The Honourable Woman, an eight-part spy thriller set in Britain, Israel and Palestine, has just finished airing on BBC2. A classy, beautifully shot, taut tale of espionage, counterespionage and intrigue, it left many viewers floundering in its labyrinthine plot. Without giving too much away, nearly everybody comes in for a bumpy ride: the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans. Given its origins in the UK, it is the British (mostly) who come out as the good guys and the Americans as the baddies. Between those two poles, the Israelis repeatedly fail to protect the Stein family, despite their Zionist leanings, including its patriarch and children, from kidnapping, rape, assassination, and bombings.
In refusing to uphold the mythos of Mossad, The Honourable Woman fits into a recent trend in which the reputation of the Mossad secret agent is tarnished.
As early as 1981 portraits of Israelis as suave assassins, villainous diplomats and manipulative undercover agents appeared in Eyewitness (Peter Yates, 1981) and The Little Drummer Girl (George Roy Hill, 1994), but these have increased in number much more recently.
In David Mamet’s police procedural, Homicide (1991), Israeli secret agents blackmail and double-cross a Jewish cop despite his assistance. Two ex-Mossad bodyguards assigned to protect a key character in Lucky Number Slevin (2006) fail in their duty and are outwitted and shot dead by a supposedly weak Diaspora Jew. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) pokes fun at the image of the Israeli super-agent who ultimately fulfills his dream by cutting and styling hair, as well as the ex-pat and ex-military Israelis who populate New York City.
Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) begins and ends with images of the capture and killing of the eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, illustrating Israel’s failure to protect its citizens abroad. The counter-assassination team assigned to kill the leaders of Black September responsible for the massacre, together with the larger organization of which it was a part, are not represented as being as efficient as Mossad’s global reputation suggests. Mistakes, blunders and errors recur throughout the film. The team are unduly reliant on a shadowy French outfit for their logistics, weapons, intelligence and safe houses that leads to one mix-up when both Israelis and Palestinians share a room for the night. Three of the original five members are killed, one at the hands of a female mercenary, which not only problematizes his masculine identity, but also in death his body is represented as passive and hence feminine, submissive and impotent. Another, Belgian bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is recruited without anyone realizing that his actual skill was in dismantling such devices. One bomb he makes is so large that an Israeli woman, honeymooning with her Lebanese husband in the next room to the target, is blinded in the explosion. Robert later dies when a bomb he is creating (accidentally?) explodes. Ultimately, the team are ineffectual against the hydra-like rise of terror and, by the end of the film, its leader Avner (Eric Bana) becomes an obsessive paranoid. Convinced that Mossad wants him dead, he rejects Israel, abandons his homeland for the United States, permanently relocating his family to Brooklyn, suggesting that this part of the Diaspora is the safest haven for Jews.
Given that they are at the forefront of the conflict, Israeli films are even harsher in their depictions. In Walk on Water (2004), Mossad operative Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) moves from tough to impotent during the course of the film. In the opening sequences we witness him effortlessly assassinate a Hamas leader by injecting him with poison. By the end of the film, however, literally paralyzed by doubt, he is unable to kill an elderly Nazi war criminal. Indeed, compounding his humiliation, the killing is carried out by the Nazi’s gay grandson.
Finally, in the British film, The Debt (John Madden, 2010) – a remake of the Israeli 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, thirty years later, a man claiming to be that Nazi surfaces in the Ukraine, it is revealed that not only did they fail in their original mission (the Nazi escapes and permanently scars the heroine) but also they covered up their failure for three decades.
Why is the image of the Israeli suffering on film and TV? There are a number of possible factors. Decreasing identification with Israel coincided with deep divisions among Diaspora Jews and Israelis, characterized by the growing political polarization between religious and secular visions of Israel’s future. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the First (1987-93) and Second Intifadas (2000-2005) in the occupied territories, Rabin’s assassination, the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Operation Cast Lead of 2008, and the current conflict in Gaza, the perception of the continuing intransigence of right-wing Israeli governments backed by zealous settlers and religious fanatics, led many Diaspora Jews to question their ties to the State. Many publicly refused to support uncritically the actions and policies of the Israeli government, creating deep and vocal rifts within Diaspora Jewry. This became particularly evident in the United States where non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders with many professing a near-total absence of positive feelings. Peter Beinart controversially wrote in 2010, ‘Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal’.
Overall, therefore, these images impugn the once-sacrosanct notion of Israeli efficiency and suggest that the Mossad agent is not as one-dimensionally tough as presented in the past.