Part III Our Boys: MetaEthics – A Review [Chol NaMo-eid Sukkot: Exodus 33:12-34:26]

In this blog, I will discuss some of the ethical issues raised in the series Our Boys under the following headings:

Metaethical Issues:

Selection

Theme: terrorism versus hate crime – racism

Equality: moral superiority and self-righteousness

Viewing God and Goodness

In the last blog in this series on Our Boys, I will probe the following ethical issues:

Ethical Issues (in Part IV):

Representation

Proportionality

Punishment

Responsibility

I intended to raise the issue of selection in Part I of this series of blogs on Our Boys, to discuss “The Boys” rather than just Our Boys, but decided to confine the discussion of ethics to a separate blog. However, I forgot my original intention and in a typical Freudian slip ended up sometimes mistakenly calling the series, The Boys.

The ethical issue at one level is fairly straightforward. How we interpret history, agency, choice and individual responsibility depends, in good part, on how we tell our stories. What is at stake here is a very thin slice of history that focuses very much on individual actions rather than historical patterns or structures. This slim historical event is then represented through a docudrama with its own limitations and biases. Inherently, there will be an implication from a piece of micro-history about larger events, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the development of systems of justice or just war theory, to name but a few. Such an examination will touch on human nature and the extent to which it is sociologically determined, but will not deal with issues, such as whether history has a direction, that is, whether there might be progress. At that level, a specifically focused representation is most likely to be indifferent to such larger issues or adopt an agnostic approach. Scale selection has its own built-in biases.

However, the issue of selection – and, therefore, bias – comes up in the specific slice of history represented. The murder of a sixteen-year-old Arab teenager began with grainy material from another crime, the murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers. Excluded was the issue of teenagers killed in the Gaza War before any of these murders. In Part I, I focused on two deaths and alluded to a few others in May of 2014 after the U.S. mediated peace talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority imploded in April, and, therefore, to some degree between Hamas and Israel. In Operation Brother’s Keeper, the search for the missing Israeli teenagers for 18 days in June of 2014, six Palestinians were killed, none of them minors, but almost 300 minors were detained. In the 50-day summer war with Gaza that followed finding the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers, of the estimated over 2,000 killed, 490 minors in Gaza died while Israel lost 64 soldiers and six civilians, one of them a four-year-old boy.

Why focus then on one 16-year-old Palestinian teenager killed by three religious Israelis? The explanation is that the focus was on a horrendous hate crime rather than terrorism or war, and, further, one committed by Jews rather than rabid anti-Semites or anti-Israelis. Further, it was a crime of ostensible vengeance, though the target had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of the three Israeli teenagers. The suggestion of the series is that, while revenge was an immediate motive, the deeper factor was the denigration of Palestinians, particularly by some West Bank Jewish zealots.

Thus, the choice of the story has significance in the message contained in the tale. The reference in the series is to “our boys,” both our three boys who were murdered and the three Jewish Israelis, two of them just boys, who were murderers. Though a Palestinian teenager was killed, the TV series is about our Jewish boys. For as Jews, we must take immediate responsibility for both victims and murderers who are Jewish. Thus, the entire Jewish population of Israel during the eighteen days of the search became mesmerized and focused on the abduction of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. When the bodies of the three sixteen-year-olds were found, virtually all Jewish Israelis as well as Jews around the world felt immense grief.

When it came to the Arab teenagers killed by Israeli troops in the military exchanges with Gazans prior to the murders, any possible teenagers killed during Operation Brother’s Keeper in the 18-day search for the abducted boys, and more Palestinian teenagers killed in the 50-day war, Operation Protective Edge, that followed, our “Jewish” responsibility is moved to an outer tier. Thus, the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdier that initiates the series is a matter of Jewish collective guilt and responsibility and the effects on the Palestinian family, and, to a minor degree, the Palestinian community, one step removed.

The focus on the three Israeli murderers rather than the three victims is viewed by some Jews as a travesty. Those murderers are then generally depicted as “crazed,” thereby excluding them from the “normal” Jewish body politique and placing them outside the norms of the Jewish community. There is, indeed, a selection bias. It is inherent in any document or documentary or docudrama. It cannot be avoided. But it does suggest, even if absolutely unintended, priorities.

