By Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
September 16, 2019
IDEAS
Gundar-Goshen is the winner of the JQ-Wingate Prize for Waking Lions. She is a clinical psychologist, has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Her new novel is The Liar.

In the midst of his reelection campaign, fighting to maintain a lead in the polls, the Israeli prime minister has found a new rival to defeat: a TV drama. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged a boycott of the “fake” Channel 12 and HBO production Our Boys, calling the series anti-Semitic. Israeli right wing fury against Our Boys has been partly because of its emphasis on the death of a Palestinian boy, while the Israeli victims are mentioned but not as prominently onscreen. In response, Netanyahu called Israelis to boycott “an anti-Semitic series that is distributed internationally and besmirches the good name of Israel.”

Our Boys is just another frightening example of the way Netanyahu uses false accusations of anti-Semitism to reject criticism of Israel. While it is true that Our Boys depicts a very dark portrait of the Jewish state, this portrait is not driven by hatred of Jews. Netanyahu betrays the memory of Jewish victims who have suffered real anti-Semitic acts. But not only is the Israeli PM disrespectful of the past, he’s also irresponsible regarding the future: like every other false alarm, false accusations of anti-Semitism may lead to de-sensitization of the public. It’s never wise to cry “wolf,” but it’s especially dangerous when there are actual wolves out there. The swastika and racist graffiti that appeared in Queens, New York, earlier this month are signs of anti-Semitic wolves, real ones. By twisting the meaning of the term “anti-Semitism,” Netanyahu undermines the important battle against the real thing.

As an Israeli citizen, I’m just as worried about anti-Semitic acts as I am concerned by anti-democratic acts. Netanyahu’s abuse of the term anti-Semitism affects our politics and freedom of speech. By labeling any criticism of current Israeli policy as driven by the hate of Jews, Israel’s PM wishes to silence opposing voices. Netanyahu keeps confusing criticism with hate. One can point out the flaws of a country out of deep love and concern. From that perspective, not only is Our Boys not anti-Semitic, but it is actually doing Israel a big service—the same service a dentist renders when he diagnoses a cavity in a patient’s teeth. You can’t treat a problem, or start a healing process, if you don’t acknowledge that something is wrong. We have to look at the problems head-on.

Before the HBO series was broadcast, most Israelis wouldn’t have recognized the name Abu Khdeir. The sixteen-year-old Palestinian boy was kidnapped and burned to death by Israeli boys not much older than their victim, yet this shocking story didn’t linger in our collective memory. Perhaps because Israel’s collective memory is biased toward victimhood.

The Israeli victimhood bias has true historical roots, as well as contemporary justifications: For centuries, Jews were indeed persecuted and slaughtered by the nations. Anti-Semitism has taken a high toll on my people—millions were murdered. Less than a year ago, the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting took the lives of eleven American Jews during Shabbat service. It was a clear reminder that hatred of Jews still exists in America. These are all facts—but so is the murder of the boy Abu Khdeir. Our collective memory cherishes the facts that make us feel good about ourselves, either as heroes or as innocent victims. Other facts are neglected, forgotten.

With Israelis viewing ourselves as the main victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there’s no wonder that Abu Khdeir’s death was left in the background of our public consciousness. But then came the creators of Our Boys and put a mirror in front of Israeli society. If you don’t like your shape in the mirror, you can either change your shape or break the mirror. And Netanyahu never misses an opportunity to break something. His charges of anti-Semitism gave his followers a green light to issue death-threats toward the series creators.

To understand why Our Boys is not anti-Semitic, we must look into the arguments stating that it is: According to right-wing viewers, Abu Khdeir’s murderers were put on trial and publicly denounced, while Palestinian terrorists are celebrated as heroes. Focusing on the extreme case of a hate-crime carried out by Jews, critics say, the series depicts a one-sided reality. With so many bad things going on in the world, why is it that “bad things done by Jews” always get the world’s attention? While this might have been an interesting argument if the series were made by “outsiders,” Our Boys was written by Israelis, in a rather brave attempt to “peel away the layers of this hate crime,” as director Joseph Cedar said. The first episode presents video of the mothers of three kidnapped Israeli boys—Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel, praying for their survival. The fact that such hate crimes aren’t usually carried out by Israeli civilians is exactly what makes this case challenging to explore. And since the detective eager to solve the case is an Orthodox Jew, it is clear that the series does not portray “all Jews” as murderers. By investigating the case, the detective actually represents the hope of the Jewish state to have justice for all.

Two dangerous phenomena are occurring at the same time, and we must be able to differentiate between them: the rise of anti-Semitic acts, and the misuse of the term. The first phenomenon threatens Jews, the second threatens the democratic nature of the Jewish state. Anti-Semitism is a crime, not a weapon. But the Israeli right uses anti-Semitism as a rhetorical weapon, to shut down legitimate critics inside the country. In Netanyahu’s era, the Israeli left has been delegitimized—we’re portrayed as anti-patriots, self-hating Jews, traitors. That’s a serious danger to the strength of a young democracy.

But who cares about the strength of democracy when there’s a life-threatening situation? When there’s a lion on your doorstep, you don’t stop to wonder about animal rights. And the brilliant thing with Netanyahu is—there’s always a lion at the door. By maintaining a sense of collective victimhood, Netanyahu fuels the fear of extermination, and keeps the country in a constant state of terror. The anti-Semitic beast is out there, he warns us, so we must stick together against external evils. As an author, I’m constantly impressed by this brilliant storyteller, who manages to squeeze a complex reality into a simple tale of “Good vs. Evil”. The second round of Israeli elections, held on September 17, will prove whether any alternative story stands a chance.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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