The uninitiated might have wondered what the fuss was about. Hundreds were lined up at Théâtre St. Denis an hour before the hall doors opened.
They were the cognoscenti – more than 900 of them – who are hooked on the Israeli television series Fauda, which began streaming on Netflix in December.
The excitement was over the presence on stage of Fauda’s co-creator and star Lior Raz, who was greeted with applause, cheers, and even a final standing ovation. His Feb. 27 Montreal appearance was organized by Federation CJA.
This hyper-realistic show, which is a huge hit in Israel, is about an undercover commando unit of the Israel Defence Forces operating in the Palestinian territories. Its’ battle-scarred leader, played by Raz, has come out of retirement to track down a Hamas terrorist who has killed 116 Israelis.
‘Raz thinks the unexpected success is due to the avoidance of black-and-white stereotypes. The Israelis are not all good, the Palestinians not all bad’
There’s thrilling action and unmitigated violence throughout as members of this special unit, posing as Arabs, hunt their target.
Raz is still getting used to the celebrity that has surrounded him since Fauda (chaos in Arabic) premiered on Israel’s Yes satellite network in 2015.
With Netflix picking it up, 12 episodes can now be viewed in 190 countries.
The show is popular with Israelis across the political spectrum, as well as with Arabs. Arab characters are played by Arab actors, and the dialogue is in Hebrew and Arabic, with the latter predominant (English subtitled on Netflix).
The series was shot in Kfar Qasim, an Arab city near the Green Line, during the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict.
Raz thinks the unexpected success is due to the avoidance of black-and-white stereotypes. The Israelis are not all good, the Palestinians not all bad. The heroes and villains are complex characters. Even the wanted terrorist is portrayed as a human being, a family man who has normal emotions.
A clip Raz screened, which he said is key, sees a soldier admitting that he was trained to be an “attack dog,” to not think or feel, just do, but it’s clear it troubles him
“It’s showing that Israelis are playing a high mental price for war,” Raz said in an interview.
He wants to shake Israelis out of insouciance. “They are sitting drinking espressos in Tel Aviv with no idea what is going on 10 minutes away, what their soldiers are doing.”
Conversely, he thinks Palestinians do not know, or care, about the toll the conflict is taking on Israelis.
Raz knows the field. He served in the IDF from 1990 to 1993 in a similar elite unit, during the first intifadah. The son of an Iraqi, he grew up speaking Arabic and played with Arab kids while living in a settlement. He “loves” the culture, even though he was trained to fight Arabs and his girlfriend was stabbed to death in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in 1991. (She’s a character in the show.)
Creating Fauda, with friend Avi Issacharoff, a journalist specializing in Arab affairs, was sort of a catharsis for Raz. Since leaving the army he had led a fairly low-profile life as an actor and speaker. His biggest claim to fame was having been a bodyguard to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He had little hope the series would find a buyer and, in fact, Israel’s three networks turned it down.
Raz insists he has no wish to send a political message.
“I thought the right wing would hate it because it’s humanizing Palestinians and the left wing would hate it because it shows the soldiers doing bad stuff. But they both love it,” said Raz.
“The right thinks I’m a leftist, and the left thinks I’m on the right.” He describes himself simply as a Zionist.
Since it’s been on Netflix, which Raz described as the largest deal ever for an Israeli TV show, he has received hundreds of emails a day.
“A girl in Kuwait said this was the first time in her life that she had felt compassion for Israelis, whom she had thought of as Nazis,” he said. “A right-wing Israeli told me this was the first time he had felt any compassion for Palestinians. With that, I feel I have done something good.”
Last year Fauda won six Ophirs – Israel’s Academy Awards – including best drama series.
A second season will be shot this summer, and Raz expects it to begin on Israeli TV in November. He is keeping his fingers crossed for Netflix, too.
Raz is trying not to let things go to his head. “Right now I’m surfing on a wave,” Raz said. “I know one day I can crash, so I try to be humble.”
Federation president Evan Feldman elicited groans when he admitted he hadn’t yet seen Fauda, but has a sense that this is a TV show breaking all the rules. “A very Orthodox rabbi told me that for his Tanya class, he is using one of the episodes. Fauda has that type of impact.”