New TV series on kidnapped soldiers: Art imitating life?

Is Channel 2’s 'Hahatufim' (The Kidnapped) commercially exploited trauma or cultural soul searching?

Hahatufim 311 (photo credit: .)
Hahatufim 311
(photo credit: .)
Since the birth of the state, Israel has faced the all-too-frequent heart-wrenching dilemma of how to respond when a soldier is captured. Should the military launch a rescue operation which could endanger additional lives, as well as the captive himself? What about a prisoner swap? Does it make sense to trade a handful of Israelis for hundreds, if not thousands of enemy prisoners? Wouldn’t releasing convicted terrorists be even more detrimental to security in the long-run?
And now an additional question: Does it make good television?
Hahatufim (The Kidnapped), Channel 2 subsidiary Keshet’s latest production, features three soldiers who are taken prisoner in Lebanon, and after 17 years, return to Israel – two alive, one dead – as part of a massive prisoner exchange. Over the course of 11 hour-long episodes airing on Saturday nights, the story of their reintegration into their families and into society – or at least the beginning of that reintegration – unfolds.
Related: Soldiers held captive since 1948
On the surface, it would seem that the premise is familiar.
Israel has years of unenviable experience in the area, and for that reason, while the show touches on the principal issues, its focus lies elsewhere.
“We as a society are so obsessed with bringing our boys back home, but we never really deal with what happens once they’re here,” Gidi Raf, the creator and writer of Hahatufim, explains. “We know these people as bookmarks, as billboards, as part of a campaign, as icons in our struggle to survive in Israel. What this show does is take you in and introduce you to what these people are really going through.”
Indeed, the story skips the campaigns and counter-campaigns leading up to the signing of a prisoner swap agreement entirely, and begins instead in Frankfurt, Germany, where the special Israeli negotiator for the release of the captives sits, waiting for what appears to be a final response. Seconds later he is handed a piece of paper, which prompts him to pick up the phone and declare, “It is closed. They’re coming home. Only two of them are alive.”
With this dramatic opening, the series begins at a point where most people normally tune out. Following the arrival of the soldiers at the airport, the emotional reunion with their families, the appearance and personal welcome by the prime minister, the obligatory press conference and clips of protests and news broadcasts, the show quickly veers off the beaten path, past the closed doors and into a mysterious realm which is commonly shielded by the phrase “respecting their privacy.”
“There are about 1,500 prisoners of war who did come back,” Raf says, “and we know very little about their life after their return from captivity. The show is about bringing awareness to that. The truth is... it’s a trauma which doesn’t go away. This is something that they can’t closet. They can’t say, ‘Okay, we’ve been there, and now we want a normal life.’ They actually deal with it on a daily basis.
“It’s an important show which should be broadcast to build awareness of the issue.”
TALKING ABOUT the subject matter may be important, but is doing so at such an exceptionally sensitive time in poor taste? The fate of Gilad Schalit remains uncertain, as negotiations to secure his release from Gaza-based Palestinians continue to drag on.
Moreover, the memories of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the reservists whose capture sparked the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, have yet to fade from the public consciousness. It would be difficult indeed to find an Israeli adult who can’t vividly recall the image of Hizbullah operatives finally answering the question of whether the two were alive or dead by pulling the soldiers out of a van in coffins.
But Raf rejects the assertion that the show is ill-timed.
“It’s an issue which is an open wound in Israeli society, and that’s why it’s important to deal with it, and to talk about it, and to really understand what these people go through when they come back,” he says.
Besides, he continues, when has there ever been a good time? “There’s Gilad Schalit, and before Schalit there was Ron Arad, and before Ron Arad there were others.”
Far from an attempt to exploit the emotions of a nation for ratings, the show was carefully researched over two years, and the subject matter was treated with considerable sensitivity, Raf insists.
“I think we deal with the subject with the utmost respect,” he says, explaining that he and his creative team interviewed numerous former captured soldiers and their families in an effort to fully and accurately depict their experiences.
“The [former captives] who’ve seen the show... think it’s an important show which should be broadcast and should bring awareness to the issue,” he says. “Of course, when we first started, some people hesitated more than others, but once they realized that we were dealing with the subject the way we are, they were on board.”
One of those interviewed by the show, and whose assistance Raf says was invaluable in its development, was Hezi Shai.
Not many Israelis have spent more than a few months in enemy prisons. Shai’s ordeal lasted three years. It began on June 10, 1982, the fifth day of the Peace for Galilee operation in Lebanon, when his tank regiment was sent to secure a section of the Damascus-Beirut highway. The 11-tank unit was not provided with sufficient intelligence and soon found itself surrounded by Palestinian and Syrian fighters near the town of Sultan Ya’akoub. The day-long battle which ensued was disastrous, with 21 soldiers killed.
At the end of nearly 24 hours of fighting, the regiment commander ordered his tanks to make a run for it back to the Israeli position. Shai’s tank, which was the last in the line, did not make it. During the retreat it was hit by a shell and pushed into a tree. The crew – or at least those that were alive – tumbled out and tried to escape by foot.
