Fauda, meaning “Chaos” in Arabic, is a high octane, all guns blazing, action-thriller following a team of undercover operatives hunting Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. Shtisel is a slow-paced drama about the lives of the black-hatted men and bewigged women of the haredi Shtisel family living in the ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Geula in Jerusalem.
Despite being physically located just a few miles apart, the worlds of Fauda and Shtisel never touch. It’s actually hard to even imagine any character in one show talking to a character in the other (imagine a conversation between Akiva and Moreno and try not to smile).
But beyond the side-curled peyot and the semi-automatic weaponry, there are one or two things they share.
They are both award winning, critically acclaimed, binge-worthy Netflix series from Israel which everyone seems to be talking about - whether you’re at the shul Kiddush or at the office (I first heard about both from my non-Jewish friends at the law firm I worked for). With two massively successful seasons on the streaming service, they’re about to get even bigger, with their much-awaited Season 3s now on the way.
And the stories? Not so different.
The hero – a lost soul, in a world we’ve heard a lot about but with which, we realise, we’re actually only very superficially familiar – lives in his own bubble of reality, pursuing his quest in a wholly unorthodox (yet strangely endearing) way, slowly alienating everyone around him while he relentlessly and obsessively chases that one person living on the fringes of his life who comes tantalisingly close but remains obstinately beyond his reach.
And perhaps that’s the point – and the appeal: at the heart of both shows are real people living real lives. And they’re people we don’t often think of in such human terms.
Take Fauda. We’re vaguely aware of the battles in terrorism and counter-terrorism, but the genius of Fauda is that the real conflict is not Israeli-Palestinian, but the conflicts we all experience every day: employees who think they know better than their boss, personality clashes within the team, battling demons, even domestic arguments about a husband’s previous commitments to stop working so hard. Internal struggles, real life dilemmas (and yes, some downright crazy and stupid ones).
Both Israeli and Palestinian characters make their way through these all-too-familiar clashes of day-to-day life, albeit in Ivrit and Arabic and with intermittent explosive blasts and gunshots.
Conflict drives drama. And in Israel, there’s no shortage of dramatic conflict. (Ever watched someone changing lanes on K'vish Shesh? Intense.) But it’s the humanisation of the political abstract that allows us to see the people behind the headlines.
And where we see people, might we start to see new approaches, compromises, even solutions?
It sounds like a giant leap, sure. But it’s food for thought. I saw a fascinating line in a New York Times article (22/5/2018) from Lior Raz, who stars as Fauda's hero Doron Kavillio and co-created the show. “I’m getting emails from Israelis who are saying for the first time in their life they feel empathy and compassion for the other side. And the same from Gaza and Kuwait and Lebanon and Turkey.”
Say what you want, but to me that sounds like a pretty cool by-product of a Netflix series.
What’s interesting to me is that Fauda’s warm embrace by Israeli society came around the same time as the cultural phenomenon of Shtisel. Because while Fauda portrays the Jewish State’s terrorising enemies as human beings, Shtisel presents a deeply personal depiction of Israeli society’s pariah: hareidi Jews.
A 2018 poll by Israeli organisation ‘Hiddush’ revealed that 77% of Israelis viewed the tensions between secular and ultra-orthodox Jews as the biggest conflict in Jewish Israeli society. That’s tragic.
And yet, some anecdotal remarks suggest to me that Netflix (yes, strangely, Netflix) might – in its own quiet and unintentional way – be laying some groundwork towards repairing the bridges which have let the Jewish world be torn asunder.
According to Karni Ziv, head of drama and comedy at a leading Israeli commercial TV network, Keshet Broadcasting, “Orthodox people are a part of Israeli society…now their stories are coming out...Suddenly it is like it's opened a door and we are talking about them. You can see the big effect TV can have on our society.”
In a Jewish Chronicle article (8/3/2019), Sunday Times columnist Josh Glancy wrote, “I watched [Shtisel] with a mixture of fascination and relief. Finally, someone has taken me into this strange, confusing world, and shown it to be just as complex and human as my own.”
I’m not arguing that these commercial TV shows are being created to bring peace and the Messiah (though wouldn’t that be nice?) But my own reading of their success is that our fragmented society is crying out to understand the “other”.
Amidst a world of polarising politics, I wonder if people are questioning the party lines of ideological tribalism and starting to recognise their own faces in the opposing team?
If we peel behind the superficial layers of costume design and set pieces, portraying a world so different from our own, might we reveal those hidden, universal, human truths which reveal more about ourselves and our lives than about bombs or cholent?
Doniel grew up in Hendon and learned in yeshiva in Israel, returning to London to read Law at UCL. During this time, he was a Madrich for Aish UK, head of Food For Thought and Executive Director of Ezra UK.
After law school and getting married, Doniel was a teacher at Beit Shvidler Primary School for two years. Before moving to Gibraltar, he was appointed the National Project Manager of The Chief Rabbi's ShabbatUK in the first ever Shabbos Project.
Doniel worked as lawyer at Hassans International Law Firm in Gibraltar. In their four years on The Rock, the Levy family jointly set up and led two Jewish youth movements and pioneered a host of social and informal-educational programmes and initiatives for children, teens and adults. In his spare time, he learns, lectures, tutors, writes articles and generally tries to make the world a better place.
Doniel, his wife Sophie and their daughter Tamar currently run the Aish Birmingham campus branch.