Fauda, Israel, and the Middle East

The popular television series Fauda testifies to a profound cultural shift within the state of Israel. The program shows that Israel is becoming increasingly Middle Eastern precisely in pace with the growing intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Fauda tells the story of an elite undercover IDF unit of mistarevim, whose members go undercover in the West Bank. The operatives, and a Security Services interrogator with whom they work closely, speak fluid Palestinian Arabic, and are intimately familiar with Palestinian culture. When the lead character, Doron, assumes the identity of a member of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in order to seduce a Palestinian doctor, he quickly falls in love with her, and he appears to be much more at ease speaking with her in Arabic than with his own wife in Hebrew. Inside a mosque, Doron plays the role of the pious Muslim so comfortably that one wonders if what he’s doing is entirely performance.

Many of the program’s characters are Palestinian – guerrillas and their family members, brains and brawn from Hamas and the Palestine Authority’s security services. Some seventy per cent of the show’s dialogue is in Arabic. Israeli television has never broadcast a program that so thoroughly mixes Jewish and Arab characters and the cityscapes of Tel Aviv and Ramallah. (The show’s West Bank scenes were actually filmed in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim). Both Jewish and Arab characters are depicted with empathy. They are all trapped in a conflict not of their making and which their gruesome, cruel, and barbaric acts of violence can only exacerbate.

In real life, few mistarevim are such consummate shape shifters as Doron. Israeli Jews seldom speak Palestinian Arabic with native fluency. Fauda may not be entirely veracious but it reveals a truth about Israel that is deeper than its depiction of terrorism and counter-terrorism. That truth accounts for the show’s enormous popularity. Viewers love its gripping plot, high production values, and excellent acting. But more important, the show touches a nerve.

Fauda is about a conflict that appears to have had no beginning and that will have no end. Both sides are equally capable of savagery. (In a reference to a backstory, we learn that the unit’s head and the Israeli Defence Minister once killed five bound Palestinian prisoners in cold blood.) The Israeli operatives are intensely, viscerally connected to their enemy. They can live neither with nor without the Palestinians. Like the Maronites in Lebanon during its decades of civil war, the Israelis are natives of the Middle East even though they claim ties to the West. They are both dominators and victims. The IDF is vastly more powerful and effective than all of the old Maronite militias put together, but the conflation of political and military power, and the deterioration of war into a blood feud, are similar.

The Israeli separation barrier, which in Jerusalem takes the form of a terrifyingly high wall, looms in many scenes. The wall symbolizes the separation between the Israeli-Jewish “us” and the Palestinian “them,” and between the well-ordered Israeli state and the chaos (Fauda in Arabic) of the West Bank. But as the program’s characters show us, there can be no absolute separation between Jew and Arab. Israel is in, even if not of, the Middle East, and with every generation it moves further away from its European roots. Israel’s close political and economic ties to the United States, and its status as an EU member in most respects, exert a diminishing effect on the country’s political and military culture. Israel’s strong state and relative homogeneity have kept it from following Lebanon’s path. But Israel’s Jews are becoming to the entire Middle East what the Maronites are within Lebanon – a minority that is alienated from a majority as much by their commonalities as by their differences.