The Spy – Part II: An Evaluation of the Series

After the depiction of the series in Part I, I will now evaluate it in terms of its truth value, its presentation of ethical dilemmas and, because it is Yom Kippur this evening, its theological significance.

As Sasha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen busily constructed his façade as a spy in Syria, the life of Nadia, his wife played by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, very slowly dissolves into suspicion and depression. As Cohen celebrates his epicurean lifestyle, Nadia lives on the equivalent of macaroni and cheese. One is left at the end of the series with the feeling that Nadia suffered even more and more deeply and for a much longer period than Eli Cohen when he was captured in 1965. For “reasons of state,” was the Mossad, and, indirectly, the Israeli government, guiltier for what they did to Nadia even more than the willingness of Cohen’s superiors to expose their agent to ever increasing risks?

And Cohen does what almost all spies do in such circumstances as he becomes more certain of his cover and more confident in his techniques of dissembling. He gets careless. Regularity and repetition are the greatest dangers to a spy. And Cohen fell into a trap of his own and his minders’ making.

Did Cohen really have something to do with Osama bin Laden and his father, Mohammed bin Laden? Or was this a bow to Hollywood poetic license?  I already indicated my suspicion that it was the latter. Whether true or not, and it seems unlikely that it was true, the introduction of such a scene seems gratuitous and exploitive of a notorious name.

But there are far more serious questions about the verity of the series. Professor Abu Khalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, treated the series as Zionist propaganda and raised a number of questions. The movie set is clearly not Damascus, but to quibble over this is to complain about any movie or series where it is rare to place it in the real setting. There are, however, more serious questions.

  • Eli Cohen never befriended Amin Al-Hafez and could not have done so since he served as a military attaché in Buenos Aries after Cohen left Argentina; however, the historical records indicate that Al-Hafez was banished to Argentina in September of 1961 when Eli Cohen was in that country – he moved to Damascus in February of 1962; is the published historical record incorrect?
  • In Syria, Al-Hafez was only the Interior Minister when Eli Cohen was there; in fact. Al-Hafez became President of Syria on 27 July of 1963 in a military coup until he too was overthrown on 23 February of 1966.
  • There is no evidence that Al-Hafez met Eli Cohen – but there is in Cohen’s reports to Mossad and in the treatment meted out to other Syrians whom Cohen met; there is every reason for Al-Hafez to deny he never met Cohen.
  • The same could be said of Abdul-Karim (Ma’azi) Zaher al-Din (Nassim Si Ahmed), a senior military officer. Khalil claimed that there is no evidence to show that he knew Eli Cohen – except the Mossad files. Al-Din had every reason to deny he knew Eli Cohen; on the other hand, critics admit Cohen befriended his nephew, Ma’dhi Zaher Al-Din, a junior officer, so that it is very likely that the nephew introduced Cohen to his uncle.
  • As one critic of Khalil wrote, “all the actions of the Syrian government around his unveiling and execution point to a deeply emotional and personal reaction from a leadership who were angry, deeply humiliated, hurt and seeking retribution.”
  • Al-Hafez’s wife was a conservative from Aleppo and it is beyond credulity that she would have reached over and grabbed Cohen by the genitals; whether she in fact did or did not, it is a gratuitous scene irrelevant to the spy story and one suspects is a bow to sensationalism and depreciates the seriousness of Eli Cohen’s mission. I cannot recall if either book made such a claim.
  • Critics can claim that it is laughable that Eli Cohen would have been escorted to the front lines of the Golan Heights while admitting that he did indeed visit the Al-Himmah area in the southern part of the Golan Heights; the evidence is pretty incontrovertible that Cohen used that visit both to report on what he saw and to use it as an entry to offering the gift of the Eucalyptus trees, to which many soldiers fighting in the Golan could attest and which the critics do not deny were there; the overwhelming evidence seems to confirm that Cohen visited a sufficient piece of the Golan to understand the fortifications and then make them very visible to the Israelis through the gift of the trees to provide shade for the Syrian soldiers, There are also the photographs of the fortifications
  • The change of plans and personnel for the Golan following the 1966 coup did not mean the fortifications were changed nor the trees
  • The critics do not deny that the plan to divert the Jordan River water was sabotaged or that the Syrian efforts to build a nuclear reactor were destroyed.
  • The Druze counter-espionage chief, Ahmad Suwaydani, may indeed not have been in Buenos Aries when Cohen was there; but this bit of poetic license was used to introduce the character early on and show how determined and resolute he was in uprooting spies; it detracts not one whit from the core narrative and compliments him for his acuity.

In sum, the general truth of the narrative and the interpretation of Eli Cohen’s role as presented in the series is generally true, though the director in the notes made clear that the episodes were based on the Eli Cohen narrative and were not an attempt to precisely represent the story. However, there are some minor incongruities on the Israeli side. Why, as Eli Cohen’s daughter complained, did the series claim that Nadia was a maid? Her daughter insisted she never was, but I cannot remember where the description took place.

