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Television

As Trump fans flames on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, HBO’s gripping ‘Our Boys’ leaps into the fire

Shlomi Elkabetz in “Our Boys,” HBO’s new miniseries about the Israeli/Palestine conflict
Shlomi Elkabetz in “Our Boys,” HBO’s new miniseries about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
(Ran Mendelson/HBO)

A teen is abducted off a street in East Jerusalem. Time is of the essence if authorities hope to find him alive, and grainy surveillance footage is all they have to go on in the early stages of the investigation.

The biggest hurdle in the case, however, isn’t the blurry camerawork. It’s the hardened predispositions of those watching the tape.

An Arab views the recorded abduction and is sure the culprits are Jews. He can tell by the way they look.

A Jew watches the murky images and theorizes that the men in question are Arabs. He can always spot an Arab by the way he walks.

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They see what they want to see. In this, they are like the extremist abductors who saw a mortal enemy in the innocent 16-year-old they snatched, drove to the outskirts of the city and burned alive.

There’s so many angles that will rile people. They have to face it, though. This is the main reason we did the series.
Avi Nir, CEO of Keshet Media Group

HBO’s bold, gripping miniseries “Our Boys” is based on real events from the summer of 2014, when three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and later found murdered by Hamas militants. A nation on edge erupted into protests and riots, its loudest voices calling for vengeance. Within days, the charred remains of a new abductee, Arab teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, were found in the Jerusalem Forest, enraging the Palestinian community.

The 10-part drama follows Israeli authorities’ investigation into Abu Khdeir’s murder, exposing complex human stories on all sides of the tragedy with exceptional candor. The series also builds the case for how a never-ending cycle of revenge thwarted justice and sparked the 50-day Gaza war.

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“It’s a historical event that changed everything. I can speak about Jerusalem before the Mohammed Abu Khdeir murder and after the Mohammad Abu Khdeir murder. It changed Israel as we knew it,” says Tawfik Abu Wael, who co-created “Our Boys” with executive producers Hagai Levi and Joseph Cedar. “We knew when making the series that we were dealing with something taboo in Palestinian society and in Israeli society.”

A co-production of HBO and Israel’s Keshet Studios, the cable giant’s first entirely Hebrew-/Arabic-language series to air in the U.S. took four years of painstaking research and the guidance of creators who represent opposing sides in a multifaceted conflict — Abu Wael is Palestinian, Levi and Cedar are Israeli Jews.

All but one of the drama’s main characters are based on real people involved in the events. And many of those people — including Israeli counterterrorism agents and Abu Khdeir’s parents — were consulted in an effort to make the production as accurate as possible.

The time and energy devoted to the series shows. “Our Boys” is the rare production out of Israel and the occupied territories to offer viewers multiple perspectives in a region violently divided by questions of statehood, human rights and social equality.

Tzahi Grad and Shlomi Elkabetz uncover a body in HBO’s “Our Boys.”
Tzahi Grad, left, and Shlomi Elkabetz in the HBO miniseries "Our Boys."
(Ran Mendelson/HBO)

And the arrival of “Our Boys” on American television this month couldn’t be more timely. The miniseries began airing Aug. 12, just as arguments erupted in Washington, D.C., and across social media over Israel’s decision to bar the United States’ first two Muslim congresswomen from entering the country due to their support for the global Palestinian rights movement, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

Many Republicans, including President Trump, labeled the women “anti-Semitic” for criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Democrats were split. Supporters of Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) decried the attacks on the lawmakers as racist: “It is disgusting that a bigot like Trump is attacking @RashidaTlaib and @IlhanMN in this way,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders. “Opposing Netanyahu’s policies is not ‘hating the Jewish people.’ We must stand together against those who promote hatred and racism in Israel, Palestine, the U.S. and everywhere.”

Though Israel later told Palestinian American Tlaib that she’d be allowed to visit her elderly grandmother on the West Bank if she agreed to Israeli restrictions during her visit, the Michigan lawmaker declined. During a press conference Monday, a teary-eyed Tlaib explained that her 90-year-old grandmother advised her not to make the trip if it meant succumbing to the restrictions: “She said … I’m her free bird,” Tlaib said. “So why would I come back and be caged?” She and Omar did, however, urge others in Congress to go and see the situation for themselves.