They didn’t succeed. On June 12, Shai walked straight into a position held by Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine. On the same day, another member of the crew, Arye Lieberman, was captured by the Syrians.
For Shai, what followed were three years of excruciating pain the likes of which he still refuses to fully describe. And yet, despite the never-ending emotional trauma, he not only didn’t oppose the creation of a show which highlighted such a hurtful topic, but offered his full support when contacted by the creator. His reason for this is simple.
“When part of the public is opposed to paying a price which is considered too heavy in order to bring back Gilad Schalit... it is important that this series come out, so as to demonstrate to them why it is necessary to bring him back home,” Shai says. “Yes, for some it will remind them of their time in captivity, and it will revive some unpleasant feelings, but... it will have a good effect on the public by convincing them to bring [Schalit] back home.”
Another former captive, Natan Margalit, who was held by Egypt for two months during and after the Yom Kippur War, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I haven’t yet seen the series... but if it brings awareness to the subject, that might help Schalit,” he says.
Even Miki Goldwasser, mother of Ehud Goldwasser, who has more than enough reasons to oppose a show which will likely reopen wounds that have barely had a chance to heal, echoes the remarks of the former captives.
“If it helps bring Gilad home, it’s a good thing,” she says.
But there were dissenting voices as well. Amnon Sharon, also held captive during the Yom Kippur War, but by Syria and for eight months, was more tempered with his optimism.
“I am constantly wondering, will this help Gilad Schalit with his release or will it hurt?” he asks. “People who watch the show might say, ‘Ah, it’s not so bad, it’s fine, he’ll survive. It’s not worth making too much of an effort. Or perhaps the opposite. Maybe they’ll say, ‘Whoa, look at how they suffer, we better do everything we can and quickly.’”
Ironically, those who were the least enthusiastic about the show are the very ones who Raf, Goldwasser, and Margalit believe it will help the most, those families who have yet to see their loved ones return home. A call to Noam Schalit was not returned, and the family’s media adviser said, “We remind the public that Gilad Schalit is not a fictional captive. He is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas close to four years ago. Since then he’s been found in Hamas’ dungeons and no one has met with him, not his family, not his friends, not the Red Cross and not any other party except for his captors. The suffering that we his family are experiencing in his absence is nothing in comparison to his. We continue to ask the Israeli government and its prime minister to work towards his immediate release.”
Chen Arad, brother of Ron Arad, who has been classified as missing since falling captive to Lebanese militants in October 1986, refused to comment.
Perhaps for the Schalits and the Arads, the story hits just a little too close to home. But Raf said he tried his best to avoid just such a situation.
“I wanted to take it out of the Israeli context, and to separate it from real Israeli stories,” he says. “The series doesn’t deal directly with [Schalit, Goldwasser, and Regev], but rather what happens to a prisoner of war – any prisoner of war – when he comes back. [It’s] not the specific story of a specific prisoner of war.”
Accomplishing this goal not only meant inventing a scenario that Israel had yet to experience – a 17-year gap between when the soldiers are taken captive and when they are released – but also tailoring the content to be a bit less realistic and a bit more dramatic.
“This is a drama story, and not a documentary or a news piece,” he says. “It has to have drama.” After all, he adds, it needs to make “good TV.”
AND THAT, according to Oz Almog, professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, is precisely the problem.
“We are being corrupted by the American culture in the sense that everything is being commercialized,” he says. “They sell everything... including emotions and drama and sadness and tragedies – whatever you can think of has been sold. So why not sell this tragedy also?”
He compares doing so to “pornography of emotions.”
“This show will add to the notion that everything is a theater,” he continues. “If you look at the younger generation, at how they view life, you’ll find they see everything as just a game, as just a play, as just a drama. For them, it’s really hard to distinguish between the real world and fiction.
“It’s funny, but in America, [one of their versions of] Big Brother is actually called The Real World. And for them, it really is the real world.
“Once you perceive the world as nothing more than a theater, you then become uninvolved. Then when you watch the news, you say to yourself unconsciously, ‘This is just part of the play.’”
But with that said, Almog actually does see some value to Hahatufim.
“The fact that we can bring up such a sensitive subject on television, or in books, or what have you, really shows how open, how pluralistic, [and how much like] a family we are,” Almog says. “And I’m guessing that this show really demonstrates this aspect of our culture.”
Hahatufim, in effect, lies on the fault line of a cultural tectonic shift, Almog says. While Gilad Schalit is in the news every day and “feels like a son to us all,” he argues that his trauma – and the experience of those who were in captivity before him – has fallen victim to one of the negative side effects of foreign influence. And this might help explain why reactions to the show are so conflicting.
Perhaps nobody demonstrates that conflict better than Shimshon Liebler,a family friend of the Schalits, and head of the Campaign to Free Gilad.
“Mygut feeling is this [show] seems harsh, it seems like it will hurt andit seems like it will hit a really sensitive spot,” Liebler says. “Butmaybe it will help us raise the subject and awareness [among thepublic].”
Hahatufim began on March 6, and airs every Saturday night at 9 on Channel 2.