Image credit: Elia Spinopolus

The fourth season of the hit Netflix series Fauda is out, delighting countless fans of the saga of an Israeli special forces squad whose members battle Islamic extremists while spending as much time fighting among themselves. The start of a new season also provides a flashpoint for criticism from those who say the show glorifies the Israeli military while the writing just indulges our insatiable desire for drama as distraction: action in place of character development and violence as the driver of every plot. The blood is fake, they say, but the misconceptions are real.

I feel strongly both ways. As much as I value aesthetic depth in this age of superficiality, I’m a sucker for spy shows that offer the promise of exotic locales and constant cliffhangers, unpredictable story lines and “trolley problems” that are far removed from any moral dilemma I could ever face—and usually resolved by physical skills or tactical savvy I could never possess, or sacrifices and sufferings I could never endure. 

Fauda has all that and more. It tells the story of a unit of the Mista’arvim, undercover operatives who pose as Arabs to infiltrate Arab-speaking communities in order to gather intelligence and conduct counterterrorism operations. The main protagonist is Doron Kavillio (played by the show’s co-creator, Lior Raz), who only wants to retire to his family farm but keeps getting pulled back in to lead another heart-stopping, breakneck race to kill a terrorist or thwart an attack. 

Shows like Fauda are guilty pleasures that are only compounded by our ability to “binge” them, a term that in the days before streaming was usually associated with unhealthy addictions. If I disdain the “copaganda” that glorifies policing, I also turn around and snack my way through hours of “special-opaganda” that turns spycraft into fantasy. I am a prisoner of escapism but I prefer not to think about it too deeply. 

And, yes, while numerous reporting trips to the Middle East have given me a painful appreciation of the complexities of the conflict and the terrible injustices inflicted on Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, I remain a congenital Israel sympathizer. I have many good reasons for that stance, but I’ll admit that my views are largely informed by a youth spent watching the Jewish State’s David versus Goliath prowess on the battlefield in the 1960s and 70s and thrilling to Israeli special forces raids like the one on Entebbe, or the Mossad’s uncanny ability to outwit every foe. In Fauda, the heroes are Israeli and for me that means they’re easy to root for. 

So when the Streicker Center held a preview of the opening episode of this new season of Fauda, and featured a conversation afterwards with the two creators of the show, I was all in. The Streicker Center is the arts and culture wing of Temple Emanu-el on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and I figured I’d be sitting with plenty of other Fauda fans to spend an evening that would be exciting—a sneak peek plus the stars!—and that might even offer enough artistic nuance to make me feel okay about loving the show. 

But the series co-creators, Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, weren’t about to let anyone dismiss their show’s dramatic merits, or be satisfied with our simplistic interpretations. 

“People are telling me all the time, ‘Oh you’re writing yourself to be a superhero, James Bond-style’,” Raz said in response to comments about his long-suffering, heart-breaking, but totally kick-ass character. “But the truth is that this guy is losing all the time. He never wins … We are losing all the time even though we think we are winning.” 

“I think that this is the story of Fauda,” added Issacharoff. “I think that this is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We don’t think that there are winners in this conflict … There are only losers. And in the end even if you think you have won you find yourself with another enemy. And you still find yourself stuck in the circle of violence without a solution. This is Fauda.” 

It’s also a pretty good summation of what theologian Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.” Writing in 1999, Wink argued that the belief that violence “saves,” or redeems us, permeates the story of humanity because we believe that in the end, violence “is what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.” Indeed, Wink wrote, “it is the dominant religion in our society today.”

Walter Wink (Image credit: Penguin Random House)

Yet the myth of redemptive violence remains just that—a myth. It is based on the compulsion to impose order on chaos, a meme that Wink traces from cartoons like Popeye and Bluto back to the Babylonian creation story. The hero suffers, often grievously, but he triumphs in the end by vanquishing his foe, power over power. Not only does this moral system run counter to our supposed values, it also does not work. Violence perpetuates violence and chaos reigns. It’s telling that the title of the Israeli series, “fauda,” is a word meaning “chaos” in both Hebrew and Arabic. 

“What we understand, after four seasons, is our message to the people that are watching the show is that it’s really easy to fall into the clichés of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Issacharoff in response to an audience question about the show’s message. “That this is the David and this is the Goliath. That this is the Bad and this is the Good. That they are the terrorists or, like whatever, freedom fighters. I think that what we are trying to say is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is way more complicated than just black and white. It’s about fifty shades of gray.”

But does the audience get that message? 

Raz and Issacharoff, both veterans of Israeli special forces units who draw from their experiences, were clearly proud of the fact that a show they didn’t expect anyone but their mothers to watch has become an international hit in some 190 countries around the globe— including Iran and much of the Arab world. Indeed, Issacharoff recounted getting an excited phone call from an aide to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gushing over the latest season. (They made up a special cut version and sent it to the Abbas aide, who loved it.) 

“The magic of the show is that rightwing people think it’s a rightwing show and leftwing people think it’s a leftwing show,” said Lior. “There are some Palestinians who think it is a Palestinian show.”

Yet if everyone can read into Fauda the storyline they want, and one that serves the biases they bring to the show, is this really doing what its creators hope? 

Perhaps the myth that needs exploding today is the belief that art is inherently redemptive. In this “golden age” of television we are enthralled by the stories of anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White and so many others. But are we learning from their evil deeds? Or are we admiring them, even envying them? Are we rooting for the bad guys to evade justice? We often justify our passion for these dramas by convincing ourselves that by wrestling with the grimmest realities through the prism of art we can cathartically transform ourselves. But maybe it’s just entertainment.  

Walter Wink nailed this predicament a generation ago when he wrote that “the basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programs. It is as if we must watch so much ‘redemptive’ violence to reassure ourselves, against the deluge of facts to the contrary in our actual day-to-day lives, that reality really is that simple.”

David Gibson is a journalist, author, filmmaker, and Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.