After arrest at protest, ‘Our Boys’ director Hagai Levi calls overhaul ‘a blasphemy’

Creator of acclaimed HBO series detained at Tel Aviv rally for filming police, says weekly activism against government helps him cope with feeling ‘helpless’

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Israeli screenwriter Hagai Levi poses for a picture during an interview with AFP on January 7, 2020 in Tel Aviv. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Israeli screenwriter Hagai Levi poses for a picture during an interview with AFP on January 7, 2020 in Tel Aviv. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Acclaimed Israeli director Hagai Levi lashed the new government and its judicial overhaul after being arrested while filming police at a protest on Thursday.

Levi called the government’s effort to diminish the judiciary “a huge hilul hashem,” a blasphemous act that violates the prohibition in the Torah of desecrating the name of God.

Levi, who was detained by police during Thursday’s nationwide demonstrations against the overhaul, has been attending the mass protests on a weekly basis.

He was briefly arrested because he was filming the protests with his phone.

“I shoot a lot, just with my iPhone, maybe for a future project but mainly because it’s pretty amazing what’s going on, you can’t help but shoot it,” Levi told The Times of Israel.

Levi said he was standing in a smaller group of protesters, near Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and the Azrieli Mall, when the police lost their patience and began arresting some of the leading activists.

“They first arrested the leaders and then quite randomly” arrested others, said Levi. “I was standing near the sidewalk but officially was on the street so they suddenly took me and said, ‘You’re standing on the street.'”

Levi said he had filmed a more violent arrest a few minutes earlier, shooting video looking into the police car.

“I think they were pissed off,” he said.

Levi said he was detained for a couple of hours, a far lighter experience than some who were arrested during the demonstrations.

“I was quite lucky,” he said, “and it’s always worth remembering that if I weren’t a Jew, it would be totally different,” referring to what some Palestinians experience when arrested by Israeli police.

Levi said he has been attending the weekly mass demonstrations since they began nearly three months ago in opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

“I’m there every Thursday and Saturday night,” said Levi. “I found myself very active in this, I guess it’s the only thing that helps, otherwise I feel pretty depressed and helpless. It just gives you a sense that you’re doing something at least.”

Levi, who is known for television shows such as “Our Boys,” “In Treatment,” “Scenes from a Marriage” and the Golden Globe-winning  “The Affair,” lives in Tel Aviv and moves to the US temporarily whenever he has a production for HBO.

He also initiated a successful protest against the Rabinovich Foundation’s Israel Cinema Project after the newly installed culture minister Miki Zohar pushed for new requirements that would force artists and filmmakers to guarantee their works will not badmouth Israel’s reputation or the army.

The film fund, which is the country’s largest, began requiring applicants to sign off on that pledge.

In response, more than 100 Israeli filmmakers, led by Levi, launched a counter-campaign calling for the Rabinovich fund to remove the requirements.

The filmmakers – including Berlin Golden Bear winner Nadav Lapid (“Synonymous”), Ari Folman (“Where is Anne Frank”), Eran Kolirin (“The Band’s Visit”) and Levi signed a petition calling on an industry boycott of the Rabinovich fund until the foundation stops requiring the loyalty oath.

Scuffles between police and Israelis protesting against the judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, March 23, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

On March 7, said Levi, the public management of the Rabinovich Foundation withdrew the statement of obedience and replaced it with clauses accepted by all cinema funds.

It was a small victory, but a symbolic one, he said. “Everything counts these days.”

Levi said he sometimes attends the protests within the protests, joining the more left-leaning activists standing with Palestinian flags.

He knows there’s not a lot of tolerance for the Palestinian flag right now.

“I can understand that,” he said.

That said, Levi thinks “it’s genius” that the recent mass demonstrations have reclaimed the Israeli flag as a national symbol that had been claimed by the far-right in recent years, although he hasn’t yet taken his own flag to the protests.

“I don’t take the flag for some reason, I don’t yet feel comfortable with it,” he said.

Levi’s father is an Orthodox rabbi and Levi himself attended a yeshiva high school, gradually leaving his religious lifestyle while he was in the army.

His family, however, is politically center-left, including his father, who has Italian roots and raised Levi and his siblings with a more liberal form of traditional Judaism.

“That’s how we were raised and we always felt attached to it,” said Levi.

Most Popular
read more: