In Other Words

‘Homeland’ in the Holy Land

A TV thriller taps into Israel's collective subconscious.

Arrow Films
Arrow Films

TEL AVIV, Israel — On the morning of Oct. 18, 2011, daily life in Israel stopped. Across the country, from the cafes of Tel Aviv to the ramshackle flats of hard-knock Sderot, Israelis stared at their television screens and held their breath. A short drive away, Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who had spent more than five years in Hamas captivity, was being transferred from Gaza to Egypt in preparation for his return home.

When he was finally escorted across the border and changed into a newly starched Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniform, Shalit — bespectacled, painfully thin, flitting between a nervous grin and a terrified stare — showed Israelis that here, in this tiny, turbulent country, it is life that often imitates art.

Two years before, while Shalit was stewing in an underground room deep in Gaza, Israeli screenwriter Gideon Raff returned to Israel from Los Angeles to begin production on a new TV series, Hatufim (Prisoners of War). The opening episode shows two Israeli prisoners of war coming home after 17 years in captivity in Lebanon to be reunited with their families in a sterile airport waiting room.

At the time, no Israeli captive had returned home alive in more than two decades — Shalit would be the first in 26 years — and Raff never imagined that his show’s pilot would go on to ring so chillingly familiar. The first episode earned its fair share of controversy across Israel, with critics accusing the show of profiting from tragedy. But its biting honesty struck a chord, and by the end of the first season, Hatufim had become the highest-rated drama in Israeli history, as well as an acclaimed one, winning the Israeli equivalent of the Emmy for best drama series from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television.

Hatufim‘s American version, the wildly popular Homeland, may now be far better known — after all, even U.S. President Barack Obama has admitted to loving its fast-paced tales of national security intrigue and conspiracy — but at home in Israel, Hatufim has come to play a unique role as combination national truth-teller and therapist.

"In Israel, when we first got the script, dealing with POWs was a big taboo. It’s something that people don’t discuss," says Ran Telem, head of programming for Israel’s Keshet Broadcasting, the company behind Hatufim, as well as a producer for Homeland. "Hatufim never intended, never wanted, to be based on a true story. It’s fiction.… We never wanted to imitate a true-life story, especially Gilad Shalit’s, which we didn’t even know until he came back."

That may be true, but the accoutrements of Shalit’s homecoming — the massive posters hung in city squares, the bus advertisements heralding his return, and, perhaps most poignantly, the blinding media glare that continues to follow him today — were all foreshadowed by the scripted action in Hatufim.

In the middle of the first season, the bashful, emotionally stunted Uri Zach is visiting Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market for the first time since his return. Iris, a Mossad agent posing as his girlfriend, searches for a baseball cap for him to wear to hide his face. She comes back with one bearing the abducted prisoners’ faces and the slogan, "They are all our sons." "It’s the only one they had available," she says with a laugh.

It’s difficult to explain to non-Israelis what prisoners of war mean to this country. A central tenet of the IDF and Israeli government is never to leave a soldier behind enemy lines, alive or dead. Despite the government’s stated policy of not negotiating with terrorists, prisoner swaps have become the de facto method of securing the release of POWs. Dozens of exchanges have taken place between Israel and its enemies since the state’s 1948 inception. The deal that secured Shalit’s release, however, was the most lopsided in Israeli history: 1,027 prisoners, some the architects of the most notorious terrorist attacks in Israeli history, were traded for a single 25-year-old soldier.

And the show captures that agonizing choice for Israelis. In one scene, Zach and fellow former captive Nimrod Klein are confronted by a mob of demonstrators crying that the price paid for their return was too high. Just like the many bereaved families who gave television and newspaper interviews about the loved ones they lost to terrorists freed in the Shalit swap, a father forces Klein to hear the details of his own dead child, whose murderer is now walking free.

These are controversial subjects in Israel, fraught with ramifications that dig at the nerves of every soldier and citizen. Some captives are killed; others who return tell of harrowing physical torment. Shalit, for his part, has provided only scant details of his captivity, but his father, Noam, has told journalists he has serious doubts about the claim of his son’s captors that they never tortured the soldier. So when Hatufim hit Israeli television screens, with its hyper-real depictions of torture, imprisonment, and the dreadful silence that befalls those who endure the inexplicable, Israelis were captivated. This was no ordinary show. It was reality TV, packaged as a scripted drama.

Israelis, who otherwise gravitate primarily toward local variants of Big Brother, Survivor, Wipeout, and The Voice — escapist reality fare — began passionately following the show. In its first season, in the spring of 2010, Hatufim snapped up 37 percent of the market share, shattering records. The number rose to 40 percent in the show’s second season, which aired last fall.

What makes Hatufim edgy — and so wildly successful — isn’t action or explosions; that’s not the appeal that has hooked Israelis. Sure, it has its share of nail-biting moments, but whereas the American variant, Homeland, barrels from one implausible cliffhanger to the next, Hatufim builds quietly, tiptoeing around a minefield of emotions.

Before Hatufim, Israelis lowered their voices when they spoke about prisoners of war. They never discussed the fear of captivity, and they certainly never took time to consider the ugly side of a soldier’s return to his happy home. It wasn’t the plotline of potential terrorism that was radical; it was that of a husband’s sexual impotency, an ex’s suppressed longing, a child’s terror of conscription. Hatufim cracked open Israelis’ brains and spilled their secrets, and the public responded with the sort of communal relief that only comes in realizing a shared paranoia.

Last spring, the cast and crew of the American show, including its star, Claire Danes, arrived in Israel to shoot the first few episodes of Homeland‘s second season. The white stone streets of Jaffa and south Tel Aviv stood in for Beirut, where the action takes place.

But on one sunny day in May, another star was on set. Gilad Shalit, still thin and pale but looking decidedly more robust, took a seat next to Raff, who had invited him. The local media got wind of the visit, and suddenly it was Shalit, not Danes or Mandy Patinkin, who had flashbulbs exploding in his face.

It was a big day for Israel. A freed soldier was alive and smiling, while Hollywood’s hottest show, the product of Israeli brainpower, was filming fresh scenes in the country’s ancient streets.

Shalit didn’t sit for any interviews that day, but that didn’t stop local media from swarming the set for a glimpse of a real-world hero. He sat watching Danes do several takes of a scene. Rumor has it he was offered a cameo. He declined.

Debra Kamin is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.