Media Analysis

Netanyahu got me to watch ‘Our Boys’ on HBO

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The propaganda Channel 12 “Keshet” produced an anti-Semitic series called ‘Our Boys,’ that is distributed internationally and besmirches the good name of Israel. I am not surprised that Channel 12 slanders Israel, as I am used to them blackmailing me on a daily basis,

wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Facebook over a week ago. 

The series Our Boys which features on HBO has been a joint cooperation of HBO with the Israeli Keshet media company, which owns channel 12. Netanyahu’s post came on the afternoon of Friday the 30th August, the day when the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by Netanyahu’s Likud party to block Channel 12 from publishing leaked investigation materials from his corruption cases.

Netanyahu’s Facebook post featured a logo of Channel 12 with a big slogan saying “FAKE NEWS”.

I have to admit that I had some interest in watching the series before Netanyahu’s post. Nonetheless, it isn’t the type of thing I mostly watch at home – we prefer fictional horror films, and when I want to update myself on the real horrors of the Palestinian-Israeli reality, I usually don’t go to HBO for it. This series is not a documentary, it’s a drama. While it’s based upon real events, it’s still fiction. But Netanyahu’s outrage and call for boycott no less, has made this a political matter. And that’s where I decided to come in, because that’s my real interest.

Thus, I watched the first episode yesterday, and ‘binge-watched’ the next available five episodes in one go today.

I have to thank Netanyahu for getting me to do this, although it costed me violin practice today, which I still hope to make up for. And I have to say, this is a series that is very well-done in dramatic terms. I can’t honestly judge the full series since it’s not fully released yet, but I have a pretty good sense of it, and I think it’s a worthy watch. I still believe, though, that Netanyahu’s call for boycott, which was noticed the world over, will provide infinitely more publicity for this series than any recommendation I may provide here. So – well done, Netanyahu.

The background story

The story of the series focuses on the events of summer 2014, when on June 12th, three Jewish settler teens (Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach) were kidnapped by Palestinians who were members of a clan which was loosely affiliated with Hamas, yet acted on its own volition.  The teens were murdered shortly after. Israeli intelligence had a recording of an emergency call from one of them, and it released a part of that call where he is calling for help. While this part of the emergency call was released and broadcasted in Israeli media, another part to the 2-minute-and-9-second call was censored and put under gag order. In this part, gunshots are heard, and then there are celebratory chants by the murderers, with an exclamation of “we got three”. By releasing only the first part, Israel got the public to run on a false hope that the teens were alive, although it was virtually certain that they were dead. The full recording only leaked out on July 1st, and this allowed Netanyahu to initiate a massive crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, although there was no evidence of Hamas involvement. “Hamas is responsible, Hamas will pay”, he said. By the 25th of June, Israeli police officials were already saying that the kidnapping was not an act of the Hamas leadership, but the claim became a useful means for Netanyahu to escalate into the unprecedented 51-day onslaught on Gaza. The kidnappings of June helped Netanyahu extricate himself from a very uncomfortable position, where Hamas and Fatah had joined into a unity government, which accepted parameters which the international community was willing to work with. Netanyahu rejected this, saying that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas needs to choose between “peace and Hamas”. Israel was being seen as rejectionist in this situation, and Netanyahu needed a break.

The whole first episode of Our Boys concerns this month of June, but it reaches into another event which occurred on July 2nd: the revenge killing of the Palestinian boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir (16), by Jewish settlers who burned him alive. This event, and the investigation that ensues, becomes the real focus of the series, and this is what the 5 following episodes so far are focused upon.

It is clear that the series seeks to give the June kidnapping and murders as a background for the real focus of the series. Yet it is regrettable that in doing so, it omits some very crucial details, and resultantly seems to follow an Israeli propaganda narrative. For example, it only plays the redacted part of the mentioned emergency call. In the series narrative, the Shin Bet secret security is apparently only getting signs of the teens being dead after 17 days, when glasses of one of the teens are found. This seems to paint Israel in an unfairly favorable light, skipping over the whole issue of it having been rather clear that the teens are dead, and the manipulation of the public.

In addition, in one of the news airings featuring in the series (one of the real ones), the anchor cites Netanyahu making a statement about the murders – he manages to get to “Hamas”, but then is cut off by the directors. The phrase that he was about to cite Netanyahu for was that crucial one: “Hamas is responsible, Hamas will pay”. The series creators could easily have included those extra three seconds. By leaving us only with “Hamas”, the whole bigger political plot is lost. Indeed, the series does not really feature, beyond peripheral moments, the murderous crackdown that came at the heels of the kidnapping, which involved the abduction of more than 560 Palestinians, the raiding of Palestinian universities and ransacking of countless homes, and the killing of six Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces.

