Matti Friedman is pleasantly surprised by The Spy, the Netflix series about Eli Cohen, Israel's most famous spy. It is long-overdue recognition of a marginalised, yet invaluable group of Arabic-speaking Jewish agents. Read his article in Mosaic:
Sacha Baron-Cohen as Eli Cohen, Israel's legendary spy in the Netflix series
Hollywood’s Mossad movies haven’t been
good in part because most Western observers have never really grasped
Israel’s secret identity, which is also the secret that made the
Mossad’s reputation in its first decades. This is the fact that more
than half of the new state’s population came, like Eli and Nadia, from
the Arab world and included people who could move in that world with
ease, as Arabs. That fact has been obscured by Israel’s own Europe-heavy
narrative, by the West’s Holocaust fixations, and by the Mossad’s own
PR about derring-do and technical wizardry.
The truth is that Mossad recruiters had at their disposal an
invaluable reservoir of people who were loyal to a fault, ideologically
motivated, and capable of passing for the enemy. One of them was Eli
Cohen. There were many others who, unlike Cohen, remain anonymous
because they were lucky enough to make it home.
The series deserves credit for broaching, if only in a peripheral and
inelegant way, the harsh ethnic irony of the Cohens’ life: namely, that
the same characteristic that made Eli useful to Israel’s young
intelligence service was what kept his family on Israel’s margins. Being
an Arabic-speaking Jew in those years was useful if you were a spy. In
real life it was a handicap to be overcome.
“You know what they see when they look at me?” Eli says to Nadia
after a party at the poolside mansion of Ashkenazi friends, where the
host mistakes Eli for a waiter: “They see an Arab. That’s it. Jewish,
yes. But just an Arab.” Never mind that no such mansion could have
existed in socialist Israel circa 1960, or that the host’s
1970s shirt and haircut are off by at least a decade. Eli’s point to
Nadia gets at something true, and if there are to be more—and
better—Mossad stories told on screen, they’ll have to address it again
and in much greater depth.
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Eli Cohen's story dramatised on Netflix