Opinion

How Netflix Fell in Love With the Mossad

The film and television industry wants new heroes. It isn’t able to invent the new James Bond, so it uses existing narratives, worked over and distilled to suit a simplistic worldview that has sex appeal and cinematic rhythm

A scene from "The Angel," the new Netflix movie about the double agent Ashram Marwan
Nick Briggs / Netflix

When I was in sixth grade, my father received a gift from his work, a book entitled “It was Top Secret: 30 Intelligence and Security Affairs in Israel,” by military historian Yosef Argaman. It wasn’t a Classical work of literature, to put it mildly, but it did make a strong impression on me. I bet I've read that book something like 20 times.

I was a skinny weakling, a noodle of a kid, destined to be an army office clerk in the future. The words “top secret” already told me I would never be a part of that closed world, reserved for the strong and the suitable. I was fated to look on from the outside at Israel's superheroes – the idols of youths who admired generals, spies, undercover agents posing as Arabs, members of reconnaissance units and all manner of assassins. And if I didn’t feel like assassinating anyone? Never mind, it will come.

The book jacket was replete with shades of greenish fog-of-war, and bound as if it were a for-your-eyes-only military document. Brave soldiers peered out from the fog. The cover hinted that the content was volatile: The abduction of Syrian generals! The assassination of Colonel Hafez! The extrication of Khomeini from Tehran! An SS man – an IDF officer! The head of the Mossad going to Munich! Almost 500 pages of affairs, some of which were “published for the first time"! How could one resist? After all we were excellent students of the military indoctrination disseminated by the state school system. We were raised on stories of heroism and daring. We were commanded to enlist and continue the path of early Zionist war hero Joseph Trumpeldor and legendary Israeli army commander Meir Har-Zion.

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"The Angel" trailer

Even when it was our turn to enter the Israel Defense Forces meat grinder, we thirstily imbibed every shred of information and historical anecdote, and the more “top secret,” the more we would puff out our chests while little erections sprouted and grew. I read the above book and felt that at last it was as if I were one of them. After all, we had the same goals – saving Israel from our enemies, no less and no more.

I imagined myself disguised as a blond woman, which Ehud Barak had done. Together with Amiram Levine and Yoni Netanyahu and the soldiers of the elite Matkal and Shayetet 13 units, we faced-off against Fatah leaders in Beirut during the 1973 "Spring of Youth" operation. Ehud led; Amiram covered him. Muki Betzer took out the Black September operations officer. I tossed two grenades. The force encountered resistance. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak set off explosive charges. The building collapsed. We came home safely. Thanks to our calm and cool actions, we received the Medal of Valor. And the blood on our hands? You get rid of it with liquid soap.

I’m not in sixth grade anymore and old army stories just don’t do it for me. The years have gone by and I understand, or should understand, that the stories they told you did not exactly represent reality – what’s worse, they distorted them, presenting one side only: the winning side. It’s obvious that tales of victory are much more interesting than tales of defeat. I came, I saw, I conquered. What else is there? Where is the moral conflict? Where are the weak points? Will we make do with hollow propaganda? Imagine Woody Allen wearing white overalls, with a Beretta tucked into his pants, standing on the wing of the Sabena plane? I prefer his nasal delivery, neurotic and insecure. If you put a Beretta in his hand, he would drop it on the floor. Woody Allen can’t be an undaunted hero out of the best sellers by Mishka Ben-David – and that’s a good thing.

"7 Days in Entebbe" trailer

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But just as Israel has helped to inculcate the term "muscular Judaism," it has invented the fable of the Long Arm of the IDF and the wondrous tales starring our excellent boys from the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service. The weak little Jew-boy had died of his feelings of inferiority. The embers saved from the fire had morphed into men’s men, in every sense. There was a time when the Jewish mother dreamed that her son would be a doctor or a lawyer. Today the espionage agencies and commando units are the fantasies. If you haven’t tied up a Palestinian in a banana hold, painted yourself in camouflage colors and crossed enemy lines, or planted a listening device in the cellphone of a Revolutionary Guards officer – you’re just not part of the celebration of manhood and power. You will make do with a marginal role, looking on from the sidelines as an obsessive fan. Most of us are doomed from childhood to be cheerleaders of the Zionist myth and ethos.

