true crime

How Our Boys Painstakingly Re-creates an Israeli-Palestinian Tragedy

Photo: Ran Mendelson/HBO

The timing of the release of Our Boys couldn’t be more tragically relevant. The ten-part miniseries, which debuts on HBO Monday night, may be a docudrama set thousands of miles away from the United States, but it centers around something that’s all too familiar to Americans in the wake of the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas: racist, right-wing, politically motivated murder. Although the show’s Israeli and Palestinian creators couldn’t have anticipated that specific juxtaposition, they were long aware of the fact that they were telling a story not just about three Jewish extremists’ real-life murder of an Arab teenager in Jerusalem in 2014, but also about the ways in which nationalist violence rots away the soul of both the Jewish state and the Land of the Free.

“The election of Trump was a crucial point in the development of the series,” says Hagai Levi, speaking via Skype from Israel alongside the show’s two other co-creators, Tawfik Abu-Wael and Joseph Cedar. “Until that moment, we kind of talked about religious people who are extremists or ideological, but when Trump was elected, it was clear to us that we were going to make a show about hate crime.” In other words, they wanted to tell a story that transcended the specific ethno-religious clash between Jews and Palestinians and rose to the level of universality for any place wracked by reactionary prejudice and violence. “There are so many layers underneath what you call a hate crime,” Levi continues. “And what happens when those layers meet incitement and create a perfect storm to create murder?”

The events depicted in Our Boys took place back in the sweltering summer of 2014, after three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. In retaliation, three Jews — one adult and two teens who were members of the adult’s family — strangled, beat, and burned a Palestinian boy to death. The murders sparked a horrifically bloody military battle between the Israeli military and Palestinian forces in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. By summer’s end, more than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were dead.

Our Boys focuses on the middle part of that ordeal, and does so with a documentarian’s eye for detail. It picks up just before the Jewish teens are found dead, then spends the bulk of its length painstakingly re-creating the lead-up to and fallout from the brutal murder of the Arab boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. It is at once a meditation on the grief felt by the boy’s family, a procedural about the hunt for the perpetrators, a study of contemporary Israeli and Palestinian life, and a grim reminder of the ways in which individual actions can have devastating consequences in a powder-keg society. Its three creators hope these elements come together to tell a story that is at once true to the specifics of the events and widely relatable.

The former of those two goals was the paramount. “Our first audience were Israelis and Palestinians who know this material in a way that doesn’t allow us to make anything broad or generic,” says Cedar. “It’s extremely specific and there’s really no other way to tell this kind of story, especially because it’s so recent.” To accomplish that, the team incorporated a bevy of actual footage from the dark days of 2014, including shots of rioting and protests, as well as newscasts and speeches from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But far more important to achieving verisimilitude was the co-creators’ efforts to obtain information from the police, the lawyers involved in the case, and the domestic intelligence service known as the Shabak. They were shocked by how successful they were.

“The Shabak and the police collaborated very enthusiastically because they were proud, actually, of this thing,” says Levi. “They’d solved it quite fast and quick. So we were inside the Shabak, very, very deep inside. As much as it gets. We got from the lawyers all the materials they got” — including Shabak-made video reenactments starring the perpetrators. That wasn’t the end of their research, says Levi: “What else did we get? A lot of background research about the situation in Jerusalem at that time. Leftist activists. We got the information from everywhere possible in order to get it as close to the real story as it gets.” In addition, Abu-Wael — himself a Palestinian — spent an extensive amount of time with the Abu Khdeir family to understand what they went through. Our Boys is still a TV show, of course, and they had to make up certain elements, such as the familial dynamics between Abu Khdeir’s killers, but they tried to keep such inventions to a minimum. “We had this rule that we can invent a lot of things when it comes to family affairs and stuff,” says Levi, “but when we target the main story, the procedural story, it’s very important to us that it remain true.”

One key component is a curious mix of fact and fiction: the Shabak agent assigned to solve the case. In the show, he’s a man named Simon. In reality, the character is an amalgamation of various Shabak operatives that the creators encountered in their research. They decline to get into detail about those real people, but they felt that the composite character achieved a specific aim. “One of the things we were looking for, story-wise, but also coming out of our research, is a connection between the investigator and the killers,” says Cedar. “He can’t just excuse this event by saying, ‘I don’t know where these people came from.’ We were looking for a main character who can’t run away from his closeness to this horrible act.” As such, Simon is depicted as a Jew of Moroccan descent who grew up in a world of orthodox religious observance — all traits shared by the trio of killers. Simon has abandoned religiosity but retains the ability to understand that community, which is something the creators couldn’t exactly say for themselves.

Enter Shlomi Elkabetz, who’s famed in Israel not as a performer, but as a filmmaker and a writer who comments extensively on his own Moroccan-Jewish background. Our Boys is his first acting job. “We needed his help in understanding this connection between [Simon] and the killers and just how the Moroccan identity plays a role in this story,” Cedar says. “So he was more than just a casting choice. He was also a collaborator on many levels.”

These specific characteristics of the killers’ identities were crucial in the creators’ attempt to understand why the man and his relatives did what they did. Still, Levi admits this attempt was something of a failure, albeit a perhaps-inevitable one. “I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand what happened,” he says. “There are many, many layers. There’s the religious layer. There’s a racist layer — and by racist, I mean the fact that they, themselves, are outcasts in their society; they live in the [ultra-Orthodox] suburbs. The fact that they are Mizrahim” — that is, Jews whose backgrounds lie in Arab-dominated regions of the world. “The fact that they had mental problems. The fact that they took from Judaism, from the wrong side of Judaism, very basic racist ideas. All these many layers met incitement in the wrong moment. To say that we can fully comprehend what happened is pretentious. But I think we understood that some kind of zeitgeist creates tension.”

Even more important to the creators, though, is that Israeli Jews will see the Abu Khdeir family and not perceive them as outsiders. “The bereaved family, it’s almost a status in Israel,” says Levi. “It’s something so deep in the culture. So many people lost their sons in wars and terror attacks.” (Just a few days ago, in yet another tragic coincidence for the show, a Jewish teenager was slain in the West Bank and a grieving Israel began a widespread manhunt for the perpetrator.) He goes on: “To understand that an Arab family could be one of these bereaved families, that’s a huge thing.” Levi has confidence that Our Boys can pull this off because he’s already seen it happen. “My brother died in the Lebanon War years ago,” he says. “And when my sister watched the show, my sister said, ‘I suddenly realize that they are like us. They are a bereaved family.’ So, in a way, I am quite sure this is going to happen with Jewish people.”

Even with all the show’s specific nuances about the Israeli-Palestinian clash and the societies and legal systems it surrounds, the creators are hopeful that Americans will understand that this isn’t just a story about horror in the Middle East. “Personally, everything I do is local, but the meanings are universal,” says Levi. “For me, it’s not about what Americans will think of the conflict here. It’s about how this is totally connected to their reality. So, I hope they will see that the conflict we have here — racism, violence, whatever — is not that different from what they have there.”

How Our Boys Painstakingly Revisits a Middle Eastern Tragedy