Behind the ‘Our Boys’ backlash

Putting the spotlight on the murder of Abu Khdeir reignites passions on both sides of this hot political divide.

Hussein and Suha Abu Khdeir, whose son’s murder is the subject of the HBO series ‘Our Boys’, watch the show’s first two episodes in their East Jerusalem home in mid August. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Hussein and Suha Abu Khdeir, whose son’s murder is the subject of the HBO series ‘Our Boys’, watch the show’s first two episodes in their East Jerusalem home in mid August.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
There was no way that the HBO series Our Boys, about the killings of three Jewish teens and the revenge murder of a Palestinian boy in 2014, was going to hit screens without controversy, but its release earlier this month has stirred passions in Israel deeper than anyone expected.
It has angered and disturbed many Israelis because of its focus on the abduction and murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jews, rather than the kidnapping and killing of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah by Arabs.
There have been other Israeli dramas that have dealt with terrorism, but Our Boys has generated more controversy than fact-based but fictional shows such as Fauda for several reasons.
The first is that Our Boys, which was released on August 12, is the highest-profile series ever to deal with such sensitive issues, since it was made by HBO in collaboration with Keshet International, the American arm of the Israeli entertainment giant Keshet Media Group. While it is in Hebrew and Arabic, it is being shown all over the world to HBO subscribers and on cable networks.
The team behind it features the most successful and talented Israelis in the film and television industry. Joseph Cedar, one of the writer/directors of Our Boys, has had two of his films, Beaufort (2007) and Footnote (2011), nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Hagai Levi, one of the showrunners and writers, created the Israeli series BeTipul, which was adapted around the world as In Treatment, as well as the Showtime drama The Affair.
The killings by Hamas of the Jewish teens is the starting point for the series, which is divided into three plot threads.
The main one is about Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), a Shin Bet officer in charge of investigating Jewish extremists, who learns early on, after the first kidnapping, that the three boys have been killed and fears that the many intense prayer vigils calling for their safe return will backfire once the bodies are found. As soon as the deaths of the Israeli teens are confirmed, he is apprehensive about revenge killings, and when Abu Khdeir is abducted from his street in Jerusalem and a body is found soon afterward in the Jerusalem forest, he suspects Jews are the killers.
The second thread is the ordeal of the Abu Khdeir family, and the third is the story of the killers themselves, three Jews who feel they are misfits because they have not excelled in the yeshiva world.
When the fact that the series would focus on the killing of Abu Khdeir and the ordeal of his family rather than the murders of Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah was revealed in the pre-release publicity, the backlash began. Liat Collins wrote in her Jerusalem Post column: “The words ‘based on the true events’ are telling. This, of course, is neither the whole truth nor the whole story.”
Once the first two episodes of the series aired in mid-August, 120 Israelis who lost relatives — both soldiers and civilians — to terrorism signed a letter to HBO protesting the angle the series takes.
Their letter said, in part, “The kidnapping and the murder of the three youths is one of the many instances in which Jews have been murdered. The murderers receive... encouragement and are treated like heroes. In contrast, [Muhammad Abu] Khdeir’s murder was met with shock and condemnation by the vast majority of the Israeli public. Dozens of Jews are murdered as a result of the ongoing incitement by the Palestinian Authority every year. The Arab street does not condemn the murder of Jews and even supports and encourages it.”
Matan Peleg, the head of Im Tirzu, a right-leaning Zionist group, called the show’s focus “morally reprehensible.”
Some took the criticism a step further. Avihu Gamliel, whose brother Ofer has been convicted of terrorist crimes against Arabs, posted pictures of the creators of the show – Cedar, Levi and director/writer Tawfik Abu Wael, an Arab filmmaker who directed the Arabic-language scenes – on his Facebook page, under the words “The faces of garbage.” He went on to denigrate them in threatening language, in a post that generated hundreds of shares and likes before it was taken down. Some of those posting supportive comments threatened the three, one even suggesting they should have their heads cut off. In response, Karni Ziv, the head of drama and comedy at Keshet, posted the creators’ pictures and praised them.
The creators may have been surprised by the intensity of the response, but not by the anger the series generated. Joy Press, who interviewed the creators in Vanity Fair just before the series was released, wrote, “Since the series would inevitably reopen the wounds, Levi knew he needed ‘an A-list partner to take this burden with me,’ he said, pulling in Cedar.”
