There is a phrase in Hebrew which literally translates as 'shoots and cries' (or 'shooting and crying'). As explained by literature scholar Karen Grumberg, "the Zionist solider, a man with a conscience, loathes violence but realises he must act violently to survive; the dilemma causes him to weep while pulling the trigger. Looking inward, he despairs at the violence he feels compelled to enact primarily because he fears his own moral corruption". This 'shoots and cries' culture has not been limited to literature – it can also be found in critically-acclaimed Israeli films like "Waltz with Bashir", or even Hollywood productions like "Munich". And now, there is a 'shoots and cries' creation for the Netflix era: "Fauda".
Written by actor Lior Raz and journalist Avi Issacharoff, "Fauda" was first broadcast in Israel in 2015, before being picked up by Netflix in late 2016. The show focuses on a team of so-called mistaravim – Israeli soldiers who conduct undercover raids in Palestinian communities to carry out arrests or extrajudicial executions – and the Palestinian fighters they are targeting.
"Fauda" has been showered with plaudits – The New York Times chose it as one of the best series of 2017 – for both its entertainment value and, in the words of tech site SnapMunk, for the perception of the show as "an authentic reflection of the complexity within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict". As American columnist Dan Senor put it, interviewing Raz and Issacharoff at an AIPAC conference, "the show has garnered awards not only for its rollercoaster plot and tremendous performances, but also for its in-depth gritty exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a very nuanced way".
Yet for all its supposed innovation, there is something very familiar about "Fauda", its main actor and co-writer Lior Raz – and his (semi-)fictional alter ego, Doron Kavillio. Raz is himself a veteran of the mistaravim (a BBC report claims Issacharoff is as well, stating "the two friends served together"), joining the army as Israel sought to crush the Palestinians' anti-occupation uprising that became known as the First Intifada. According to B'Tselem, 70 Palestinians were killed by undercover units between the start of the Intifada and April 1992. Raz apparently told a Friends of the IDF event that "he had to neutralise two terrorists in in his first four months" of service.
But like so many other Israeli writers, actors and artists before him, Raz saw in "Fauda" an opportunity to deal with the "trauma" of his experiences terrorising Palestinians under occupation. "I wanted to get everything off my chest", Raz told The Canadian Jewish News in March 2017, when asked about his original goal with the show. "We didn't know it was going to be such a successful thing, even in Israel", he added. "We thought the only people watching were going to be me and my mother, and Avi [Issacharoff]'s mother".
Whether or not the pair were initially quite as unambitious as they have maintained, it is clear that for Raz, the show was a form of therapy. "You do heavy, heavy things [in the mistaravim], and you have to deal with things somehow. This is how I dealt with things. I wrote this show because I wanted to talk about the mental price that warriors pay for their actions". Examples of the 'heavy things' done by Israel's mistaravim in recent years include killing the cousin of a wanted man in hospital, and shooting a protester in the leg at point blank range.
A repeated theme in the praise heaped on "Fauda" is that the Palestinian fighters are three-dimensional characters, rather than two-dimensional 'baddies'. But the show's treatment of the Palestinian characters was, first and foremost, driven by the desire to create good television.
"We wanted to make good drama, and in good drama the bad guy cannot be only bad", Issacharoff told Haaretz. "Good drama makes the viewer care about the bad guy and shows other aspects of his personality". Issacharoff added: "Even the devil has a family and terrorists are complex creatures."
Such views do not, unsurprisingly, help provide the amazing insights into Palestinians' lives and motivations that some critics have claimed for the show. In fact, it is a testament to just how absent or dehumanised the Palestinians have been to date, in both Israeli and Western television and cinema, that a series like "Fauda" is seen as ground-breaking. As one, cautiously complimentary, review acknowledged, "members of the show's Palestinian factions do not have the same embattled, contemplative moments that their Jewish counterparts have". Jonathan Freedland, writing about "Munich", observed that "the ultimate humanisation is the voicing of doubt. The Israelis are redeemed in the audience's eyes by their moral anguish".
