Netflix and Israel: Did ‘Farha’ sabotage a special relationship?

Netflix’s decision to feature the likes of Farha and the series Mo was a deviation from business as usual for the California-based streaming giant.

Farha title page netflix
Netflix released in December the film Farha which depicts the horrors of the Nakba in 1948 [Netflix]

In January, the English-language website of the prominent Israel Hayom newspaper reported with satisfaction that Netflix had suddenly added an “unusually high number of Israeli-made films”. The paper speculated that this “special gesture” was perhaps an attempt to “lure back customers”, after a high number of Israelis had dramatically cancelled their Netflix subscriptions in response to an “anti-Israel film” that “portrays Israeli soldiers as murderers”.

The offending film in question is, of course, Farha – which Netflix released in December and which depicts the horrors of the Nakba in 1948, when Israel achieved so-called “independence” on Palestinian land by killing more than 10,000 Palestinians and destroying more than 500 villages. Fast forward 75 years and Israeli soldiers still do not need much help looking like murderers; just ask the family of 61-year-old grandmother Majida Obaid, who was fatally shot in the neck during the Israeli military’s January 26 rampage in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

And yet Netflix’s decision to feature the likes of Farha as well as the 2022 series Mo constitutes a deviation from business as usual at the California-based streaming giant, by offering a glimpse of Palestinian reality and legitimate history that contests the dominant Israeli-fabricated narrative. To be sure, the company’s seemingly special relationship with the state of Israel has often rendered it indistinguishable from a Zionist public relations service.

For much of its recent history, Netflix has remained blissfully awash in pro-Israel content that humanises and heroises Israel’s security and intelligence services while sustaining the myth of Israeli victimhood. Key titles range from The Spy – starring Sacha Baron Cohen as a celebrated Mossad agent – to the wildly popular Israeli series Fauda, made according to the good old Israel-versus-“terrorists” template. Then there is The Red Sea Diving Resort, which shamelessly casts Israel as greatly concerned about global refugees without mentioning its direct responsibility for creating millions of them.

When I contacted Netflix back in 2019 for a response to allegations that the company was acting as a venue for Israeli propaganda, a spokesperson informed me that “we’re in the business of entertainment, not media or politics”. Never mind that effectively boosting the ratings of a country responsible for regularly slaughtering civilians is neither apolitical nor entertaining.

The spokesperson also helpfully directed my attention to some of Netflix’s “diverse Arabic content”, including a show called Comedians of the World which happened to involve four comedians from the Middle East.

And while the “Arabic content” on Netflix has undoubtedly become more diverse since then, the whole operation still feels a bit too Israel-friendly for comfort – a bias that obviously also continues to afflict mainstream Western discourse in general. For all its momentousness, Farha has not rained on the parade of Netflix’s “Israeli Movies & TV” section, which invites audiences to “laugh, cry, sigh, scream, shout or whatever you feel like with these comedies, dramas, romances, thrillers and so much more, all hailing from Israel”.

Having no Netflix account of my own, I used a Lebanese friend’s password to watch Farha. I also took the opportunity to search “Israel” on the Netflix site, which produced a barrage of titles as well as suggestions for additional searches related to “Israel: Birth of a Nation”, “Against All Odds: Israel Survives”, and so on.

A search for “Palestine”, meanwhile, produced Mo and Farha in first and second place, respectively, and the new season of Fauda in fourth – lest we get too accustomed to the idea of Palestinians as humans rather than “terrorists”. Fauda also turned up in a search for “Lebanon” – a territory that has suffered its own fair share of Israeli violence under the guise of self-defence – as did the 2002 Jennifer Lopez movie Maid in Manhattan.

Writing in 2020, Orly Noy, chair of the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, noted that the success of Fauda – itself created by veterans of an Israeli military commando unit – had thus far had much to do with Zionism’s transformation of Palestinians into scary and “exotic figures in their own homeland”.

Noy emphasised that it was not only the Gaza Strip – under devastating siege and regular bombardment by Israel – that lent itself to cinematic exploitation by the series’ creators; the West Bank was also fertile, exoticised terrain: “Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin – all have come to symbolise the realms of the netherworld that our [military] boys bravely enter and leave, rather than vibrant cities a short drive from where we live”.

As for Jenin’s January 2023 appearance in Israel’s latest episode of real-life military savagery, one should never underestimate the role that productions like Fauda can play in legitimising such stunts when so much of the world spends so much time on Netflix. And for Palestinians for whom each day of existence is merely a continuation of the Nakba, Netflix’s poor showing will not be so easily forgotten – Farha notwithstanding.

The Washington Post recently quoted far-right Israeli politician and former Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s assessment that “it’s crazy that Netflix has chosen to release a film whose whole purpose is to create false representations that incite against [Israeli] soldiers”. But the profit-driven streaming service has done a lot crazier stuff indeed.

And as Israel gears up for its next blockbuster killing spree, it is time for the curtain to fall on whatever remains of the special relationship.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.