There Is Only One Word for ‘Our Boys’: Masterpiece

Short of Larry David reading extracts from the Talmud, this may be the most defiantly Jewish show on HBO ever. (This review contains spoilers about the entire series, which finished this week)

Shlomi Elkbatez as Simon in "Our Boys."
Ran Mendelson / YES

It was probably no coincidence that in the same time slot as Americans sat down to watch the concluding episode of “Our Boys” on HBO Monday night, Israeli audiences could see a documentary called “Real Time Kidnapping.”

This hour-long program was made by Keshet (the same TV channel that co-produced “Our Boys”). It recounted the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers — Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel — whose murders in June 2014 led to the equally heinous revenge attack on Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir that lies at the heart of “Our Boys.”

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The documentary had access to the families of the three yeshiva students and some of the soldiers tasked with finding them after their kidnapping in the West Bank. As well as interviews, the program also detailed how the deceased victims’ bodies were eventually found 18 long days later, and the resultant manhunt in the West Bank for three Hamas suspects.

It was a glossily assembled production, arguably too much for the subject matter, but made good use of the surprisingly copious military footage of the actual search mission and eventual shoot-out with two of the cornered Hamas terrorists.

Politically, the documentary could be seen as a sop to the Israeli right-wingers who had taken to social media to rail against Keshet for its decision to focus “Our Boys” almost exclusively on the Abu Khdeir case. Yet whether a sop or not, Keshet has nothing to apologize for in making “Our Boys,” a show it is not hyperbolic to call a masterpiece.

It was significant that during the lengthy ad breaks for “Real Time Kidnapping,” the trailer for the final episode of “Our Boys” (which is only being shown in Israel after Yom Kippur) exclusively featured quotes from U.S. publications extolling the show’s virtues. CNN, TV Guide, Time, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal were all quoted, as if Keshet were saying — to use the famous Israeli quote first used by basketball legend Tal Brody to describe Maccabi Tel Aviv’s shock European triumph in 1977 — “We’re on the map!”

Laser focus

In truth, Israel has been on the television map for over a decade, ever since “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) and “BeTipul” (“In Treatment”) were bought by U.S. companies and subsequently remade (the former as “Homeland”). Yet “Our Boys” takes things to a whole new level. It would be triumph enough to get any foreign-language show on HBO, but to get one so unashamedly of its own place and time — and Jewish — as this is a remarkable achievement.

Hussein Abu Khdeir (Jony Arbid), right, holding posters of his murdered son Mohammed as his wife and son look on in "Our Boys."
Ran Mendelson / YES

This is a show that refused to make things easy for viewers. Watching the first episode back in August, I remember imagining how it might eventually broaden out, possibly incorporating the summer war with Hamas and other guerrilla groups in the Gaza Strip. Yet the genius of “Our Boys” is that it remained laser-focused on the protagonists in the Abu Khdeir murder.

This was a forensic examination of murder that never once went into a laboratory. Instead, it was concerned with Abu Khdeir’s grieving family in East Jerusalem as it wrestled with the demands of the Palestinian “street” to use his death for maximum nationalistic gain and its own overwhelming desire for justice. It examined the mastermind of the revenge attack, Yosef Haim Ben David, and his two young accomplices Yinon and Avishay (not their real names, since they were minors when they murdered Abu Khdeir) — three Sephardi Jews each with his own struggles with Ashkenazi and familial hegemonies.

Then there was the state prosecutor Uri Corb (Lior Ashkenazi), walking the thinnest of high wires as he tries to keep the Abu Khdeirs onboard despite being very much a representative of an “enemy” state that treats Jewish and Arab terrorists differently.

Best of all were two composite characters: the psychologist Dvora (Noa Koler) doing holy work among the Orthodox community and, specifically, with two of the accused; and Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), the Sephardi Jew heading the Jewish Division probe into the murder. He’s a righteous man with an outlook on life every bit as black as the skullcap he digs out of his car glove compartment whenever he needs to visit a rabbi as part of the investigation.

Adam Gabay as Avishay in "Our Boys."
Ran Mendelson / YES

Understandably, the show’s determination to follow the natural arc of the murder (investigation followed by trial) meant that Simon became less prominent as the series progressed. And while the show never faltered as it built toward the final court decision (your honor, I would like to cite the phenomenal scene when Yosef Haim’s father, a senior rabbi in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, decides to visit his son in prison to ask forgiveness for how he treated him over the years), I couldn’t help but miss Simon and his lugubrious ways.

Crushing disappointment

It’s almost unfair to pick out individual moments in a show blessed with so much brilliance (though the dinner-table debate in which an Israeli-Russian trashes the merits of the Shin Bet security service compared to the KGB remains a favorite of mine). But what will endure for me aren’t just specific lines or scenes, but two characters’ expressions during key incidents: Simon’s after he hears yeshiva school dropout Avishay’s re-enactment of the murder, a crushing look of disappointment falling over his face as he realizes how heavily involved the 16-year-old was; and the face of Mohammed’s father, Hussein Abu Khdeir (played by Jony Arbid), as he listens to Avishay’s tearful courtroom apology for his actions. Who knew it was possible to show so many different emotions in just one moment? (Kudos too to Adam Gabay for his powerful performance as Avishay.)

For me, though, the show’s greatest achievement was its refusal to demonize anyone. Whether it was the murderers themselves, the hilltop youth (extremist settlers) agitating for a holy war, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine trying to guide Hussein Abu Khdeir’s actions, the rabbis embarking on damage limitation or the lawyers representing the accused, everyone existed in a complicated, interwoven world where tribal loyalties remained the governing factor for most (Simon excepted).

"Our Boys" creators Hagai Levi, Tawfiq Abu-Wael and Joseph Cedar.
CORINNA KERN/REUTERS

As befits a show chronicling an-almost biblical moment when Israel seemed on the verge of imploding with rage, “Our Boys” is chock-full of Jewish teachings and musings. (Would an “anti-Semitic” show really feature Maimonides, the Talmud and Rashi quite so much?) Finally, HBO has a show even more Jewish than Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”!

I can understand initial right-wing frustration over the show, which, in the same way “Waltz with Bashir” shone an unforgiving light on Israel’s actions in the first Lebanon war and the Sabra and Chatila massacre, invites the world to see something the country’s politicians would much rather draw a veil over.

Of course, this being Israel, the show also attracted left-wing criticism as well, arguing that the emphasis on an exceptional event somehow lets the country off the hook over the crimes being committed daily in the West Bank. To which I would invoke my favorite Hebrew phrase: Para para (meaning one thing at a time).

In his re-enactment of the murder, the Avishay character constantly reiterates that an action can only be judged by what happens at the conclusion (“judging by its end”). If that’s the case, “Our Boys” creators Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael should be proud of their achievements here. Israeli television is back on the map.