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Notes on “The Spy”

Posted on October 30, 2019

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

The Netflix thriller “The Spy” is entertaining – as well as informative, inspiring, hilarious, heartbreaking, and illuminating. It was a window into Israeli history that I hadn’t looked through previously.

Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Eli Cohen, the Egyptian-born Israeli spy who embedded himself into the Syrian political and military hierarchy in the 1960’s. In this seriously-hard-to-believe story, he charmed his way into meeting key people, uncovered top secrets, and shared them with Israel. He reached awesome heights before the Syrians discovered his true identity and hanged him. His contributions to Israel’s security and military operations both in his lifetime and afterward were monumental. 

I have a few thoughts on finishing the series.

First, I can’t get over the fact that the international behemoth Netflix chose to produce and promote a slice of Israeli history. Less surprising but equally significant is that Amazon Prime Video just produced and released a new show called “TechTalk” that features 50 Israeli tech companies. There are several other current Israeli shows on each media platform as well. That little country of ours is getting a lot of screen time. 

Second, the show is a jarring reminder how precarious life in Israel was before its epic victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Set in the early years of that decade, “The Spy” shows viewers how fragile the country was and the enormous risks the government had to take in order to survive. Watching this on screen fit with what I have read about Israel’s history at the time. Before the ‘67 victory, the country was petrified of a possible second Holocaust, as its surrounding enemies sat perched closer to Israel’s population centers than they do today. From the civilian standpoint, the simple apartments, clothing, and playgrounds show that average Israelis lived very spartan lives. 

Third, the show is a reminder that Israel is not and was not a home for Jews who were exclusively white and Ashkenazi. When I was little I pictured Israel as full of European-origin Ashkenazi Jews because Israel was the Jewish state, and all the Jews I had met were white and Ashkenazi. (Now I know that is not true in the US and certainly Israel). True, these were the Jews who held political power for a long time; in the show, the important decision-makers like Dan are all Ashkenazi. But the show portrays how Israelis also came from the Middle East and how some spoke Arabic so well they could pass for Arab Muslims; Eli Cohen did for a long time. 

Finally, “The Spy” starkly portrays that Cohen chose country over family. We know this because when he returned to Syria for the final time he threw his Israeli citizen clothes all over the room, not bothering to fold them neatly for a return trip to his family that would never be. Without Cohen and many, many others placing Israel first, the State of Israel would be weaker, if it existed at all. 

I think the very end of the series is most telling. The postscript for Eli Cohen and his wife Nadia does not end the show. Instead, the last word goes to the Mossad recruiting the next spy for Israel. The message: Despite the horrific dangers, Israel needed a steady supply of brave citizens willing to cross into enemy territory to be its eyes and ears. 

When I think of the Israelis who made Israel possible, I have always thought first of the countless heroic men and women who put on the olive-green uniform of the IDF. But watching this show reminded me there were – and are – many more who lived in similar danger who protected Israel out of uniform as spies in hostile territory. Like Eli Cohen.