A Keshet representative said that the company does not generally comment on reactions to its programming. But in an interview with Ynet just before the first episode of the series aired, Cedar defended the decision to focus on the Abu Khdeir murder, saying: “I look at all the conflict we have been in, a bloody cycle of 90 years, since 1929. I feel that storytellers are concerned with our sense of victimhood, which only encourages the next act of revenge. Conversely, if we deal with our aggressive side, how we turn pain into revenge, there is a chance that this time this circle will close. That sounds like a slogan, but I really believe it.”
Nevertheless, the criticism continues to pour in. Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a cousin of Naftali Fraenkel, expressed the anger and frustration many felt in a column on, the website of the Aish HaTorah yeshiva, that was published on Tuesday: “Whoever had any part in producing the new HBO 10-part series teasingly titled Our Boys should be profoundly ashamed – and whoever is misled into believing that they will have an opportunity to see a fair recreation of the events in 2014 that began with the kidnapping and murders of three Israeli teenagers leading up to the Gaza war of that horrible summer deserves a fair warning: This is perhaps one of the most outrageous and deceitful distortions of a historically significant moment in the story of Israel’s struggle with barbaric acts of terrorism.”
Blech goes on to write, “You see, dog bites man isn’t really that interesting, but man bites dog – and Orthodox ‘settlers’ are guilty of the murder of an innocent 16-year-old Palestinian, well that’s really a story that deserves full Hollywood treatment! Viewers never get a chance to see my cousin, his two friends or their Jewish parents. Instead you are given the chance to only empathize with the heartbreaking story of the Arab family and hate their son’s crazy killers.”
The Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah families have chosen not to comment on the series, which is telling, because in the past they have been willing to cooperate with the press.
HUSSEIN ABU KHDEIR, Muhammad’s father, who is portrayed on television by Johnny Arbid, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that although his family consulted with Abu Wael on the series, they were not given links to it by HBO or the creators. About a week ago, a news crew from Reuters brought them the first episodes, and the whole family watched it with the journalists.
“It was a tragic moment, as we saw how my son was kidnapped, burned and killed by the neo-Nazis,” he said. “We cried watching it.”
He said that he and his family felt that it was mostly realistic in the way that it documented the kidnapping and murder, but said that the creators had included certain elements that were not accurate and about which the family was never consulted. Muhammad never worked in west Jerusalem or planned to go to Turkey with a friend, he said.
Asked what he hopes Israeli audiences would get out of seeing the show, he said, “It’s a moment of truth where the Israeli audience will have the opportunity to see what really happened to Muhammad... and I hope they will feel sympathy over the atrocity that happened to our family, and how we lost our son.”
In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld life sentences for two of the murderers and a 21-year jail term for the third in the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. They were arrested days after the murder, as the series shows.
A source in the PA said the leadership there is very interested in the series, but if they are pleased with its portrayal of events, there will likely be no official comment.
BOTH JEWS AND Arabs agree that it was a painful summer. Collins wrote in her column, “The response of the Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah families to the abduction and killing of their sons helped bring us together and give us the strength to go on with our own lives despite the disruption of war. And, like all decent human beings, they also condemned the revenge attack in which Abu Khdeir was tortured and killed. When I interviewed Rachelle Fraenkel a year after her son’s murder, she noted that the foreign media continued to be surprised by her response to Abu Khdeir’s death. ‘I don’t know anyone who wasn’t shocked and horrified by it,’ she stressed.”
Those who are angered by the show may take comfort in the fact that HBO chose to release it at the time of year that it was least likely to receive a lot of attention, in August, when many viewers are on vacation. It has received mixed reviews in the US, and this one from The Hollywood Reporter, by Robin Bahr, is typical of the less favorable notices: “Stylistically, it’s simultaneously beautifully crafted and painfully sluggish – essentially your finest tapestry of abject misery porn.”
The irony is that as much as the killings of all four boys are seared on the consciousness of most Israelis as if they took place yesterday, for foreign audiences they are merely a footnote to a barely remembered conflict. Nothing could illustrate that more starkly than the fact that many American articles about the series carried the warning, “spoiler alert.” Here in Israel, we remember the ending of this story – which spoiled so much – all too well.