Is “Mo” on Netflix good for Jews?
I binged the new comedy series, “Mo”, on Netflix. It is autobiographical, based on the story of Palestinian-American comedian Mohammad Amer and his immigrant family in Houston.
Mo Amer has been a staple of stand-up comedy for many years, appearing frequently with my friend and fellow rabbinic, Bob Alper, and he has appeared on HBO. The series is by turns funny and poignant, especially as it shows the setbacks and small triumphs of an immigrant family in the United States trying to do more than just get by.
Much of the plot revolves around the family’s history – refugees from Haifa after the 1948 War of Independence, eventually ending up in Kuwait, from where they were evacuated and fled, once more, towards Houston. It’s a story of immigrants trying to make it in America, but more importantly, it’s a story of refugees.
Yes – poignant, funny, sweet – and in places, deeply uncomfortable.
As in: the mother telling the story of the family, how they had to flee Haifa because of the “Zionists”. As in the cute irony: the family’s immigration lawyer is a Jewish woman, whose identity Mo has to conceal for her mother, by simply saying that her surname is Polish.
Now, as you might expect, when I hear the on-screen remarks about Zionists, I instantly insert my traditional tape into my brain. (No one uses tapes anymore, but you understand).
I launch myself inwardly into my speech:
- The Arabs rejected the 1947 Partition Plan, which would have created a separate Palestinian state.
- The combined Arab armies invaded the fledgling Jewish state just after its birth in May 1948, seeking to strangle the “infant” in its cradle, creating a war that the Israelis won against military odds.
- Yes, there were atrocities against the Arabs, forced evacuations, killings.
- But, in fact, the Jews of Haifa begged their Arab neighbors to stay, rather than submit to what would become their inevitable degradation.
- The Arab governments themselves, even and especially the oil-rich ones, did very little to help the Palestinian refugees.
If you just read this, your eyes are probably starting to glaze over. Because these are the standard historical arguments, the staples of hasbara, explanation and PR. Many Jews, and certainly their leaders, have repeated these arguments with great eloquence over the past fifty years.
So, yes: hearing “the Zionists” being blamed for the fate of Mo’s family stung me. I’m sure it stung many Jews who watched “Mo”.
Like it should be.
Here’s why – even I, a card-carrying, Israel-loving Zionist – will keep watching “Mo.”
This spectacle and its message are necessary.
“Really?!? You chose the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress to say that?!?
Yes. Even I, as a devout Zionist, have to say this. Especially me, as a devout Zionist, I must say.
On the one hand, there is the story. Funny thing, this word “history”. Nowadays we tend to use it to refer to something or someone that is irrelevant. A person loses his job, and he is “historic”.
We Jews have never had fun with this extravagance. For us, the story is essential. In this sense, the historical facts that I have described above are correct.
But this precise list of historical facts does not erase – in fact, it cannot erase – the fact that Palestinians have their own stories that they carry with them, like the keys to their former homes in Jerusalem and Haifa and elsewhere, and these painful stories are also true. It would be insipid to refuse to hear them; even more tasteless, to hear these stories and deny them.
No less a Zionist hero than Yossi Klein Halevi writes, in his crucial book Letters to my Palestinian neighbor:
As we Israelis celebrated our regained sovereignty and achieved one success after another, your people traded homes and olive groves for the scorched earth of refugee camps, where you raised hopeless children, unwanted outcasts of the Arab World. I mourn the lives wasted in the bitterness of exile, your despair against my joy. For many years in Israel we ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent.
Yes, history matters. But, it is not about history. It’s not about reciting the facts. Nor is it the cruel, sobering acknowledgment that history is cruel, that no nation was born in an act of Woodstock-style kumbaya.
It’s more about human relationships. It’s a matter of empathy.
It’s about hearing.
Jews and Palestinians should listen to and honor each other’s stories. Before there can even be a two-state solution, there must be a two-narrative solution. To hear each other’s stories, internalize each other’s pain, recognize each other’s dreams.
Jews need to hear Palestinian stories, and Palestinians need to hear Jewish stories. Jews need to hear how Palestinians have taken the keys to their family homes in Jaffa and Haifa. The Palestinians must remember how the Arabs massacred the Jews in Iraq, how they drove the Jews from their homes in Syria.
As we enter the season of repentance, we enter the season of shofar, the ram’s horn that the Jews blow to signal the call to repentance. The mitzvah which is related to shofar is lishmoa kol shofar, to hear the voice of the shofar. It’s about hearing the many voices that create this complicated story.
That’s why I speak with the most important Muslim thought leader in America today, Imam Abdullah Antepli, in a program we call “The Imam and the Rabbi.” We ask ourselves difficult questions, but what we demonstrate above all is that we have a sacred obligation to listen and to hear.
So, yes: the historical references in “Mo” disturb me, haunt me, but they don’t scandalize me. I can live with the discomfort.
After all, between “Shtisel” (where, okay, the ultra-Orthodox hardy characters are non-Zionists) and “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” and other accessible Israeli offerings, the Jewish national narrative got plenty of screen time.
Also: for those of us who believe that Palestinian national identity revolves solely around the denial of Israel and Zionism, this series will be a revelation. The viewer actually sees what Palestinian cultural identity looks like in its own diaspora, music and celebrations. I was particularly moved by the family’s visit to their father’s grave and the recitation of the Muslim prayer for the dead. I was also moved by the fact that Mo’s brother has autism and how the family deals with this reality.
So, yes: Jews should watch “Mo”. Especially the Jews who love Israel.
You know why?
Because, by any measure, we are the most powerful and least vulnerable Jewish generation in history. Despite our biblical designation, we are no longer the “children of Israel”. We are adults. We can hear that, and we can take that.
But, I end with the words of my teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, teaching at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in July:
“When we got home, there was another people who endured a catastrophe. We must recognize their suffering and even compensate them. But if the only way to make restitution is to dismantle the State of Israel, that Does not interest me.
Neither do I.