Netanyahu is featured in a speech he gave on the day when bodies of the Jewish teens were found, speaking about how “we” cherish “life” and how “they” cherish “death”, and this gives a general sense of how Netanyahu exploited this, as he usually does, to make his racist incitement points. But it could have gone much further – the series could have quoted how Netanyahu said, when the bodies were found, that “vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created”. Netanyahu was borrowing from a poem by national poet Haim Nahman Bialik relating to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 incited by the Russian Tzar against Jews. The bitter irony of that euphemism was, that only a couple of days later, Jews would revenge in just that way.

In other words, I’m saying that the series did not really go hard enough against Israel and Netanyahu in particular. It is only ironic that Netanyahu thinks it went way too far, enough to call it anti-Semitic and boycott it.

Netanyahu’s condemnation of the series posted on Facebook said that the series “dedicates only a few minutes of cold and detached archive clips to the murder of the three teens. Immediately after, and throughout the whole series, the whole plot detaches itself from the horrific story of the murder, and focuses on one case – murder of the Arab teen in Jerusalem, a horrific, yet rare, incident”.

Netanyahu seems to have wanted a series that focused on the first kidnapping of Jewish settlers, so that it wouldn’t seem as if Jews are worse than Arabs, or that Jewish terror is common.

Haggai Matar, writing in +972 Magazine, opines that the series is actually a “victory to Israeli Hasbara”. On the point of the supposedly uneven representation, Matar points out that it’s mostly Palestinians who die of Israeli violence:

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, between the 2009 war in Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) and July 2019, a total 199 Israelis have been killed in attacks carried out by Palestinians (101 security personnel and 98 civilians). During that same period, Israel killed 4,928 Palestinians, at least 2,535 of whom were not involved in hostilities. While the sheer brutality of Abu Khdeir’s murder was indeed exceptional, his death is but one of thousands. The list of victims includes 142 Palestinian families wiped out in air strikes on Gaza, journalists and paramedics. It also includes another 16-year-old boy, who was gunned down by soldiers while returning home from the swimming pool. The soldiers, who receive full backing from the Israeli establishment, were rarely put on trial. None of these killings will ever be the focus of an HBO series, nor will the actions of the soldiers challenge the way Israelis view themselves, as a peaceful and benevolent country. By exceptionalizing the murder of Abu Khdeir, “Our Boys” ignores and even normalizes the killing of Palestinians whose deaths were not as high profile. 

This is a critical point – Israel can punish, humiliate, terrorize and kill Palestinians with virtual immunity, as a part of its so-called “security” activity. It doesn’t require you to be part of an extremist settler terror-cell, to murder a Palestinian as an Israeli sniper at the Gaza fence. You can even celebrate your shots and be offered a medal by the Defense Minister. 

Matar also points out how the series’ protagonist, a Shin Bet agent by the agent-name “Simon”, portrayed as a neutral and moderate guy, is misrepresentative:

The misrepresentation of life under military rule continues with the show’s decision to focus on one man who can stand between these two clans: the Shin Bet agent, who represents law and order and tries to bring back a semblance of normalcy while chaos reigns in Jerusalem… The Shin Bet, however, is no neutral player, but rather the mastermind behind some of the occupation’s most egregious abuses. It is the Shin Bet that blackmails Palestinians into becoming collaborators, that imprisons them for indefinite periods of time without trial or charge, and tortures thousands of detainees with full impunity.

Yet with all that said, the series does manage to portray some interesting mindsets of the Israeli Jewish community, relating to the interconnectedness of religion and nationalism, and how Jewish fundamentalism can lead to terror. In a world in which Islamic fundamentalist terror is so widely featured, it is, I think, interesting to see a focusing on Jewish terror. I don’t need the series to focus on both the one kidnapping and the other to create a “balance”, because that balance doesn’t exist anyway.

So I am not condemning this series, I found it to be an interesting watch, with all its faults. But for Netanyahu, it’s just anti-Semitic, and needs to be boycotted. If Netanyahu says something is anti-Semitic, it is often an indication of its worth. Like with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel – now that is a worthy cause. But I wouldn’t boycott Keshet or HBO for making Our Boys. It’s worth watching. So, thanks, Netanyahu, for that recommendation.