no. And this time, Joseph Cedar called me. And I like his work, so I found myself travelling with him and Hagai Levi to meet the father and the mother of Mohammed. It was a tense meeting because it was hard for them to accept the idea that Israelis are going to tell their story. And they suddenly went they understood that I’m going to tell their story, I’m the Palestinian storyteller, they looked at me like they are giving me the most important thing in their life. And it was a moment I just understood that somebody decided for me before I even thought about that.
If you don’t have HBO, my advice is to sign up for a seven-day trial membership on Amazon to see this remarkable mini-series. It marks a real departure from the norm in the Middle East with Israelis and Palestinians working in their distinct spheres. For the Israelis making films about their relationship to Palestinians, the typical film is one of those angst-ridden stories about the misery Israeli soldiers suffer as colonizers. Poor things. For Palestinians, the films are usually expressions of despair about their conditions changing in the face of Israeli military power. “Our Boys” is an important indication that cooperation between the two nationalities around principled goals is worth pursuing. This mini-series can make the connection between rightwing terror in Israel and the pall cast by a White House bent on applying Netanyahu’s game-plan to a society also fraught with racial and religious divisions.
My advice is to do what you can to see “Our Boys” and get the word out. This is more than a film. It is an event.