Lessons from the Netflix undercover thriller “The Spy”

Warning: this article might contain spoilers.

Imagine that you posses two identities: one is your cover story as a secret agent, whom you portray so convincingly, the other is your true identity that you hide at all cost.

While the first identity grants you privilege, protection and access to the most sensitive secrets of government, your real identity might get you killed. This is the story of the famous Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who acted as the fictional Kamel Amin Thaabeth, a Syrian businessman and exporter of Syrian goods  to penetrate the Syrian government and reveal classified military information to Israel, helping the young country protecting its people from the Syrian threat.

The plot line focuses on Cohen’s endeavors in Syria, as well as the family he left behind in Israel. Eli is portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a long experience in putting disguise, both as Borat and as the fake Israeli “Terrorist terminator” Eran Morad,  who tricked republican senators and congressmen to support absurd gun reforms. Therefore, becoming Eli Cohen was a natural thing for Baron-Cohen to do.

Moreover, most of the actors in the series are native Arabic and Hebrew speakers (the most prominent are Moni Mushonov, Uri Gavriel and Sacha Baron Cohen). The predictable choice could have been making “The Spy” a Hebrew/Arabic speaking show with English subtitles, yet unlike the successful “Fauda” or “Shtistel”, the creators of The spy deliberately avoided from doing so.

Instead, all the characters speak in English melded with a strong Middle Eastern accent, thus revealing to us how the Middle East conflict is perceived in western eyes.

As an Israeli Emissary in New York, I have experienced at firsthand how nuance makes these two languages so very different.  While Hebrew comes across as direct and unapologetic, English is more thoughtful and hesitant in its nature. While living in Israel, I would barley use phrases like “Let me know”, “I would like to”, or “Kindly see”. But here in New York, at the epicenter of the United States, these terms became my bread and butter.

In “The Spy”, scenes that might require conviction and directness on behalf of the characters are not always seen as such. For example, when the Mossad agent Dan Peleg pays a visit to Eli’s Cohen residence in Bat yam, he tells him that he has 24 hours to decide if he’s becoming a Mossad agent or not. The conversation ends with the common phrase “let me know”, that is often being seen in frequent work emails.

But in Israel this term will be interpreted as too polite, a phrase that doesn’t reflect the urgency of the situation.  It is more likely that Dan Peleg would say something like “You have 24 hours, take or leave it”, that would put Eli Cohen under a heavier pressure, as we would expect in this scenario.

Another exciting motif being examined in “The Spy” is the usage of fake news and manipulation as a psychological weapon of control. In the opening of Episode 3, Eli Cohen wakes up in his Damascus apartment, while gunfire and shouts are being heard from outside. The mob celebrates the victory of the Syrian army over the IDF during a battle in the Golan Heights, as reported by George Saif, broadcaster of “Radio Syria”.

Eli, who goes out of his apartment to learn about the protest more closely, finds out the mob Is accelerated by the sight of Israeli soldiers corpses, presented to the mass as an act of Syrian National pride. However, later in the episode it is revealed that the corpses were actually of Syrian soldiers, dressed as Israeli soldiers. Cohen, who befriends a Syrian soldier, learns from his that the Syrian army chose to do so in order to deceive the masses, making them believe the Israelis lost, and raise the national moral as a result.

News has a constant presence in the series, and it’s not surprising that both the Syrians and Israelis in the show learned about Eli’s Cohen capture and execution by reading the newspaper. even more fundamentally then that, we learn how the Syrians and Israeli Jews are remarkably similar: the power dynamics in the political and military system play a major role in both sides of the equation, and it is revealed both sides can be emotionally charged, whether it may be Nadia Cohen, Thw wife Eli Cohen left behind,  who raises two young daughters in his absence with limited resources,  or Maa’zi, the pretend to be macho syrian soldier who becomes the closet friend Eli has in Syria, and allowing himself to show is true self to Eli.

The lesson I’m vigorously learning from “The Spy” is how one man can change the course of history. Due to Cohen’s efforts, Israel held in information that was essential in its victory over Syria in 1967. Eli Cohen was merely one person, but he changed history forever. This series deals with the most crucial aspects of life: belongingness,  Identity, reliability. In other words, “The Spy” is about human nature in the most surreal and extreme conditions.

I urge you to watch “The Spy”, and by doing so learn more about Eli Cohen, and more importantly about yourselves.

**The Spy, Netflix, Directed by Gideon Raff

A monument in memory of Eli Cohen, can be seen in the “Eli Cohen Road” at the Golan Heights.
Credit: Harvey Sapir, Pikiwiki
About the Author
From Jerusalem and now lives in New York, Ophir Tal is a Community Shaliach of The 14th Street Y (sent by the Jewish Agency and UJA Federation of New York). In Israel he served in the Military as a journalist in the IDF Newsletter Bamahane , worked in the supreme court of Israel in Educational workshops about democracy, in YMCA and Seeds of peace (facilitation of conflict based dialogues) and as a Journalist in Xnet. Ophir loves Creative Writing, crossfit and cooking Shakshuka.
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