Say their names out loud: Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, Muhammad Abu Khdeir. String together the names of these boys. They are forever linked in death. Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank by Hamas militants in the summer of 2014. In revenge for their deaths, Muhammad was beaten and then burned to death by Jewish extremists just outside Jerusalem. These events led to the eruption of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
The dramatized story of the murders and their aftermath unfolds in the outstanding Israeli series “Our Boys.” The 10-part series is a co-production of HBO and Keshet. The show’s creators are Israeli—two of them are Jewish and one is Arab—Joseph Cedar, Hagai Levi and Tawfik Abu Wael. The men have impressive industry credentials.
Although the title of the series is “Our Boys,” the focus is on the singular investigation of Abu Khdeir’s murder. It’s a bold narrative choice through which to explore the Israeli justice system and the complexities of Israeli society. Abu Kdheir was abducted on an East Jerusalem street after a massive two-week manhunt in which the Israeli boys turned up dead.
The myriad storylines in this complex show begin with Simon, a Jew of Moroccan descent. He leads the Shin Bet inquiry within a unit that specifically investigates hate crimes perpetrated by Jews. He knows all too well the tensions between secular Ashkenazi Jews and the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic settlers who become suspects. He understands the Palestinians and empathizes with Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein, beautifully portrayed by Johnny Arbid.
Ram Masarweh as the teenage Muhammad is rebellious yet, like most boys his age, attached to his family. He resists his father’s strict rules, leaving the family construction business to work in a restaurant with his friend in West Jerusalem. After the bodies of the three boys are found, Muhammad makes his way back home to East Jerusalem through bloodthirsty throngs screaming “death to the Arabs.”
In the crowd is Avishai, another teenager and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox settler. He clutches his guitar as he wends his way through the volatile protestors. It’s not a spoiler to identify Avishai as one of the prime suspects in Muhammad’s murder. Adam Gabay’s performance is a standout as the stuttering, obsessive-compulsive yeshiva boy whose confession will be the key to cracking the case. When the truth about his involvement in the murder goes public, his family become pariahs in Israel but are privately supported in their community. One character observes, “They’re good kids who got dragged into this by their crazy uncle.”
The crime is the brainchild of Avishai’s uncle, Yosef Haim, who recruits his unwitting nephews. Too unstable to be considered suitable for Torah study, Haim, the son of a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi, is set up in an optical shop.
At its core, “Our Boys” is a straight-up police procedural while also exposing the many layers of Israeli society. Simon inserts himself into the community as a reserve soldier and ends up sharing a Shabbat dinner with the suspects. ”Our Boys” was described in The Hollywood Reporter as “a study in cognitive dissonance. Story-wise, it questions the hypocrisies of racism, tribalism, blood libel and religious extremism. Stylistically, it’s simultaneously beautifully crafted and painfully sluggish—essentially your finest tapestry of abject misery porn.” But that is not the most pointed critique of the show. Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the show as “anti-Semitic” and called for a boycott of the station in Israel on which it airs.
PCFF was founded in 1995 to bring together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost immediate relatives to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first face-to-face meeting between bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents took place in 1998. PCFF now counts over 600 families participating in its programs. Its tagline, which also summarizes the group’s vision, is: “We are the only association in the world that does not wish to welcome any new members into its fold. We work towards stopping acts of violence.”
During the webinar, Elhanan answered my question about his take on “Our Boys.” “It’s a masterpiece,” he said, “and it’s an opportunity to look at the eye of the storm, the origin of the conflict and the victimhood mentality and victimhood competition.” Elhanan pointed out “the nobility” of the Abu Khdeir family and the families of the three Jewish boys. He further noted that Netanyahu has said that Palestinians are educating their children to hate while Israelis are educating their kids to love, which Elhanan called “complete nonsense.”
As “Our Boys” has aired on HBO, it becomes increasingly clear the ways in which Eyal, Gilad, Naftali, Muhammad and Avishai are all “our boys” in the end.