Entebbe, Tehran, Munich

How cinematic depictions of the Mossad spy became a reflection of shifting attitudes towards the State of Israel.

For Jews in the Diaspora, Hasbara has often pointed to the image of the tough but moral IDF soldier, reinforced by its shadowy sister the Mossad agent, as the protector of Jews both within the State of Israel and beyond. Even as this image has been increasingly tarnished in the international media, the average Diaspora Jew could still rely on fictional representations of Israel’s military, air force, elite special forces and its spies to counter those of the press and broadcast media. What about today?

For years, outside of Israel the near-sacrosanct and iconic image of the Israeli spy has remained unblemished. Members of the Mossad were consistently represented as suave and sophisticated types. This is because Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, has a reputation for being fearsomely effective, protecting both Israelis at home and Jewish communities in the diaspora. A host of films over the years have played up Mossad’s success, such as the 1979 American television film The House on Garibaldi Street (directed by Peter Collinson), and Chris Weitz’s historical thriller Operation Finale in 2018. the kidnapping and transport of Adolf Eichmann, the former SS officer and bureaucrat behind the Final Solution, from Argentina to Israel in 1960. While both strive for historical accuracy, certain incidents and characters have been altered for dramatic purposes.

The hijack of Air France Flight 139 in June 1976 by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the subsequent freeing of the hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, on July 4, 1976—an operation known as “Operation Thunderbolt”—has provided much material for filmmakers. The 1977 Israeli film Operation Thunderbolt, directed by Menahem Golan and starring Klaus Kinski, Yehoram Gaon, and Sybil Danning, tracks events from the flight’s takeoff until the hostages’ return to Israel. That same year, Raid on Entebbe, an NBC television film directed by Irvin Kershner, also restaged the events, with a host of American stars including Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Yaphet Kotto, James Woods, and Robert Loggia. More recent productions include 2018’s Entebbe (titled 7 Days in Entebbe in the United States), directed by José Padilha, and The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006), which also refers to the rescue of the hijacked hostages from Uganda. Another heroic story based on true events was presented in 2019’s The Red Sea Diving Resort, a spy thriller film written and directed by Gideon Raff. Chris Evans stars as an Israeli Mossad agent, who runs a diving resort on the Red Sea coast as cover for a covert operation helping Ethiopian-Jewish refugees escape to safe haven in Israel. Through their focus on the undisputed triumphs of Israeli secret and elite services, these films go some way toward maintaining the lily-white and humanitarian image of these agencies—avenging justice (Eichmann), and rescuing Israeli hostages (Entebbe) or other endangered Jews (Red Sea).

Recent film and television productions, in contrast to this, have not always upheld the fearsome and untarnished myth of Mossad. These productions fit into a wider recent trend in which the reputation of the Mossad secret agent is blemished. Furthermore, the Mossad is now frequently depicted as ineffective.

Diaspora portrayals, in particular, have become more critical, as American Jews have become more disillusioned with the continued occupation and what they perceive as the self-destructive policies of the Netanyahu government. As early as 1991, David Mamet’s police procedural Homicide depicted Israeli secret agents blackmailing and double-crossing an American (and Jewish) police officer after taking advantage of his offer of help. Mamet, an American Jew, clearly aligns the audience’s sympathies with the conflicted Jewish American cop rather than the unscrupulous Israelis. Given how Mamet’s politics have developed over the intervening years, in which he has moved away from the left-wing milieu that was his first political home and become increasingly conservative and pro-Israel (indeed he says that he abandoned the left because of its increasing disenchantment with Israel), one wonders what he would now make of his earlier effort some three decades .

Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) opens and closes with images of the capture and killing of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, illustrating Israel’s inability to protect its citizens abroad. It then reconstructs the actions of an assassination team assigned to kill the leaders of Black September, the Palestinian organization who carried out the massacre. After documenting a series of initial successes, reflecting the reality of their operations, the film goes on to portray the agents as bumbling and clumsy, failing to live up to Mossad’s global reputation. Mistakes, blunders, and errors recur throughout the film. The team are unduly reliant on a shadowy French outfit and its mob boss-like paterfamilias for logistical support. This leads to a mix-up – comic but potentially tragic – when both the Israelis and their Palestinian targets are billeted in the same safe house.