Further, rather than simply unconcern for the three Jewish victims, implicit in the alternative focus on the murderers, particularly the two teenagers, there is the danger of a possible presumption of moral superiority. Jews don’t arbitrarily murder innocent victims. Arabs presumably do. Therefore, when Jewish boys actually do commit an atrocity of this type, it demands attention, not particularly to deter such crimes in the future, but to understand how those Jews lost their moral compass. Thus, the propensity of the narrative, again almost certainly not intended, will be to reinforce a sense of self-righteousness. The greatest significance of this series, in my mind, is that this pitfall is very largely avoided.

One critic expressed his outrage at the series precisely because it was not self-righteous in its choice of subject matter. “What makes us different in a world of violence and extremism is that we do not glorify terrorism, nor do we respond to it with joyous celebration and the distribution of sweets to children. Jews who commit acts of terrorism are not rewarded with lifelong stipends for themselves and their families nor do they have schools and public places named after them in their honor. They are punished by law, as were the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.” (Rabbi Benjamin Blech)

However, the role of religion, in particular, Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, did play an important role in the interpretation by the makers of the film. This is not only because the killers were Orthodox youth, but the moral understanding of those boys which emerged in the trial and derived from their yeshiva studies, gave the youngest of the boys, Avishay Elbaz (played by Adam Gabay), an ethical rationale. The intention is revealed in the action. “But,” Avishay protested, “I called out not to kill him.” But the prosecutor countered, “You held his arms down. You helped in the killing. You did not try to actually stop it.”

Another angle of insight was the inner conflict of Rabbi Shalom Ben-David (played by Yaacov Cohen), who headed the yeshiva where the boys studied. He was also the father of the uncle who instigated the act and the grandfather of the two boys. On the one hand, he wanted those individuals to own up to their respective responsibilities, particularly his own son. On the other hand, he was strongly driven to seek protection for his son and grandsons and rationalize their crime. The tension between these two polar positions also affected his shift over time from defensiveness to an ethics of responsibility.

The rabbi is not only a father and grandfather, but a moral leader. He lives as if he were Moses asking God to show him the way of righteousness so he can properly lead and, thereby, make Jews a light unto the nations – hence the inherent search for rather than assertion of moral superiority. (The two should not be confused.)  And God answers, as He did to Moses, “I will make All my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.” But, He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20)

One of the shattering moments in the series comes when the rabbi visits his son in prison and asks him to take full responsibility for what he did and not hide behind a mask of insanity, a choice that would benefit the court’s treatment of his two grandchildren. His son does not own up to what he did. The rabbi turns his back on his own son and walks out. It is as if God suddenly hid His face and would never more be seen by that son.

The dilemma is how do we see goodness? How do we transmit what we see? The answer in the tale is clear – we do so when we do not stereotype the other, when we respect the other, when we identify with the pain of the other and when we do not get so caught up in our own pain that we disregard the help we can give to the other We certainly do not engage in murder of the other, even when at war with them.

The rabbi who headed the yeshiva at Har Not clearly tried to hide his face from God, clearly tried at first to avoid his own duties and acknowledgement of his own responsibility for what happened, but he shifts and changes, not because he sees God, but because he stares evil in the face of his own son. We only see goodness pass us by when we stare directly at evil. We must not look away.

But what of the depiction of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness”? (Exodus 34:6) Man cannot see that God. Humans can only act by serving those very values of God. And the rabbi eventually does, even though the iniquity of fathers will be visited upon their children. (Exodus 34:7)

Where is that best done? Not simply in a psychological-sociological meeting of a son with his father and a father with his son, but in a court of law where the granting of grace and of punishment is left in the hands of a judge who must balance punishment with grace, and withhold any emotional approach to the case.

However, that is harder to do than it sounds. For the psychiatrist confronts Simon, the composite investigator (played by Shlomo Elkabetz) who comes across as the epitome of both detachment and determination, a jaded sensibility but also judiciousness. He is, in turn, justly accused by the psychiatrist of betraying, not only a promise to her, but of tricking the youngest boy into confessing by seemingly extending to him his full compassion.

This shabat portion comes in the midst of Sukkot, of the Festival of Booths, in which we welcome strangers as well as family and friends to share our hospitality. Essentially, the series, Our Boys, is about the important task of respecting strangers and the terrible consequences when this lesson is forgotten. Welcoming strangers is an action, and if Succoth is to be restored to its once mighty holy status, then good deeds will count much more than the study of words.

Our Boys is not, as some critics contend, a condemnation of Israeli society. Quite the reverse. It upholds both the Israeli system of justice as well as the religious roots of the imperatives of responsibility.  The brilliance of the series is that it does this with nuance rather than self-pride, with grey-on-grey rather than in a black and white morality.

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