Those writing about "Fauda" have shown a striking lack of curiosity in probing why the show has proved so popular with Jewish Israelis (beyond its merits as a tense thriller), suggesting the show's appeal simply lies in its depiction of the 'humanity' of 'both sides'. Yet to the extent that the Palestinian characters are humanised at all, it is in the safety of a mainstream Israeli framework. As Raz told German paper Jüdische Allgemeine, the narrative of "Fauda" is a Zionist one ("Die Erzählperspektive ist eine zionistische. Wir sind Israelis, Zionisten, und wir lieben unser Land"). At a New Jersey Friends of the IDF meeting last year, Raz proudly declared: "I cannot take out the warrior inside of me. I am a Zionist and I have to protect my family and friends."
This does not sound like a man looking to bust societal taboos (and note that the Israeli army's Kfir Brigade, stationed in the West Bank, is using "Fauda" to teach soldiers Arabic). Indeed, Raz clearly rejected the suggestion put to him by one journalist that in showing Israeli soldiers committing shocking acts of violence he intended to "reveal something uncomfortable" to Israeli viewers. "No", he answered: "We didn't do any violent things just because of violence. Everything is just reaction." The familiar talking point: Israelis react to Palestinian violence. But Raz did not stop there.
"I want to tell you something about [the mistaravim]", he continued. "Instead of bombing houses and hospitals, this unit is sending four or five people to take out just one person. These soldiers risk their lives instead of bombing and killing innocent people. This is why this unit was created." Here, speaking to Canada's CBC, Raz goes out of his way to amplify the 'purity of arms' myth central to both Israeli self-justification and international hasbara: that even in the act of killing (which is forced on him/her), the Israeli soldier distinguishes him/herself from the colonised. A unit trained to kill is presented as a unit designed to save lives.
Ironically, the most discomfort "Fauda" has caused Jewish Israelis was via an ad campaign ahead of its recently premiered second season. Overnight, billboards appeared across the country consisting only of Arabic text with slogans like: 'Get ready', or, 'The chaos is about to start'. The ads caused widespread consternation; in one town, residents attempted to cover the sign with bed sheets.
Now, as a global phenomenon, the impact of "Fauda" goes beyond the original Israeli audience, and comes at a valuable time for a state targeted by a growing boycott movement. The show can be easily used, for example, in the service of a familiar trope: Israel as a beacon of democracy in a region of brutality. As Senor put it to Raz and Issacharoff at AIPAC: "What does that say about Israeli society, that a show – that a society that is so transparent, so democratic in all of its messy ways, self-critical, self-questioning, is there a recognition that if you look at all throughout the Middle East, it seems that only Israel could produce a show that is so brutally honest as this one."
"Fauda" has also proved more than capable of boosting an all-too-common verdict on the 'Israeli-Palestinian conflict': that it is complicated. On the one hand, such a description is a banal truism – any issue on that scale is complicated. But to say it's complicated also serves to marginalise and silence narratives that offer, from Israel's point of view, a threatening moral clarity. Occupation. Colonialism. Apartheid. The chaos of "Fauda" thus conceals the order of the status quo: a system of military orders and walls, discrimination versus privilege, power asymmetry and colonial agency.
As Diana Buttu told The New Yorker, "in "Fauda", we do not see the occupation. It is invisible, just as it is in the minds of Israelis. In fact, we never even hear the word". She added: "We don't see a single checkpoint, settlement, settlers, or home demolitions. We don't see any homes being taken over, or land being expropriated or anything of the sort. We see a nice brick wall, not the ugly eight-metre-high one, as the only sign that we are in the West Bank."
No wonder "Fauda" is one of the most popular Israeli shows of all time. In a society of military service and reserve duty, "Fauda" has a comforting message for this era of consolidated apartheid: as Amoz Oz put it: "I have done many things that I am sorry I had to do, but nothing that I am ashamed of."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.