Intimate Violence and the Violence of Intimacy: Reflections on the Israeli TV Show Fauda

by Aryeh Cohen

The Israeli show Fauda has become a celebrated example of a veritable renaissance in Israeli television. After much anticipation following its critically acclaimed inaugural season, the second season dropped at Netflix on May 24. This hit show follows an elite unit of the Israeli secret service known as mistarvim [undercover soldiers disguised as Arabs] as they hunt terrorists in the West Bank. The New York Times gushed: ״The grittiest, tightest, most lived-in thrillers come from Israel, and ‘Fauda … is the current standard-bearer. … and while the outcome is predictable, the story ventures into the lives and minds of characters on all sides of the conflict.” Lior Raz and Avi Issachoroff have claimed that the show’s authenticity has brought it fans from all sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Raz is quoted in Variety saying: “In the TV industry in Israel, nobody shows the Palestinian side… We really wanted to open a window. We didn’t intend to do this, of course, but at the end of the day, the left wing thought it was a left-wing show, the right-wing thought it was a right-wing show and the Palestinians thought it was a Palestinian show.” {} On the other hand, Sayed Kashua wrote a broadside titled “‘Fauda’ Creators Think Arabs Are Stupid” {} in which he challenged the show’s cultural fluency and also its claim of neutrality vis a vis the conflict. Rather than engage in the debate among television and literary critics, I want to look at the show from a different angle. I will argue that the show is about the intimacy of violence and the violence of intimacy.

Yamas fighters, with the personal of the Israeli television series, Fauda

The series itself starts in the middle. Doron is called back to finish off “the Panther,” a terrorist who the Israelis thought was dead, but who is actually still alive. The bizarre goal of the unit in the first season is to kill someone who is, according to “everybody,” already dead.

The geography of conflict is a central character in Fauda. Locations are introduced to the viewer through what is supposed to look like a drone targeting screen, the rat-a-tat of the typed location appearing in Hebrew and Arabic above the cross-hairs. There are no innocents in this story, and there is no innocent scenery. Each shot is part of the topography of violence. Violence is not only an act; it is a location.

The violence in the series is not the anonymous violence of war. The imagery of digitized destruction was domesticated to the American viewing public by the newscasts of the Gulf War. Television stations rebroadcast the videos from targeting screens, as they zoomed in on a blurry building from an enormous height and then, just as the building came into focus, it all disappeared in the smoke and fire of an explosion. As Americans watching the war from our living rooms we were amazed at the technological sophistication and accuracy of these weapons which could win a war with pinpoint strikes and avoid the collateral damage that might ruin the righteousness of American victory, so much so that it was easy to forget real people were being killed before our very eyes.

The violence of Fauda, on the other hand is not like the Gulf War. While also captured on drone cameras, and enabled through sophisticated electronic spyware, it is intimate and personal and thus less sterile but still somewhat macabre . It is almost always one on one. Violence as social intercourse. The violence depicted in Fauda is part and parcel of the lives of the characters of this very violent drama—some directly inflicting the violence, some its collateral victims, others its collateral perpetrators. As in the scenes of sexual intimacy which shares the stage with the acts of cruelty, the violence is beyond the realm of good and evil or even right or wrong. Sex in Fauda, like war, crosses the borders of marriage, loyalty, mission. Lovers and enemies are not different categories. (Doron’s teammate Naor is sleeping with Gail, Doron’s wife; Doron is sleeping with Shirin, the Palestinian doctor who is a target.) When asked how he mentally is able to commit the acts of violence he does, Avichai explains that he is an attack dog who operates on instinct once he is sicced on a target. Sex and violence are only transcendent, ecstatic, and, terminal.

