Identity, Israel, Peoplehood, Politics

How (Not) to Watch “Our Boys”

I finished watching Our Boys on erev Simchat Torah, right before I left for hakafot. It’s been three weeks now, and as far as I can tell,  it’s nowhere close to leaving me.

Our Boys is a ten-part series created by Joseph Cedar, Hagai Levi, and Tawfik Abu-Wael, which premiered on HBO in August 2019. It’s a fictionalized account of the kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian boy from the Shu’afat neighborhood in East Jerusalem in July 2014. Abu Khdeir’s kidnapping and murder followed those of three Israeli boys, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel, in June 2014. 

I did what no human being should do with this show – I binged it. I watched three episodes a day for three days, and then crammed in the last one when I had an hour. This was a bad idea, and not just because the content is violent and emotionally taxing (that information should not be a spoiler). The experience of watching the show is a distinctly layered one, and you’ll be thinking about what those layers are and how they work long after you turn off the TV. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who thought “our boys” referred to the murders of Yifrach, Shaar, and Frankel, and it does, in the sense that this is a narrative about communal responsibility, as well as masculinity and how it’s manifested by men in both Israeli and Palestinian society via stoicism, violence and revenge. I wonder about my assumption that this would be about the loss of Israeli Jews and that that’s what initially drew me in. That’s the kind of confrontation with the self that the show provokes, but that’s not the only example. 

Three Israeli Jews, Yosef Haim Ben-David, and two minors were tried and convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Abu Khdeir. Because they were underaged at the time, the names of the two minors weren’t released, and so their identities in the film, Yinon and Avishai, are fictional portrayals. While Yinon is a scholar, destined for the illustrious Hebron Yeshiva, Avishai is a troubled yeshiva dropout. He does a lot of staring up at the sky, stuttering, contemplating, and being silent and isolated. As the show goes on, it becomes more difficult to see him in black and white terms, which is maddening. This is a pattern; there are other characters with truly repugnant and racist ideologies who provoke emotions that are most complicated than one (me) feels they should be. 

At the end of the series, I found myself wanting things to go differently for Avishai, being disgusted with myself for that, and then realizing that this is likely precisely what the show aims to do – force us into emotional contortions that we then must consider in the context of the Occupation, and what it’s wrought, and not just in Israel and Palestine. Airing the series in the US also compels the American Jewish community to grapple with the “our” part of Our Boys – our racism, our role in normalizing the Occupation, our assumptions, our empathy. 

I’m leaving out a lot, in the hope that you’ll take the leap into the kind of deep discomfort and obsession that’s been with me since I finished the show. I take back what I said before, actually, about binging being a bad idea. Maybe the best way to consume Our Boys is treat it as it is – relentless. 



One thought on “How (Not) to Watch “Our Boys”

  1. Thanks for this very personal (and in my opinion: accurate) summary. Just one thing: I REALLY recommend NOT to binge it. As the episodes don’t move always into the exact same direction, each episode really has it’s own merit. And as you wrote, the stuff crawls into your brain, and I found it great to have at least some days to reflect on each epsiode. (Especially, in Germany, to seroiusly reflect on the reprovals which have been made against the series; even if I don’t share them in the end, one should take some time to understand the problem (some) people have with this series, and reflect on the concrete intention of the series makers; that’s part of empathy, too).

    It is strange that in Europe this series is still totally unknown (OK, there has been no legal way to view it so far, but for other formats that’s no reason…), as I think it’s the best piece of political (and so humane!) TV series this year (at least from what I have seen).

    Watch & reflect! Best regards! Shalom!

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