The mixed bag of life in modern-day Israel, with all its human warmth and deadly regional conflicts, has become the backdrop of late for an increasing number of television programs reaching audiences around the world. And the results are dizzying.
In recent days, the warm feelings and incredible popularity surrounding “Shtisel,” the Israeli series shown on Netflix that humanizes as it depicts the everyday lives of an ultra-Orthodox family from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula, seem to have given way to the emotional and political controversy over the current 10-part HBO series, “Our Boys,” dealing with the trauma of two horrific hate crimes that took place in Israel in the summer of 2014.
Gideon Raff, a seemingly one-man source of Israeli spy thrillers for global consumption, has two Netflix productions out this summer. The creator of “Hatufim” (adapted here as “Homeland”) wrote and directed “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” based on the true story of how Mossad agents ran a covert operation in Sudan in the mid-1980s to rescue Ethiopian Jewish refugees and bring them to Israel. This Friday, Netflix launches another Raff production, the debut of Sacha Baron Cohen in a dramatic role. Best known as the outrageously irreverent Ali G and Borat, Cohen is dead-serious starring in the six-part series, “The Spy.” He plays Eli Cohen, Israel’s most heralded agent whose undercover work in Syria helped lead to the stunning Six-Day War victory of 1967, two years after he was caught and hanged.
There are other Israeli shows that are either being shown widely in the U.S. (“Fauda,” “When Heroes Fly”) or being re-cast as American shows (“The Baker and The Beauty”).
Are these fictionalized accounts of real-life events promoting or hurting the Jewish state’s image here, in the Mideast and around the globe? That depends on one’s perspective, but the phenomenon of U.S. interest in Israeli television in the last decade is a tribute to the creativity of the small industry’s talented actors, writers, directors and producers. Some suggest that the more parochial the shows are, the more universal the interest, perhaps because Israel is a conflict-laden society, rife with tensions among its Jewish population — Ashkenazi, Sephardi, religious, secular, etc. — and with its Arab neighbors.
Raff told us this week that he has no political or other agenda other than to produce the best dramas he can, and his goal is to “focus on the human experience and create art that can turn into a dialogue between cultures and between people.”
Sometimes programs evoke such raw emotions that the dialogue turns ugly. The most controversial of the current shows, “Our Boys,” seeks to explore how hate crimes impact society. The first segment opens with the extreme tension in Israel in June 2014, after three Orthodox teenage boys, kidnapped in the West Bank, have been missing for more than two weeks. Footage of huge prayer rallies at the Western Wall is mixed into the film to heighten the realism. But once we learn that the three boys have been killed — no explanation given — attention turns to the brutal revenge murder by religious Israeli extremists of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy who the viewer has come to empathize with in early scenes of him at home and with his friends. The rest of the series focuses on the Israeli authorities’ pursuit of his killers.
The three creators of the show — two Israeli Jews and one Arab — assert that their intention is to show the nature and power of incitement, and to have viewers open their minds. But many Israelis were upset that the focus was almost exclusively on the Palestinian boy and his family. Charging HBO with creating a false equivalency, 120 Israeli families whose loved ones were killed by Palestinians signed a letter calling on HBO to acknowledge on air that Palestinian terrorism vastly outnumbers Jewish terrorism, which is rare. HBO has not responded.
Ratcheting up Israeli emotions, Prime Minister Netanyahu described the show as anti-Semitic and called on Israelis to boycott Channel 12, the local network that produced the HBO series. Critics of Netanyahu charge that his comments, two weeks before national elections, were intended to animate his base. Such a reaction made it even more difficult to separate the thin line between artistic integrity and stirring up emotions gratuitously.
“Our Boys” is an example of a powerful and compelling series meant to be troubling to its viewers. It may prove more incendiary than enlightening, but it’s clear that Israeli society, the good and the bad, will continue to be showcased on the international stage.