The torrent of news laid bare the conflict’s reverberations in the U.S., and the thicket of complexities it brings. It was never more evident than this week, when Trump accused American Jews of disloyalty if they voted for Democrats, unleashing a wave of rebuke for using language reminiscent of “dual loyalty” accusations faced by German Jews in the Nazi era. Rather than apologize, Trump thanked a conspiracy theorist the next day on Twitter for saying Israeli Jews love the president “like he’s the King of Israel,” and again accused American Jews of disloyalty, this time to Israel and Jewish people, if they voted for Democrats.

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Arguments over who’s right or wrong, who’s more racist and which side truly deserves the trust of the American people are more tangled than ever. Certainly, old identifiers, such as one’s religion, national origin or political affiliation, are less reliable predictors of one’s voting choices.

Jony Arbid, left, and Ram Masarweh in HBO’s “Our Boys.”
Jony Arbid, left, andRam Masarweh in HBO's "Our Boys."
(Ran Mendelson/HBO)

The team behind “Our Boys” understood the firestorm they’d be stepping into when they chose a particularly fraught and fresh chapter of Middle East history as the subject of their series.

During an interview on a recent visit to Los Angeles, they consult one another in Arabic and Hebrew, searching for the best words in English to describe the project’s complications.

It was a challenge creating an honest, cohesive narrative that also depicted the separate reality of each community, since division and mistrust are key factors in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Levi recalls the first time the predominantly Jewish team met Abu Khdeir’s parents: “His father, Hussein, only spoke. He has a smile on his face all the time. He’s very kind. But his mother, Suha, didn’t speak at all. She looked at us all with this look that could kill. The way she was staring at us, it was chilling. That was hard.”

“Then he whispered to her and pointed to me and said, ‘That’s the Palestinian guy ... and he’s going to tell our story,’” Abu Wael jumps in. “The relief on her face, you could see it.”

“And the relief on our faces,” Cedar adds.

The team also managed to connect with some family members of the Jewish suspects convicted in Abu Khdeir’s killing. “Getting them was just as difficult,” Levi says.

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Filmed in Israel, the series stars Shlomi Elkabetz as Simon (the show’s only fictional major character), an agent with the Jewish Division of the Israel Security Agency, also known as the Shin Bet. He belongs to a unit of the secret service responsible for investigating suspected terrorism by Jewish extremists. Jony Arbid and Ruba Blal Asfour portray the grieving father and mother, respectively, of the slain Mohammed.

Adam Gabay plays Avishay Elbaz, an aimless yeshiva student swept up in the fervor to avenge the murder of the three Jewish students. His story is explored with a depth and compassion not often afforded to convicted murderers.

“In portraying the killer, we were trying to understand him,” says Avi Nir, CEO of Keshet Media Group. “We were trying to identify with him, even though that presents another opportunity for people to say, ‘What the ... is this? He’s a killer! There’s so many angles that will rile people. They have to face it, though. This is the main reason we did the series.”

HBO’s “Our Boys”
Adam Gabay, left, Doron Ben David, and Yaakov Cohen in a scene from "Our Boys."
(Ran Mendelson/HBO)

The arguments among the creators were an early indicator that “Our Boys” was certain to strike a nerve — with Israelis and Palestinians who lived through the events portrayed in the series, or anyone else invested in social or political developments from this perpetual hot zone.

Cedar recalls a heated debate with Abu Wael over a potential depiction of Elbaz as a reluctant participant in the kidnapping of Abu Khdeir. “Tawfik was quite adamant,” Cedar says. “‘Do you know the strength it takes to force someone into a car?’ he says. So we actually did an experiment and realized that it takes quite a bit of strength to do that.”

“Our Boys” is intense and moving but it’s not painful to watch. The personal pain of the characters is folded into a dynamic whodunit that grows more intriguing as it moves through the interrogation rooms of Israeli law enforcement, the rumor mill of social media, the streets of Arab East Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements of West Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Elkabetz, like most of the team, felt a responsibility to honor the stories of the real people depicted in the series, but not at the expense of a candid, compelling tale that challenges just about every extant narrative of what happened in the summer of 2014.

“It’s a huge responsibility when you do a series about real events and real people,” he says. “All those people, whether they cooperate or not with the creators of the show, they’re asking, ‘Will this series give me justice?’”


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