The HBO mini-series “Our Boys” dramatizes the investigation into the killing of a Palestinian teenager following the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants in 2014. In the first episode, Simon, the investigator with Israel’s security agency, the Shin Bet, questions his commander’s decision to give the Israeli public false hope about the fate of the three Jewish boys. Thousands of Israelis had joined the parents of the abducted boys to publicly pray for their safe return. To allow the hopefuls to believe such an unlikely outcome, Simon feels, is to prime them for heartbreak and anger if the boys do, as he suspects, turn up dead. Simon’s commander responds that prayer and solidarity are what the families of the missing need the most.
The show, made by Joseph Cedar, Hagai Levy and Tawfik Abu Wael and produced by HBO and the Israeli media company Keshet Studios, is meant to highlight how stoking religious fervor propelled the cycle of violence leading to the Gaza war in 2014. It is a thoughtful window into the tensions that define the conflict for those who live it: Are our children safe, and for how long? When does justified anger give birth to unjust reactions?
But this type of self-reflection is apparently tantamount to treason. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared the show anti-Semitic and called for a public boycott of Channel 12, the station airing the series in Israel. In a Facebook post, he said that by focusing mostly on the retaliatory killing of a Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the show, which is distributed internationally, “besmirches the good name of Israel”.
The message to Israeli artists is clear: Uphold the reputation of our people or pay the price.
This isn’t the first time an Israeli official has called for a boycott of an Israeli cultural work in recent years. Miri Regev, the minister of culture, has a storied history of such attacks. In 2017, Israel boycotted the opening night of the Israeli Film Festival in Paris, which receives a stipend from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, for its decision to headline the Israeli film “Foxtrot”. The film follows three generations of Israeli soldiers and was Israel’s submission to the Academy Awards. Ms. Regev, who had urged the boycott, had deplored it for its “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative”.
Ms. Regev has attempted — and in some cases, succeeded — to censor Israeli film festivals showing work about subjects such as the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus of 1948, and the family of Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Ms. Regev has also threatened to take funding away from Israeli cultural institutions if they plan to show work at all at odds with the government line.
Many Israelis have given up defending the artists’ right to free expression. Their strong reaction to criticism of their country tends to stem from a single, ever-present fear of perceived unequal treatment. Israelis of course fear for the murder of their children. But they also fear their murdered children will be devalued, their tragedies lost in criticism of their government. This is all a natural process for a society embroiled in the type of intractable, violent conflict that Israelis and Palestinians are trapped by. But it was Israel’s cultural response to this difficult situation that has always been unique, foremost in its capacity for self-reflection.
Around the time I immigrated to Israel in 2008, films such as “Beaufort”, also by Mr. Cedar, and “Waltz With Bashir”, by Ari Folman, held the country’s commanders and politicians to account for their actions, and while they naturally made Israelis uneasy, there were serious public attempts to wrestle with the films’ messages. These films reflected the capacity not just to survive national trauma, but also to heal from it. Cultural accomplishments like these are what drew me to immigrate to Israel in the first place; a country that takes its behavior seriously and strives for honest self-reflection despite the pain accompanying it is a nation that could survive anything.
In the years since then, attitudes have shifted. Three wars in Gaza drew condemnation from the international community, but the intervening years’ almost ceaseless rocket attacks from Gaza on civilian communities in Israel’s south were depicted in Israel as invisible to that same international community. Israelis felt as if the world ignored Israel’s tragedies because it didn’t approve of Israel’s methods to prevent them. They watched the Assad regime on their northern border torture people to death and burn the bodies in crematories, and drop barrel bombs on civilian communities and face no justice at the United Nations. They watched children starved in Yemen and Saudi Arabia facing no justice, either. And Israel’s right-wing politicians capitalized on the resentment many Israelis felt about the unfair focus on their country’s behavior. In the words of Naftali Bennett in his 2015 campaign for the Knesset, Israelis should stop apologizing.
Today, the politicians in power take offense at any cultural criticism as if their actions are preordained and as if those actions are inherently Jewish. They see the hostilities with the Palestinians not as a conflict, but as a fight to liberate Jewish land. The wars in Gaza are not strategic choices to engage hostile militants, but are inevitable because peace is impossible. Any criticism of these politicians’ behavior is not a personal attack, but an offense to Jews at large.
Israeli artists are trying to wrestle with uncomfortable truths. “Our Boys” is a deep dive into events of recent history that have scarred the country. One of the central questions at the heart of the series is: How do we mourn collectively?
Questions about a society’s collective mourning are always difficult to face, and any perceived lack of empathy for national grief is automatically going to anger people. But Mr. Netanyahu’s craven response to those questions is apparently meant to deflect responsibility. It is probably no coincidence that Channel 12 also released leaked documents alleging corruption on Mr. Netanyahu’s part. With his reaction, he’s causing lasting harm to Israel’s ability to have difficult conversations about its behavior at all.
This is more than autocratic behavior by corrupt politicians. This is an attempt to radicalize a country. The government has progressively supported a religious vision for its country at the expense of free speech. Today it attacks its own citizens if they take an alternative narrative on the conflict. And so, when the protagonist Simon questions the strategy of his commanders and Israel’s leaders in the first episode of “Our Boys”, his quiet warnings transcend the subject and timeline of the show — they are the echoes of a society closing.
Nathan Hersh, a writer and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.