In the film, three of the original team of five members are killed; by the end of the film, the squad’s leader Avner (Eric Bana) has become an obsessive paranoid. Convinced that the Mossad wants him dead, he rejects Israel and abandons his homeland for the United States, suggesting that this part of the diaspora is the safest haven for Jews. The Mossad is depicted as an uncaring entity. Bana’s handler, played by Geoffrey Rush, cares much more for receipts than the team’s moral accounting.

Munich, with its considered focus on the efficacy of targeted assassinations—as practiced both by Israel and later, during the War on Terror, by the United States—is anything but a gung-ho celebratory affair. Co-written by Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Eric Roth, Munich explores (at a remove) the counterproductivity of counterterrorism in the age of the War on Terror, using the Israeli government’s response to the 1972 Munich massacre to make points about Israeli and American policy towards terrorism in the twenty-first century. The tone of the movie gets progressively darker, reflecting its protagonist Avner’s mental anguish about the morality of the mission. He becomes increasingly paranoid, fearing that the Mossad and not the Palestinians are out to kill him. The lingering final shot on the Twin Towers, thus evoking 9/11, is a clear visual pointer to the conclusion that such policies are ultimately counterproductive. The movie is also infused with a key human interest, food and cooking. Avner is a chef, and Spielberg equates being a butcher with butchery—as though what this Mossad team are doing is not moral. Many other visual cues point to this theme. The first assassination is captured, in vivid visual detail, by the mixing of blood and milk. The daughter of another target is shown wearing a bright red coat, implicitly equating her  with the little girl similarly clad in Spielberg’s Schinder’s List (1993)—the child whose death motivates Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) to rescue Jews from the death camps during the Holocaust.

Another complicating facet of Munich is that the team’s agents (the famous French actor and director Matthieu Kassovitz aside) are played by non-Jewish actors: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Ciaran Hinds. . It has to be said, though, that Bana plays a very convincing Israeli!

There are also films that poke fun at the tough Israeli spy. In You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008), Zohan Dvir, a former IDF counterterrorism operative (played by Adam Sandler), wants to give up fighting and become a hairdresser. He moves to New York and reinvents himself with hilarious consequences until his old life catches up with him. (Amongst other things, the movie proposes a use for hummus that one had not conceived of before.)

Israeli films are even harsher in their depictions of the Mossad. In Walk on Water (Eytan Fox, 2004), Mossad operative Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) moves from tough to impotent during the film. In the film’s opening sequences, he effortlessly assassinates a Hamas leader by injecting him with poison. By the end, paralyzed by doubt, he is unable to kill an elderly Nazi war criminal. Compounding his indecision, the deed is carried out by the Nazi’s gay grandson, Axel Himmelman (Knut Berger).

In the Israeli film Ha-Hov (Assaf Bernstein, 2007), three young Mossad agents are sent on a secret mission to capture and kill a notorious Nazi war criminal. When, three decades later, a man claiming to be the same Nazi resurfaces in Ukraine, it is revealed that not only did they fail in their original mission—the Nazi escaped, permanently scarring the hero in the process—but that they had covered up their failure for three decades. Ha-Hov has since been remade as an English-language film, The Debt (John Madden, 2010).

In the last decade or so, Israel has become a major source of ideas and intellectual property for international television; this has influenced the changing depiction of the Mossad and its personnel. The impact can be seen in a number of Hebrew-language original dramas, and their American remakes. The most prominent of these is Gideon Raff’s Hatufim / Prisoners of War, which aired on Israel’s Channel 2 from 2010 until 2012, and was remade as Homeland in the United States (2011-2020). In the American remake, the Mossad is transformed into the CIA, featuring the Jewish CIA operator Saul Berenson—played by the legendary Mandy Potemkin. There is also False Flag, made by Keshet International and originally aired on Israel’s Channel 2 in 2015. False Flag is loosely based on the story of the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, co-founder of the military wing of the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, in Dubai in January 2010.