The geography of Fauda, while ostensibly depicting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is not a geography that is easily recognizable. The narrative focuses on an Israeli antiterrorist undercover unit and its opposite, the loosely organized unit of terrorists that they are hunting, and who are simultaneously hunting them. The undercover unit of mistaarvim speak fluent Arabic, wear the proper clothes for the locations they infiltrate, and know the names and families of their prey. The Palestinian fighters (one of the subplots has to do with whether the fighters will affiliate with Hamas or a more radical group) are equally familiar with Israeli Jewish culture, some speak Hebrew fluently, know how to behave “Israeli,” and are intimately familiar with the mistaarvim. The soldiers seem to move back and forth between Palestine and Israel as if there is no border. There is only one scene in the first season (as far as I remember) which features a checkpoint, so common in Israel/Palestine. It seems as though the main Israeli character, Doron Kabilio, can get from his moshav to the bed of his Palestinian prey/lover Shirin in five minutes. In Fauda an Israeli undercover soldier can pass as a Palestinian on the street, in the mosque, in a barbershop; a Palestinian fighter can pass as a religious Jew, or as Doron’s friend. While the Israelis and Palestinians cannot always identify their enemies as both are disguised as the other, this does not mean that the enmity is erased. Familiarity in this conflict is a weapon. The truism that an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard is shattered here in a rain of intimate killings, and generational enmities. The second season’s plot focuses on the hatred and desire for vengeance of Nidal el Makdisi whose father was killed by Doron in the first season.

The cartography of Fauda is neither political nor military per se. Rather, it is the imagined landscape of those who are trapped in an endless conflict and enmeshed in an equally endless web of intimacy. Nothing about the plotlines leads anywhere but to the next threat, the next danger, the next violent act of retribution. The real tragedy is that the series depicts the motives of both sides as only about retribution. Violence moves from being a means to an end, just or unjust, to an end in itself – beyond good and evil.

The plot of the show is driven primarily by the action, the suspense, and the expected and unexpected violence. As a fan of the Jason Bourne films and the Die Hard franchise, both films that seem to elevate violence as an end in itself, that could have been enough for me. However, the cultural and linguistic bilingualism (imaginary according to Kashua) and the implicit claim to intimacy with both Israelis and Palestinians promise more. For example, no one was disappointed that Jason Bourne did not point outside the closed world of the Bourne trilogy. So much of the plot line was fantastical the way action junkies prefer, that no one expected any more. The pure fantasy of the film delivered its most powerful, and potent, punch. Fauda, however, is different. Its mixes in just enough culture and politics, just enough of “the real,” that one is drawn to think there is some insight or understanding hidden under the cover of the guns, bombs, chases, surveillance, sex, infidelities, office politics, and social dynamics. One waits for the disclosure of a new layer of meaning. Alas, there isn’t any, and the viewer is left with a sense of being seduced into something that never quite delivers.

In the end, Fauda is very much a product of its time. It depicts a post-peace narrative whose erased borders and ongoing violence point to a stasis and a status quo. It is a commentary on a conflict with no good guys; everyone ostensibly fighting for a cause, turns out to be fighting inner battles of human existence and desire. The Palestinian Security Forces and the Israeli Secret Services work hand in hand as intimate enemies, each in dire need of the other and each in denial of that need. The cartography of intimate terror—which is magnified in the second season—erases the quotidian political borders (the green line, the separation wall, etc.) while it reinforces a territory of violence, bounded only by the horrific imaginations of all its inhabitants. The quotidian occupation of checkpoints and daily harassment is ignored in favor of epic conflict which ends only in the promise of more of the same. The show begins in the middle and, necessarily, ends in the middle. Every act of violence is only a response and a prelude. Like “Hotel California” you can check out but you can never leave.

When Die Hard was released in 1988, it gave voice to an American anxiety over the decline of empire, and a yearning for a simpler time when a barefooted man with a .38 Smith and Wesson could restore order. Bruce Willis’ character embodied the mythical American hero who came to settle the land and fight off the foreigners in the unchartered territory of Los Angeles (not “real America”). Fauda gives voice to a different yearning. A yearning to believe that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is unresolvable, and that Israelis and Palestinians live in a territory which is only defined by its cycle of violence which has no beginning (and therefore no one is at fault), and no end (and therefore no one must sacrifice anything to end it). This image is, of course, as dangerously delusional as the Die Hard myth.

Fauda then serves as a mirror to a world we presently inhabit. An Israeli Jewish vision of unending conflict in which “our” guys are more “professional” (i.e. better trained at intimate violence) than “their” guys, and therefore “we” are relatively safe. This, though, is ultimately the stuff of nightmares, not sweet dreams. It is not that there is no happy ending. It is worse. There is no ending at all, and thus nothing really to hope for.

Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a Contributing Editor of Tikkun Magazine.



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