But now we’ve managed to turn the whole world into a cheerleader that jumps and waves her pompoms in the name of the dramatic potential embedded in a few of the affairs from our magnificent and cruel past. Over the years the word “Mossad” has been whispered in action movies and dramas as a code name for the ultimate Israel, embodying a model that was a mixture of admiration and caricature. We provided in supporting roles inarticulate tough guys who spoke with heavy accents, in the likes of “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (about a Mossad agent who becomes a hairdresser), and in pretty ludicrous Golan-Globus movies and Spielberg’s “Munich.”

No longer! Our long arm has reached Hollywood and Netflix now. We're deep into 2018 and it’s as if American cinema and television have become part of the Israeli Intelligence Heritage Center. Bibi can be as proud as all get-out: The new big thing is to be a Mossad agent or an Israeli military man. Spiderman – out; Rafi Eitan – in. In recent months we’ve seen films about Operation Entebbe (“Seven Days in Entebbe”); Eichmann’s capture (“Operation Finale”); and “The Angel,” the new Netflix movie about the double agent Ashram Marwan.

"Fauda" second season, trailer

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A television version of John Le Carre’s “Little Drummer Girl” is in the works, about the Mossad hunt for PLO terrorists in Europe. HBO is developing a series with Israel's Keshet network, based on journalist Ronen Bergman’s book “Rise and Kill First,” dealing with Israel’s history of assassinations. And of course, there’s the less important, global history that's been made by the two seasons of “Fauda”: The TV series has turned Israeli undercover agents disguised as Arabs into agonized yet determined superheroes, and the thwarting of terror attacks into a contemporary local response to the Russia-United States power struggles that existed during the Cold War. Once it was actor Dolph Lundgren in the role of the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky 4.” Now it’s the commander of the "Fauda" crew, Doron Kabilio, facing off against the Palestinian terrorist Al-Makdasi.

And going back to Netflix, they’re working on a series dealing with the capture of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen, to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Apropos Cohen, this year he portrayed in the series "Who is America?" the character of Col. Erran Morad, a former Mossad agent and an anti-terror expert. Morad is a silly inarticulate, comical figure, and maybe because he’s so inarticulate, he is quite believable. Certainly more believable than some of the mustachioed Mossad characters with their 1970s' outfits who appear in the above-mentioned flicks and shows. Cohen's Morad exposes and mocks Israeli militarism and machismo, Republican conservatism and hypocrisy, and the American passion for strongmen. In one of his programs in the series, he meets senators and National Rifle Association officials and makes a film clip with them, whose purpose is to encourage 3-year-olds to use guns. You fall down laughing and then you recall Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s gun reform scheme, and you understand that the distance between us and the Americans is not that great. Erran Morad could easily be appointed defense secretary in President Donald Trump’s administration or defense minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Bibi, as we will recall, declared a few months ago that Mossad agents had recovered the Eli Cohen’s lost watch from “an enemy country.” What will they do with this watch? Maybe they’ll use it as a prop in a Netflix series.

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This is the way our lives serve as props for movies and series that glorify Israel’s intelligence and espionage history. To the outsider, it’s easy to forget that these are horrific stories. Onlookers are swept off their feet by the action and the drama. As in the “Real Crime” series, a terrifying and murderous reality has been turned into a sweeping action story that's largely stripped the heroes of their humanity and obviated the pain of the victims.

Thus makers of the various Mossad movies prefer to ignore social context. The film and television industry wants new heroes. It isn’t able to invent the new James Bond, so it uses existing narratives, worked over and distilled to suit a simplistic worldview that has sex appeal and cinematic rhythm. But the agents who carried out the abductions and assassinations are not just evidence of resourcefulness and courage, but also of political feebleness. Today it’s hard to remember, but like their victims, the PLO terrorists also had families and loves and plans for the future. For every fearless Mossadnik there are cowardly, blind and recalcitrant leaders who prefer the way of force and violence.

What about a film on peace talks and a historic conciliation? That wouldn’t be exciting enough for Netflix.