Last night I finished watching Netflix’s new miniseries The Spy. The series tells the mythic story of Eli Cohen, one of Israeli’s most acclaimed spies. Eli Cohen infiltrated Syria’s political, military, and social scenes in the 1960s, acquiring unprecedented information that afforded Israel vital advantages when combatting their Syrian adversaries. Sacha Baron Cohen portrays Eli Cohen, maintaining his streak of undercover roles, but approaching this particular one with perhaps more intention.
While I was initially apprehensive about how Netflix would convey such an impactful story, I was pleasantly surprised at how complete the narrative seemed. Yet my satisfaction may have been compounded on the fact that prior to indulging in The Spy, I watched approximately 20 minutes of the whitewashed Red Sea Diving Resort. I couldn’t engage in the latter because it expunged all of the grit and Jewishness of an epic homecoming. While Operation Moses has perhaps always been draped in a veil of white savior-ness, this film magnified the veil, not at all ironically. In all 20 minutes of my viewing, I had the displeasure to see Chris Evans portray a character named Ari Levinson and hear a British accent in the Mossad headquarters. It was with this unsavory taste in my memory that I began The Spy, coincidentally by the same filmmaker.
Eli Cohen is one of my favorite legends in all of Jewish history, coming in a close third after Yosef Trumpeldor and Bar Kochba. As I began the series, I was impressed with the cinematography and the fact that there were no Israelis with Anglo accents (!) and actual Israeli actors (!!). The chronology of the storytelling moved me, yet I was still waiting for something.
When I first learned about Eli Cohen’s story, I was in the Golan. The way I remember it is that we were on the border of Syria, being told not to play on the tank. Or maybe we were farther north, by the minefields. Regardless, it was in the Golan that I learned about Eli Cohen’s achievements. It was also in the Golan, on the Syrian border that we had to pause our lesson (#AMHSI) because we heard gunshots. We paused and we listened to our teacher call a security information hotline, only to be told not to worry—the Syrians were firing at each other. That was in 2014, at the height of the Syrian Civil War.
Watching The Spy took me back to 2014, but it also took me further back in time. I tapped into my generational nostalgia, shaped by the Zionist collective memory. As I learned about Eli Cohen in the Golan, in a place still war-torn, and as I watched the 2019 telling of the spy’s story, I was struck with pride. Eli Cohen embodied Trumpeldor’s fabled last lines, believing wholeheartedly that it is good to die for one’s country. He exhibited heroism and bravery, sacrificing himself and his home life for the good of Israel. Yet two episodes in, I was still waiting for something.
Then it came. Sacha as Eli as Kamel (his Syrian alias) observed Syrian fortifications in the Golan and suggested that the Syrian military plant trees to give their soldiers shade. I heard “eucalyptus” and I was happy. After that moment, the series could do no wrong. They remembered the eucalyptus trees, the most memorable detail in Eli Cohen’s story. In my mind, Eli Cohen’s legacy is forever linked with eucalyptus trees. These trees contributed enormously to the IDF’s success during the Six-Day War, serving as easily identifiable targets. Eli Cohen planted his roots so that Israel could enjoy the shade of his trees.
Netflix remembered the eucalyptus trees, and they remembered Eli Cohen.