The “Other”

Religion and politics are an inseparable part of the fabric of Israeli society. Every Israeli citizen knows what religion their neighbors are, and due to the vibrant dialogue where it is opinions that count, people know who their neighbors vote for.

The gap created by these differences is sometimes a difficult one to bridge. This of course is not just peculiar to Israel. No matter who we are, it is always easier to stay in our comfort zones and befriend only those similar to ourselves. It is natural for people to feel most comfortable with their own.  

Where interfaith and unity initiatives often feel like they are still plowing through mud, two programs on the Israeli small screen have come out shining on the other side.

Shtisel, is a series about about an ultra-orthodox Haredi community in Jerusalem. Unashamedly, this community is insular – and they would point to good reasons why. Thus, their way of a life remains closed to outsiders, an enigma to onlookers. 

Involved in the series are some actors and behind-the-scenes people who have come from an ultra-orthodox background. Their nuance, sensitivity and experience has helped to challenge the viewers’ preconceived ideas of our  Haredi “Men in Black.” 

The actors take us on a journey where we bypass stereotypes. They lead us to eavesdrop into the unknown and upon those not familiar to ourselves. In doing so, we learn that the Haredi Jews also crack jokes. They too have worries and concerns. We begin to lose sight of the fact that they dress different to us, or their lives revolve around a meticulous religious observance, or that they dish our Zionist Hebrew for their Yiddish of the Shtetl World. We hope with them. We cry with them. We laugh with them. We discover that they are just like us. 

With Shtisel thumping cracks into the wall of religious boundaries, politics was up next. 

Right from the very first episode in 2015, Fauda became a cult show in Israel. Based on the true-life experiences of the creators of the series, the program sometimes even ousted the real headlines – such as the threat of Iran.

It was an immediate national addiction. 

Arabs and Jews would set an alarm on their phones to make sure that they would not miss a minute of the episode. It was paramount they were in front of the TV on time with a bottle of beer and popcorn. 

Depending upon which side of the political map a particular scene is filmed, the show alternates between Hebrew and Arabic. Jewish actors studied for months to learn the right dialect of Arabic which varies from region to region. Arab Israelis, whose presence has often flooded our small screen and frequently conquered the stage of predominantly Jewish Hebrew theaters, were now playing the “other.” 

Whether we wanted to or not, we came face to face with the humanity of the those not like us. It was an uncomfortable and satisfying ride for the general public. What Israeli wasn’t satisfied when murderous terrorists died? But along with that, we learned we could, and should, empathize with the ordinary Palestinian who is so often unwillingly caught up in the conflict. 

Fauda became a hit in the Arab-world too. Many an Arab journalist has commented about “the Jews” also liking soccer, loving their kids and doing stuff “just like them.” 

Shtisel and Fauda – born and bred in Israel – are fearless in presenting the complexities of human nature. Both programs have daringly humanized the “other.” In a world of superficial selfies and where opinions are often formed from the latest flirtation on social media, these shows have not only opened up the hearts of Israelis, their profound message of challenging our preconceived ideas has rightly – and necessarily – made them two of the most-watched shows on Netflix.