TV Review: Ethnic Conflict Defines the Powerful ‘Our Boys’

The year is 2014, the people of Jerusalem are living, as they so often are, on the verge of crisis. Bodies of three Israeli teenagers are found having been murdered by Hamas, bringing tensions between Jewish and Arab populations to a boiling point. It’s this deeply emotional and vengeful mood that serves as a backdrop where a young Palestinian teenager named Mohammed Abu Khdeir is kidnapped during Ramadan and is later found dead in a forest apparently burned alive. This is the world where “Our Boys”, an Israeli-American HBO production, tries to survive.

The title “Our Boys” implies a sort of ownership that the Israeli people feel towards the three murdered teens, which allows them to rally around their deaths and grieve together. It also has the troubling effect of creating a heightened atmosphere in which retribution is the clarion call of the day, and strips three boys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time of their humanity, turning them into a symbol of the conflict with Palestine.

Inevitably, this inspires more violence. When audiences first meet Mohammed (Ram Masarweh), they’re presented with a shockingly ordinary teenage boy. He works an after-school construction job, fights with his dad over his cell phone usage, and daydreams about an upcoming trip to Turkey. A more innocent target could probably be found, but it wouldn’t be easy. So his abduction and subsequent murder turn him into a martyr, channeling all the rage of the disenfranchised Palestinian people into violent action.

“Our Boys” tells the story of a country that barely needs a nudge over the cliff to descend into chaos. There is a sense that with the disturbingly high levels of suspicion and distrust between Israel and Palestine, these murders are merely an excuse for both sides to punish each other for not only the crimes at hand but every perceived slight in a long history of conflict. 

Although the story is likely unknown to many American viewers, the show declines to draw out unnecessarily the question of young Mohammed’s fate, nor is it interested in a gory shock value that other productions depicting infamous true crimes often employ. Instead, it seems eager to get to what happens next, how these two populations perpetually on the brink of war navigate through this emotionally charged tragedy.

The show focuses the majority of its attention on the efforts of Shabak (the Israeli security agency) to bring Mohammad’s murderers to justice, led by chief investigator Simon (Shlomi Alkabetz). But that’s easier said than done. There’s a stubborn refusal on the part of Israeli law enforcement to acknowledge the possibility that the perpetrators might be Jewish, even though there were many warnings of potential reprisals amongst the grieving Israeli populace and the evidence points in that direction. 

There’s a racist subtext (and sometimes overt text) to many of their comments. “A Jew would never do something like that,” is a common refrain. The avoidance of evidence because it creates a distasteful narrative means that all other possibilities must be painstakingly exhausted before entertaining the idea of a Jewish reprisal killing. And what’s more, it becomes immediately clear that a significant subsection of the population (not necessarily the police, but certainly their friends and acquaintances) are entirely unsympathetic to the plight of the brutally murdered Arab teen.

It’s with these considerable hindrances in place that Simon and his colleagues search for suspects. Watching them navigate through the media’s reporting of the situation, desperately trying not to do more harm than good with their investigation, makes what might otherwise feel like a run of the mill police drama endlessly fascinating. And the struggles they each have to check their own perceptions of the case lends emotional depth to the proceedings.

If there’s one critique that could be made about “Our Boys”, it’s that it might have benefited from focusing more substantially on the Palestinian side of the tragedy. We see brief moments with Mohammed’s grief-stricken family, and his father receives a fairly substantial subplot at the beginning of the series (which is used to tremendous effect), but they tend to fade into the background after the narrative shifts to the investigation. There’s a sense that, intentionally or not, they’re being sidelined, and one wonders if the writers simply didn’t know what to do with them. It might have created a greater sense of balance if we had seen more of Mohammed’s brother, for example, or his friend who’s ill-timed nap prevented him from being with Mohammed when he was kidnapped.

Despite this minor qualm, “Our Boys” does credit to the victims of these attacks, by exploring both Israeli and Palestinian reactions to deeply emotional crimes. It shows, with some sensitivity the struggles of two populations who have so much violence in their past, that it’s sometimes difficult to see a way forward; except through the efforts of people who look beyond propaganda and their own preconceived notions to find truth and justice, even when it paints an ugly picture.

“Our Boys” premieres on HBO on Monday, August 12. The first seven episodes were reviewed.

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