One should also include Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff’s Netflix show Fauda (2015-) here. Given that the internal security services have received less attention than their more visible counterparts in the IDF and Mossad, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions about their representations on screen. Early signs, however, show that they, too, are as error-prone as the other fictional Mossad agents such as those in Munich.

The Israeli television action drama Mossad 101 / HaMidrasha (2015-2017) premiered on Channel 2 in October 2015. Part The Apprentice (the ongoing British reality television show, in which contestants are eliminated one by one) and part comedy-thriller, it follows a fictional training course for the Mossad, and the candidates undergoing the intensive training required to join the agency. It seemingly goes behind the scenes of the notoriously secretive service to reveal the different methods used by the Mossad to identify, sort, and recruit successful agents, as well as the moral difficulties attached to this profession. At the same time, it humanizes the Mossad and its trainees, turning them into ordinary citizens rather than faceless names.

The Spy, directed by Gideon Raff in 2019 is a Netflix series about the real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen. The title character is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, in one of his few non-comedic roles. Under the assumed identity of Kamel Amin Thaabet, he establishes himself in Syrian high society, from where he is able to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Syrian government under Amin al-Hafiz, becoming the chief advisor to the country’s of Defense. Hafiz was even preparing to appoint him as Syria’s defense minister. But, despite his considerable talent for espionage, Cohen displayed a tendency for carelessness, ignoring his Israeli handlers’ warnings against sending radio transmissions too frequently or always at the same time of day. That proved to be his downfall and, after taking one risk too many, he is unmasked and executed, leaving a mixed legacy—an operation of enormous audacity, initially a success but ending in his failure and death.

The most recent, and possibly the most implausible, of the fictional depictions of Israeli espionage agents, is Tehran, created by Moshe Zonder for Israel’s national broadcaster, Kan 11. Written by Zonder and Omri Shenhar and directed by Daniel Syrkin, the series premiered in Israel in June 2020 and was later given a global platform on Apple+. Tamar Rabinyan, an Israeli of Iranian origins, is sent on an undercover mission to the eponymous city to disable Iran’s air defences—making it possible for Israeli warplanes to bomb a nuclear plant and prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb. But Tamar stumbles from mistake to mistake. An impossible coincidence, too long to explain here, leads to her being spotted in an Iranian airport toilet by some Israeli tourists—setting Faraz Kamali, head of investigations of the Revolutionary Guards, on her trail. Later, she gets caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration which undermines her cover story. Her hijab slips during a moment of relaxation; when it is fixed, she gives an offensive “thumbs up” signal to a soldier, thus provoking him. Her fieldcraft training, one would have thought, should have ensured against this succession of slips-up.

At the end of the series [spoiler alert], it turns out that Tamar’s Mossad handler is actually a double agent working for the Iranians, and that Tamar—despite her errors—has been led into a trap. The goal is to convince her that she has succeeded in disabling the Iranian air defences, thus setting a trap for the Israeli warplanes to be sent to bomb the nuclear plant.

That the Mossad has an Iranian mole in its midst, actively working against Israeli’s interests, provides much meat for my argument about depictions of the diminishing inviolability of the Mossad. Television being television, a final plot twist ensures that (ratings allowing) a second season will be made. Despite the show’s implausibility, I am looking forward to this, because it is a thrilling ride and an addictive watch. Ironically, the real-life exploits of the Mossad in attempting to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat seem to be far more effective than their fictional counterparts. Might it be that television is issuing a warning?

We are seeing a questioning of Israel’s effectiveness, with these films and shows displaying a vulnerability and break down in the stereotype of Israeli machismo. It is a sign that the movies have moved from hasbara to helping us see Israel as just another country trying to defend itself, portraying its vulnerabilities. These images impugn the once-sacrosanct notion of Israeli efficiency, suggesting that the Israeli spy, as embodied by the Mossad agent, is not as one-dimensionally tough as presented in the past. There is no doubt that Israel, and specifically the Israeli secret service, is suffering on screen. No James Bond or Jack Bauer here. It is only in recent years that deep divisions among Jews across the world have become apparent, along with a decreasing sense of identification with Israel. As these trends deepen, along with the potential for a greater fragmentation of views within the diaspora, it will be interesting to see what happens next to the Mossad agent on screen.

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