Why You Must Watch HBO’s Brilliant New Israeli Drama ‘Our Boys’

HBO’s grueling but gripping Israeli show ‘Our Boys’ reprises the violent summer of 2014

A scene from HBO's  "Our Boys."
HBO

What’s the right length of time to wait before revisiting a traumatic incident from your country’s past? I ask not because of the new “Beverly Hills, 90120” reboot but the Israeli series “Our Boys,” which takes the horrific events that led up to the 50-day Gaza War in the summer of 2014 and creates a grueling but gripping 10-part drama series out of them.

You could be forgiven for not wanting to tune in, given the show’s use of the tragic time when four teenage boys — three Israeli yeshiva students and a Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem — were murdered and a permanently simmering country finally boiled over. But “Our Boys” is done in such a thoughtful and sensitive manner that it demands to be viewed by as large an audience as possible, both locally and globally.

“Our Boys” — a co-production of Keshet International’s Keshet Studios and HBO, and produced by Movie Plus — is the first entirely Hebrew/Arabic-language series to air on the U.S. cable giant. Buying the rights was a laudable move on HBO’s part, because this is an unapologetically Israeli show that makes few concessions to its international audience.

In that regard, it is the complete opposite of Netflix’s anodyne film The Red Sea Diving Resort,” which did everything possible to create a generic action thriller that could have been about any nation or people instead of about Israeli and Ethiopian Jews.

By contrast, the only thing that could make “Our Boys” any more Israeli is if it came with a tub of hummus and a heated debate about the cultural appropriation of food.

This is a show about a country situated on a geographical and cultural rift, one where rival cultures and ideologies are constantly crashing into one another: Jew versus Arab; Ashkenazi Jew versus Mizrahi Jew; secular versus religious; Muslim versus Christian; left versus right … the list goes on.

It was a daring move by creators Hagai Levi (“The Affair”), Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”) and Tawfik Abu Wael (“Thirst”) to take the most painful week in Israel’s recent history and to ask Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) to have those wounds picked over in their living rooms. But it was particularly brave (some might say foolhardy) to set the drama in two of the country’s least documented (and some might say least loved) communities: the Arabs of East Jerusalem and the Mizrahim of West Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.

Israeli directors and screenwriters Joseph Cedar, left, Hagai Halevi, center, and Tawfiq Abu Wael.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Dark places

But that is precisely what makes this show so compelling. The Hollywood Reporter called “Our Boys” “abject misery porn,” but after five episodes I’d call it the most painful but strangely rewarding show of the year, one that is not afraid to go to some very dark places in the country’s psyche.

The modus operandi is explained in the opening credit: “This show is a dramatization of events that occurred during the summer of 2014 in the Greater Jerusalem area. Some of the names have been changed and some of the events, characters, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”

Don’t be misled by that phrase “dramatic purposes,” though. “Our Boys” isn’t interested in taking liberties with history, but rather wants to explore the events from the perspective of those on the ground who either had to solve a crime or deal with its aftermath.

Interestingly, the show is being released just a week after the biggest scandal in Israeli television, when the police reality show “Jerusalem District” was pulled after some officers were found to have planted an M16 gun in the home of a Palestinian man during a particularly dramatic episode.

It’s a welcome reminder that if “Our Boys” had been made as a docudrama, it would have probably been far more sensationalist than this fictionalized version of events (for starters, the music would have been far less subtle than the minimalist soundtrack heard here). This is instead a procedural in which — irony alert — events in the world’s greatest hotbed of religious fervor unfold at a decidedly glacial pace.

It should be made clear that this is not a story about the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, but what happens when their fate becomes known and the streets of West Jerusalem scream for blood and vengeance.

The show’s protagonist is Simon (beautifully played by Shlomi Elkabetz), a senior investigator in the Shin Bet secret service’s Jewish Division — a unit that probes hate crimes committed by members of the Jewish community toward Muslims, Christians and any other denomination you might find in Jerusalem. (That choice of where to root the story tells you everything you need to know about “Our Boys.”)

Simon might qualify as morose if only he would cheer up a little. As reflective as a Torah portion of the week, he’s a single man of Moroccan descent who is married to the job — which is just as well, because that work is about to get even more demanding.

As the search for the three missing Jewish teens continues, he’s nervously tracking a group of young Jewish extremists to make sure they don’t commit a revenge “price tag” attack on the Arab community. (The show assumes the audience will know what terms like “price tag” and “hilltop youth” are, and that Lehava is an anti-assimilationist organization — which is obviously fine for Israeli audiences but much riskier for, say, any Nebraskans tuning in.)

But it turns out that extremists come in many guises, leading to a politically charged manhunt when 16-year-old Shoafat resident Mohammed Abu Khdeir is abducted and brutally murdered. It soon becomes clear the perpetrators are young Jews.

I had one person in mind while watching “Our Boys”: Israel’s incendiary culture minister, Miri Regev. Herself a proudly Mizrahi Jew of Moroccan origin, she has waged a full-on war against both the country’s Arab citizens and the Ashkenazi liberal elite and their continued efforts to capture the real Israel, warts and all (well, to be fair, mainly the warts).

Here is a show that does the very thing she hates: Washes Israel’s dirty linen in full view of the world — and this time not in some arthouse movie that might be seen by 14 people and a cat, but on one of the most prestigious channels in the world. Liberal elite 1, Miri Regev 0.

Over the five episodes viewed, for me “Our Boys” is at its best when it picks away at the seam between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. Simon is a rare Mizrahi voice in an otherwise Ashkenazi working environment, and the show hits new heights when he goes undercover in the Mizrahi community. I particularly loved the scene where he engages in a theological and political debate with a settler rabbi and a Russian-Israeli mathematician — and, trust me, that scene is far more entertaining than I just made it sound. Again, I’m not sure if this will play well in Nebraska, but I was completely entranced.

Fans of Israeli series will find lots of familiar faces among the cast. These include Michael Aloni from “Shtisel” and “When Heroes Fly,” Doron Ben David from “Fauda” and Lior Ashkenazi from pretty much every single Israeli film made in the past 30 years — which may reflect the small nature of the local television industry but just added to the fun (I use the word advisedly) for me.

Yes, this is an unashamedly liberal show that could have been ripped from the pages of Haaretz, but that does not make it any less vital. I loved its interest in the Abu Khdeir family (the scene when the father agonizes over whether to call the Israel Police when he fears his son has been abducted is a masterclass in understatement), as well as Simon’s interactions with his own family and faith. It is also important to note that the crime’s perpetrators are depicted in an unusually nuanced manner, with time given to their struggles with (ruthlessly) organized religion. “Our Boys” is never easy viewing and asks a lot from its audience — but nothing that it doesn’t merit. Take a trip down a very painful memory lane and watch it.