Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of famed Mossad agent Eli Cohen in the new Netflix miniseries “The Spy” is utterly amazing. It’s so good it’s almost painful.
But Baron Cohen’s talent as an actor aside, Cohen’s story seems almost too symbolic to be real. He was so heroic, so smart, so … Israeli. Which is likely why various reviews—and in particular Haaretz—have attacked the series.
“Finally,” read the Haaretz review, “here is a series that [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu may like.” Disgraceful!
Baron Cohen, famous for his comic characters such as Borat, Bruno and Ali G, brings Cohen to life with the seeming effortlessness only great actors can achieve. The series as a whole keeps the story taught, never pushing or slacking. The narrative has only one flaw: It ends badly. And we know it from the very first scene, in which Cohen pens a farewell message to his distant wife from his cell in Syria before being executed.
Eli Cohen was born in 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt. His family immigrated to the newly established State of Israel in 1949, but Eli stayed behind to complete his degree in electronics and to coordinate Jewish and Zionist activities in the country. He was arrested by the Egyptian authorities for these activities in 1951. While the Egyptian government was never able to prove it, he also participated in a number of covert Israeli operations in the country throughout the ’50s, until being expelled in 1956 together with many other Egyptian Jews.
In Israel, the simple but ambitious young man tries to join the Mossad, but is rejected. Later, Mossad director Meir Amit comes across his name while looking through the agency’s files on rejected candidates for someone suited to a very specific and very high-profile mission: infiltrating the Syrian government.
After evaluating him secretly for a time, the Mossad recruits Cohen and puts him through an extremely intense—and this comes through quite clearly in the film—six months of training.
Cohen is then given a false identity: Kamel Amin Taabet, a Syrian businessman returning to the country after living in Argentina. To establish his cover, he moved to Buenos Aires in 1961. While in Argentina he earned a great reputation as a Syrian patriot, benefactor and even party organizer, entertaining military figures, diplomats and the Syrian elite in order to win the friendship of Amin al-Hafez, who would go on to become president of Syria.
With his cover firmly established, Kamel finally moves to Syria, from where he is able not only to discover and transmit Syrian secrets to Israel (which we see him doing every night via a radio he kept in a closet and that in the end led to his discovery), but to actually create, through his influence in the increasingly important circles he moved in, realities useful to Israel.
For example, pretending concern for Syrian soldiers, he induced the Syrian authorities to plant shade trees at fortifications in the Golan Heights, enabling Israel to map their locations—knowledge that would prove critical in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Meanwhile, his wife, the beautiful Iraqi Jewish immigrant Nadia Majald, to whom our hearts go out to throughout the series, raises their three children completely on her own.
Commenting on the series, Nadia has expressed some dissatisfaction due to inaccuracies, but overall her criticism has been quite mild. In addition, she has said that anything that puts her husband’s story back in the public eye is good as it increases the chances his remains may one day be returned to Israel. Because the Syrians have not yet done so, and it’s easy to understand why: The immensity of Cohen’s accomplishments embarrasses them to no end.
While obviously focused on Cohen, “The Spy” also manages to give viewers a more general understanding of the Israeli spirit and of the tightropes the country must walk with respect to its many enemies. (Finally, after so many films in which Israel apologizes or makes excuses for defending itself!)
Actor Noah Emmerich, known for his role in the series “The Americans,” portrays Eli Cohen’s Mossad handler Dan Peleg in the series. While obviously thrilled with Cohen’s incredible achievements, Emmerich’s Peleg is at the same time increasingly concerned by the risks Cohen is taking. This conflict between pride and fear is typical of Israel; proud of what you have achieved and preserved on the one hand, but fearing for the safety of your loved ones and friends on the other.
Another dominant theme of the series is that of self-sacrifice. Portraying Cohen back at home with his mother and wife, and later on the verge of execution, Baron Cohen shows us with consummate skill Cohen’s acute mental confusion due to living two separate lives for so long. In a very real way, Cohen gave not only his life for his country, but his very soul.
In 1964, during one of his rare visits home, Cohen tells his handlers he wants out; Syrian counter-intelligence is closing in. He is nevertheless sent back to Syria, where his true identity is soon discovered. From here the series deals briefly with his torture, condemnation without trial, and his wife’s fruitless efforts for international assistance.
Syria was furious and humiliated. The revelation that Kamel Amin Taabet was in fact an Israeli spy rendered the entire Syrian elite speechless. How was it possible? How could this Israeli Jew have so deeply penetrated Syria’s highest echelon?
And this is but one of many “impossible” operations Israel has pulled off over the years, including “Operation Entebbe,” the Six-Day War itself, the capture and bringing to trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and more recently, the spiriting out of Iran of the Islamic Republic’s entire nuclear archive, to name just a few.
These stories, and Cohen’s, are a testament to the creative resilience of 3,000-year-old people who has persevered in the face of every form of persecution and whose very survival is nothing less than a miracle.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translated by Amy Rosenthal.