Idris Abdellaoui (left) as Osama and Mo Amer as Mo in "Mo." (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)
Idris Abdellaoui (left) as Osama and Mo Amer as Mo in "Mo." (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)

‘Mo,’ groundbreaking series about a Palestinian American, pushes some Jewish buttons

Mo is watching his nephew’s little league game in Galveston, Texas. The kid is pitching and struggling to throw strikes, so Mo marches out to the mound to give him a pep talk. He reminds the kid that his name is Osama, which means “lion” in Arabic, and that he’s half-Palestinian.

“If there’s one thing you can do,” Mo says, “you can throw things accurately.”

It’s the second projectile-throwing joke in “Mo,” a new Netflix dramedy written by and starring the Palestinian American comedian Mohammed “Mo” Amer. As the first American series with a Palestinian lead, “Mo” is certainly groundbreaking, and often very funny and even poignant — about the difficulties of being an undocumented immigrant, the challenges of an interfaith relationship, the realities of addiction. But the repetition of certain jokes — another recurring gag has to do with how Mo finds the idea of flavored hummus insulting — feels a bit lazy.

There’s also this: An undercurrent of antipathy toward Israel and Jews flows through the eight episodes, bubbling to the surface from time to time. Mo’s mother, Yusra (Farah Bsieso), speaks bitterly about “Zionists” and refers to a Jewish lawyer working for the family as “that Polish woman.” An antisemitic comment about Jewish money-grubbing is made — though the Arab man who makes it is friendly with the Jewish man he makes it to. When the Jewish man calls out the antisemitism, the Arab man says he’s Semitic himself. “How can I be anti-me?” he asks. Amer and his writers have clearly set out to push some Jewish buttons.

Back to the little league game: Hyped up by Mo’s speech, Osama proceeds to bean the next batter in the back. The batter flings off his helmet, revealing a kippah. Mo feigns concern. The batter’s mother charges onto the field, screaming, “Why, Osama, why?”

The scene made me cringe for the way it presents innocent American kids as proxies of an ethnic conflict in the Middle East. But let’s be clear: “Mo” is not an antisemitic show. There’s no need to notify the ADL.

It turns out the story has a bigger villain than the Zionists, who are said to have forced Mo’s ancestors out of Haifa. It’s the U.S. government, specifically the immigration system and its ICE enforcers. Mo and his family settled in Houston after fleeing their home in Kuwait during the Gulf War, but they never received citizenship. For 20 years, their asylum case has been repeatedly delayed. As a result, Mo has to work under the table at a mobile phone repair shop, then as a DJ at a strip club, then picking olives. As a side hustle, he sells knockoffs of designer shoes and watches out of his car trunk.

It’s a fragile, frustrating existence that Amer, 41, knows well. He lived a version of it, as he describes in his two entertaining stand-up specials on Netflix.

He also takes potshots at Jews in those specials. In “The Vagabond” (2018), he recounts how he managed to travel the world as a “refugee free agent” without a passport. At one point, he blames Germany for the predicament he finds himself in. The implication is that if the Holocaust never happened, Israel wouldn’t have been established, and Palestinians like him would have a state. In “Mohammed in Texas” (2021), he castigates Jews for appropriating hummus and blames an Israeli woman for giving him Covid.

RELATED: Why Jews should watch ‘Ramy,’ a new series about a millennial Muslim

In the series, Mo confronts what he calls Palestine’s “branding problem.” Whenever he says he’s from Palestine (a place he has never physically been), someone will think he means Palestine, Texas, or Pakistan, or Israel. The goal of the series, and perhaps Amer’s entire raison d’être, is to fix that problem — to put Palestine on the map, as it were, and show viewers what it means to be a proud Palestinian living in diaspora.

Of course, Jews and Arabs are not so different, and there are aspects of the series that some Jewish viewers will be able to relate to. For example, Mo’s traditional mother disapproves of his Catholic girlfriend. Mo protests that Maria, who is Mexican American, is “basically Arab,” and he’s holding out hope that she will convert to Islam. Another example: Mo’s relatives are scandalized by the fact that he has a tattoo on his arm.

Also, Mo has questions about Christianity, questions many of us Jews have probably also had. “Why do you have to eat the body and drink the blood?” he asks a priest about the Eucharist. “It’s just a little much, don’t you think?”

Unlike “Ramy,” the Hulu series about a young Egyptian American struggling with questions of faith, “Mo” does not delve into the intricacies of Islam. (Amer played a supporting role in “Ramy,” and the creator of that show, Ramy Youssef, is the co-creator and an executive producer of “Mo.”) In fact, Mo spends more time in church with Maria than he does in a mosque. But the series does provide glimpses into Palestinian culture: an azza, a mourning ritual that resembles a shiva; a zaffa wedding march; a recitation of the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, at a gravesite; a discussion of the mystical healing powers of olive oil.

When Mo quizzes Osama before his little league game about his heritage (“When is Eid?” “It changes every year”), it’s hard not to smile.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.