Opinion

HBO's ‘Our Boys’ Forces Israelis to Look in the Mirror

A frame from HBO's 'Our Boys,' co-produced by KI's Keshet Studios.
Ran Mendelson

“They are raining insults on me. Someone must be wrong,” the French artist Edouard Manet wrote to his friend, French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire in 1863 about the reception of his painting “Olympia.” The work was vilified because it pictured a naked woman reclining on a sofa and being attended by a black servant. It quickly became clear that the “someone wrong” was the public, as the painting went on to become the landmark of the modern avant-garde and has since been hailed for its bold innovation.

A naked woman reclining on a sofa should not have been earth-shattering to a public used to the image of naked Venus or Aphrodite at least since the Renaissance. But as scholars have argued, it was precisely the fact that Olympia’s nakedness was not that of a mythical being that shocked viewers. A naked goddess would have been perfectly acceptable, but Olympia, an ordinary prostitute, was not. It was thus not nakedness as such that was offensive, but rather nakedness without the wrapping of mythology, naked nakedness so to speak.

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Realism was an offensive artistic movement because it wanted to show reality as it was, without disguise. “Frankness,” “directness,” “flatness,” were the common insults hurled at a painting. People were furious not to be able to bask in the greatness and glory of the subject. Olympia was paradigmatic of a recurring feature of culture. Every time an artist or scholar de-mythifies (and demystifies) someone or something, s/he can be sure “insults will rain.”

The new series produced by HBO-Keshet, “Our Boys,” has had the same effect as Olympia: insults do not stop raining. The series reconstitutes in a fictional mode the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian youngster who in the summer of 2014 was abducted, killed and burned by three religious Jews. (The mastermind of the murder lived in the West Bank settlement of Adam.)

A frame from HBO's 'Our Boys,' co-produced by KI's Keshet Studios.
Ran Mendelson

The series focuses on the murder of the Palestinian boy and not on the national anguish about the Jewish boys who had been previously abducted and killed, because the producers – Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael – wanted to use the Abu Khdeir case to take a snapshot of Israeli society. The murder of Abu Khdeir is not the result of a few deranged psyches, but the expression of an advanced disease of Israeli society as a whole. It is the Israeli collective psyche that is on the couch of this mini-series, and this psyche, as the plot unfolds, reveals itself to be consumed with fear, hatred and denial.

But the character that represents the Israel psyche is not the extremist and fanatic Yosef Chaim Ben-David, the instigator of the crime, but rather the young Avichai, the tormented, stuttering adolescent who is dragged into the horrifying murder. One of the most interesting questions raised by the series is precisely this: How did the young, soft, timid Avichai become an accomplice in the horrifying event? The answer is a lesson in sociology: He was pressured by his uncle and by extension his social group; he did not really understand the meaning of his actions, because he learned to believe evasions and denials; he never asked questions because he never learned to ask questions; mostly, he believed he was serving God, his people and his country.

In his deep confusion about good and evil, in the easiness with which he relinquished his private conscience and blindly served what he believes to be the collective good, Avichai becomes the metaphor for the transformation of Israel.

Like Olympia, “Our boys” destroys myths that are dear to Israelis.

“(Israeli) Jews are more moral than Arabs.”

“(Israeli) Jews can’t be racist because they were victims of anti-Semitism.”

“A Jew would never kill an Arab savagely.”

“An Arab’s life is worth less than a Jew’s.”

“Arabs don’t care about their children, they send them to death; only (Israeli) Jews care about their boys.”

These ideas and sentences are deeply inscribed in the Israeli psyche, and it is because the series undermines every single one of these myths that it has elicited such fury.

The inciter-in-chief has joined the chorus. The series, Netanyahu claimed, engages in the “vilification and defamation of Israel” and is nothing less than “anti-Semitic.” Why? I believe the reason, unacknowledged by Netanyahu is this one: Israel does not appear as the startup nation and the only-democracy-in-the Middle-East he would love the world to believe it is; rather it appears as a nation in which hundreds of thousands of people believe in the power of prayer to shape politics, in which large swaths of the population believe that the law for Jews should differ from the law for gentiles, that killing Arabs does not have the same gravity as killing Jews; and mostly it shows that a brutal, primitive racism infects most social groups, religious and secular. As Simon, the Shin Bet agent, puts it to one of his colleagues: “If you start imprisoning people for incitement and hatred, half of the country will be in prison.”

In Hamlet, the famous young man suspects his mother and her new husband, Claudius, of having murdered his father. Hamlet can no longer bear his mother’s evasions and denials. In a powerful scene, he runs to hold up a mirror to her, claiming: “You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you.”

Hamlet’s gesture is a desperate one: In the face of his mother’s denial, he offers her a mirror, hoping that when she sees herself, she will be forced to face her conscience, to see herself as she truly is. But Gertrude refuses to look at the mirror, to confront her own face, and instead screams in fear. Such is Israel’s reaction to seeing itself in the mirror of “Our Boys.”