‘Our Boys’ Missed an Opportunity to Be a Truly Important Series

Focusing more on the murderers’ psychological motivations than on the nationalist and ethnic conflicts prevents the series from making a pointed political statement

Jony Arbid as Abu Khdeir’s father in HBO's 'Our Boys'
Ran Mendelson/ YES

“Our Boys” makes for fascinating viewing. The series, whose 10th and final episode was broadcast last week, focuses on the 2014 murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat. Even though we know what happened, the series makes viewers try to comprehend how this shocking event came to be: how a 16-year-old boy was burned to death.

Creators Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael present the facts and raise all of the tensions involved to the surface. But the series’ engagement with these tensions doesn’t gel into a firm social and political understanding. Despite this, the show, a co-production of HBO and Israel’s Keshet Studios, is more concerned with raising questions, and that is its strength.

The public’s criticism of the series was over the fact that it addresses Abu Khdeir’s murder and not on the abduction and murder of the three Jewish boys – Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel – that preceded it. But in fact the focus of “Our Boys” is not the Palestinian narrative or the Jewish-Israeli narrative, but rather the psychology of Abu Khdeir’s murderers: The psychological mechanisms that led teenagers without a criminal past to commit murder. This psychology is presented in such a sharp and in-depth manner that it even manages to create empathy in the viewers.

The price of this focus is the imbalance between the depiction of the Palestinian and the Israeli characters. In contrast to the Israelis in the series, the Palestinians are stereotypical and simplistic, lacking complexity. For instance, there is very little about the way that the murder defines Abu Khdeir’s parents and siblings – a regular family that is suddenly thrust into a public and social role. Instead, we get scenes that are similar to what actually happened: The body of a dead Palestinian arrives and is taken by shabab, or young Palestinian activists, and Abu Khdeir is turned into a shahid, a martyr to the cause.

Co-creators of "Our Boys", Hagai Levi, Tawfik Abu Wael, and Joseph Cedar, Tel Aviv, August 11, 2019.
\ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

Abu Wael created Palestinian characters that were precise and faithful to the narrative, but he failed to turn the familiar, predictable profile into a complex portrait of Palestinian individuals. Even the excellent performance of Jony Arbid as Abu Khdeir’s father doesn’t manage to break out of the Palestinian stereotype. In comparison, the fictitious character of Simon the Shin Bet security service agent (Shlomi Elkabetz, who gives an interesting, minimalist performance) is rounded, complex and flawed.

In that sense, the Palestinian narrative is almost detached from the parallel Jewish story. Not only that, but it’s often detached from reality. Ostensibly the two stories take place in two parallel worlds, but that’s actually an illusion. The series completely misses the points of contact – or collision – between the narratives. The creators didn’t develop any narrative intersection that could have enriched the whole and perhaps might have managed to crack or crash both of the narratives.

This detachment stands in stark contrast to the series’ overall verisimilitude. It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into trying to recreate what really happened. The use of archive footage is excellent and important, but just as the Jewish story is tied up in its political-social-religious context, so too was the Palestinian narrative supposed to portray a complex reality – and not only through archival materials, which reinforce the stereotypes.

The series showed the alienation of Abu Khdeir’s young murderers and their difficulties in their schools, which allot few places to Mizrahim, or Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The character Avishay Elbaz, a minor, is a Mizrahi yeshiva student who stutters, has no self-confidence and cannot find his place in the Ashkenazi religious world. The discussion of the murderers’ Mizrahiness also touches on the discussion of the Jewish underground, whose leading members are today part of the establishment. The so-called hilltop youth, extremist teens from the settlements, can be described as rebelling against their parents’ generation, but this case is a different story. At one point Simon says, “It’s already not them” – that is, these are not the hilltop youth. So what are they? What ties them to this ideology? Is it their marginality? Their Mizrahi marginality? Is that how Mizrahim obtain their status? Is it an attempt to prove that they belong? Is it the act that connects them to the hilltop youth? Are they the grunt workers who execute the ideology? These questions are left unanswered.

A still shot from HBO's 'Our Boys'
Ran Mendelson / YES

Mizrahiness is also expressed in the world of Simon, who works in the Shin Bet’s Jewish division, which combats Jewish terror. Simon, himself Mizrahi, interrogates people with whom he feels comfortable, but he cannot be a part of them. His work severs him from his social and familial environment. There is an unforgettable scene in which he shouts at his commander: “It could be anyone! Doesn’t everyone say, ‘death to the Arabs’?”

Speaking of Simon, you cannot ignore the fact that his being presented as a positive, likeable and even empathic character is problematic, to say the least. It was his security apparatus, the Shin Bet, that sent Samer Arbid, the head of a Palestinian terror cell suspected of murdering an Israeli teenager, Rina Shnerb, in August, to the emergency room after he underwent severe torture. It may be that the Shin Bet is less severe with Jews, but as an organization it cannot be presented as such. There’s no artistic justification for presenting the Shin Bet in a nearly entirely positive light; doing so is politically and morally wrong.

One of the unequivocal things that comes up is that “Our Boys” is a clearly masculine story. The female characters are very superficial and have barely any presence. Aside from the psychiatrist Dvora (played by Noa Koler) and to some extent Abu Khdeir’s mother (played by Ruba Blal-Asfour), almost none of the female characters have any depth. It seems as if someone decided that men have exclusivity over the story of the murder. Perhaps the desire for coherency and the attempt to simplify are what led to women being pushed outside the picture. But leaving them out mars the story’s complexity and prevents from reflecting on more complicated, interesting environments than those that the media shows us.

The story of Abu Khdeir’s murder is not the story of an individual but rather a political, social, public story. “Our Boys” presents the political background, the social story, but gets tripped up on the personal story of the boy who becomes the murderer. This can be seen in Elbaz’s declaration in court, “I didn’t commit murder.” After all, it doesn’t matter if Elbaz was the one who actually killed Abu Khdeir; he took an active role in the murder.

The murder was a political act. The story as it’s presented blurs the narratives but doesn’t allow for them to collapse entirely, and we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions. Ultimately, “Our Boys” is not a political series. The character of the Palestinian indeed is given a place, and this has enormous importance in a political and artistic landscape that flattens Palestinian characters and treats them with racism, both in art and otherwise. But the road is still long, and the next challenge for Palestinian directors is to bring the modern Palestinian onto the screen: not the Jew’s Palestinian, but the Palestinian’s Palestinian.