What about how the Israeli characters are presented and the ethical tensions of the interpretation? A very acute one is that of Emmerich as Cohen’s handler, Dan. He is presented as both determined and smart, wary and worrisome, especially in light of a previous agent of his who was caught. He is also presented as a compassionate man sincerely concerned about the effects of Cohen’s long absences on his wife Nadia. His inner conflicts about keeping Cohen in the field, taking even more risks to gather further information and his desire to please Nadia and cut short Cohen’s exposure are both understandable and ring true. But, in the end, interests of state win out over the personal concerns. However, I found it questionable why Mossad would insist on contacts at the same time daily when Cohen could have been given a code that dictated changes in times.

The other person truly torn apart in the series is Eli Cohen himself. His role as a spy required him to suppress his deeper self, his love for his wife and family versus his passionate desire to serve the state. But he did tire. Before he went off to his final mission, he asked to come in from the cold. The effort to repress his love and his life had taken a great a toll and he appeared to be on the edge of losing it. Did he become careless? Was that why he was caught? The drama of the suffering of Nadia and of Eli Cohen as well as his handler are at the heart of the dramatic tension in the series. Conflicts over ethics, social and political priorities drive the drama. Other conflicts, such as the one between his Mizrachi versus Ashkenazi identity, are introduced but then dropped.

There is one even deeper tension that needs literally to be uncovered, though I am pretty sure it was not a conscious goal of Gideon Raff, the director. This evening, we begin Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, yom (יוֹם) means ‘day’; kippur (כִּפּוּר) (or kaphar) comes from a root verb that means ‘to atone’. Hence, Yom Kippur is usually expressed in English as the “Day of Atonement.” That is because kippur or kaphur means both to cover and to uncover, to repress and to purge, to make a reconciliation and to cover with pitch. The same word seems to have two very opposite meanings.

In the Yom Kippur service, we insist, on the one hand, that we are righteous and have not sinned and that we are arrogant, obstinate and have sinned. It is the same contradiction. For in our self-righteousness, we claim purity, but in our heart of hearts, we know that this self-righteous insistence is but a cover up of our sins. Further, the biggest sin of all is the cover-up itself. As one rabbi put it, “We pretend to be someone blameless. But we are not the person we pretend to be.” Further, we are not so arrogant and stiff-necked that we cover up the fact that we are not perfect, that we have sinned.

Rabbi Splanski, citing Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, pointed out in Torah study, that there is the all important aval (in English, “but”) that occurs only twice in the Torah.

In Genesis 17:19 –

יט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן, וְקָרָאתָ אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, יִצְחָק; וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם, לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו. 19 And God said: ‘Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.

Aval means “in truth.” And the meaning can best be grasped by the context. For preceding God’s promise that Sarah will bear a child in her old age, are six verses on the covenant and its primary sign, circumcision of the male infant.

ט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, וְאַתָּה אֶת-בְּרִיתִי תִשְׁמֹר–אַתָּה וְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ, לְדֹרֹתָם. 9 And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations.
י  זֹאת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּ, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, אַחֲרֶיךָ:  הִמּוֹל לָכֶם, כָּל-זָכָר. 10 This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.
יא  וּנְמַלְתֶּם, אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלַתְכֶם; וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם. 11 And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you.
יב  וּבֶן-שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים, יִמּוֹל לָכֶם כָּל-זָכָר–לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם:  יְלִיד בָּיִת–וּמִקְנַת-כֶּסֶף מִכֹּל בֶּן-נֵכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזַּרְעֲךָ הוּא. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed.
יג  הִמּוֹל יִמּוֹל יְלִיד בֵּיתְךָ, וּמִקְנַת כַּסְפֶּךָ; וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, לִבְרִית עוֹלָם. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
יד  וְעָרֵל זָכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמּוֹל אֶת-בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ:  אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, הֵפַר.  {ס} 14 And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.’ {S}

When a male Jewish child is circumcised at eight days old, the foreskin of the penis that covers up the glans is removed. Not only does the circumcision inflict on the flesh a painful lesson that even a father who loves you as a child more than even his own life, can inflict pain. If such a father can do that, so can anyone. Therefore, we must be wary. We must not let down our guard. On the other, the circumcision is about totally revealing one’s core passions. Circumcision is an unveiling, is a statement that one will always remain open in spite of the harm inflicted on oneself, that you will always retain the consciousness that you must uncover the fact that your worst sin is to cover up your sins. 

Genesis 41:21 –


כא  וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת.
21 And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.’

We must come face-to-face with our guilt, with our past sins, but most of all with our refusal to admit we are sinners and our insistence on presenting a false face to the world. That is precisely why spy stories are so interesting. Because they are inherently cover-ups, wearing disguises and pretending to be who we are not, but for the sake of revealing more important truths and, in the process, coming to terms with our own fallibility as the very task we undertake is to project infallibility.

The Spy does it all. In the end it is a theological exercise exploring the relationship of cover-ups to the effort to do anything to uncover secrets. Thus, it is sad that those who accuse the series of being untruthful and Zionist propaganda continue to engage in a cover-up of what took place instead of seriously probing and questioning the presentation.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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