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The Uncivil Servant: Fauda’s Dehumanizing Humanism

Mitchell Abidor
September 22, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Fauda, a television series by Avi Issacharoff and Lion Raz.

IN HIS EXCELLENT New Yorker article on the Israeli TV series Fauda (the word means “chaos”), which can be streamed on Netflix, David Remnick quotes series producer Avi Issacharoff as saying of the show that it “was an eye-opener to a lot of people in Israel in that it showed compassion, in a way [italics added], to a Palestinian terrorist, or at last you get a sense of why he would do what he does. . . . You see people involved in terror as humans, as people who love, who have kids, who are not just flat bad guys in an action picture.”

“In a way,” this is a fair characterization of the show. The twelve episodes of Season One (two more seasons are on the way) follow an elite counter-terrorist unit as it attempts to track down a Hamas bomber responsible for more Israeli deaths than any other terrorist. The hook is that the fighter, Taufiq aka Abu Ahmad aka the Panther, was thought to have already been killed.

The former leader of the unit, Doron, played by series co-creator Lior Raz -- who in his own military days fought in the unit that was the basis for that in the series -- is now a winegrower, but he comes out of retirement to join in the hunt. Every member of the unit is perfectly fluent in Palestinian Arabic, and thanks to the genius of Israeli intelligence, they succeed in tracking Abu Ahmad’s whereabouts -- but he always manages to escape at the last minute. Doron will finally manage to infiltrate the highest levels of the Palestinian movement, leading to the final, dramatic moments.

Issacharoff, in the above quote, is right: we do see the Palestinians as “people who love, who have kids, who are not flat bad guys in an action picture.” Abu Ahmad, who lives to kill Jews, loves his wife, and both suffer terribly from their separation due to his supposed death. His young lieutenant, Walid, is both a deranged militant and a man deeply and touchingly in love with his cousin, the beautiful doctor Shirin, who will herself fall into an affair with Doron in his guise as a Palestinian. The Palestinian fighters will sacrifice themselves in an effort to save their children, but at the same time are willing to sacrifice their children for the cause.

Yet within the attempt to lend humanity to the Palestinians there resides a deep contempt for them as enemies.

The Israeli fighters cannot be construed as nice people. They are exemplary Sabra machos, their banter centering around the questioning of each other’s sexuality, about the desire to sleep with Nurit, the lone female member of their group, who herself only wants to be part of an armed action and so become one of the men. When they engage in open mutiny and carry out an action that risks a larger war, Naor, the sole unit member to refuse to participate, assumes that Nurit, as a woman and a seemingly sensible person, will refuse to join in. He’s wrong. Naor himself is having an affair with the wife of Doron, his commander, adding to the intertwined destinies of the members of the unit, which includes two brothers-in-law.

They kill coldly and skillfully. Members of Hamas have no humanity for them and can be killed without a thought. Killing is an aphrodisiac for them. The much-vaunted Israeli “purity of arms” means nothing to them: They are killers in t-shirts and jeans. (Interestingly, although they are hardly stylishly dressed by Western standards, the unit members mock the Palestinians’ lack of style.)

These are men (and a woman) who never bend, much less break. When they are captured they never crack, even under torture. They can be beaten or even cut open, but they never waver from their cover stories. Even when Doron is facing imminent death, told to pray with a pistol held to his head, he maintains his false identity as a Palestinian security officer and intones a Muslim prayer. The death of Boaz, a member of the unit and Doron’s brother-in-law, serves as the motive for their final insane actions. They are loyal to each other beyond death.

NONE OF THIS can be said for the Palestinians. Compared to a simple Israeli soldier who won’t surrender to his captors, even under physical pressure, the Palestinians are weak and all too willing to provide the Israelis with information if it will save them and theirs, even at the expense of the cause. Ali el Karmi, a veteran hero of the fight against the occupier, accepts Israeli medical help for his sick daughter, convinced by the psychological games of the skillful Israeli Captain Ayub. Not a blow is needed for him to give up information on the location of the Hamas fighter for whom the Israelis are searching. Threatened that his swindling of Hamas funds destined for the families of the shahid will be revealed, another Hamas higher-up, Abu Halim, will also, without being beaten, provide the information Captain Ayub seeks. The radical sheikh who inspires the Hamas fighters needs to have his hands beaten with a hammer before he surrenders, but he, too, will provide the Israelis with information. Even a rank-and-file fighter will squeal during a failed action, only to be killed anyway.

Significantly, the same cannot be said for the Palestinian women in Fauda. Though they are, of course, held to be naturally subordinate within Palestinian society, and any stepping out of line from a woman’s place is cause for disgrace, they nevertheless show greater strength than the men. Alam, widowed at her wedding, gladly and willingly gives her life in a revenge attack; Abu Ahamad’s wife only accepts medical assistance from the Israelis as a final extremity, but afterwards even the gift of a teddy bear for her recuperating daughter is rejected; and Shirin, the beautiful non-hijab-wearing emergency room doctor who falls in love with the fake Palestinian version of Doron, walks out on him when she learns he is Israeli. All three are strong and determined, and show the courage lacking in all the Palestinian men, the fire without the madness.

Colonialist emasculation of the colonized is here for all to see.

There is a brief scene in Fauda that reveals the falseness at its heart. When Abu Ahmad’s wife Nasrin wants to cross over into Israel to visit her daughter in Hadassah Hospital, she is ordered into a shack and told to strip. She is berated, insulted, demeaned. The ubiquitous Captain Ayub enters the hut as her savior and chastises the soldier guilty of mistreating her. The two Israelis leave the hut, and Ayub congratulates the soldier on her performance as a heartless bitch. They laugh. As if Israeli solders’ mistreatment of Palestinians at the border is not a daily, an hourly occurrence. As if it’s only when “acting” that they treat Palestinians as criminals.

Fauda is gripping, exciting, and well-made. It also insidiously plays into anti-Palestinian stereotypes. It is very Israeli.

For another perspective on Fauda, click here.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.