I’m amazed by the Israeli undercover agents depicted in the Netflix series “Fauda” who infiltrate Palestinian cities and speak in perfect, unsuspicious Arabic. Even accounting for the Arabic-speaking backgrounds of some of these “mista’aravim,” it still seems like a miraculous linguistic achievement.
I mean, I don’t think I could infiltrate Canada, and we speak the same language.
The ability of Hebrew-speaking Jews to pass as Arabic or Farsi speakers is key not only to “Fauda” but to two other hit series, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Spy” (on Netflix) and the new Israeli export “Tehran” (Apple TV+). In “The Spy,” Baron Cohen plays the real-life agent Eli Cohen, the Egyptian-born Israeli who infiltrated the Syrian hierarchy in the 1960s. In “Tehran,” the Mossad sends a young female agent from an Iranian Jewish family into Iran to sabotage its nuclear program.
All three series build suspense around the protagonists’ ability to “pass.” In “Fauda,” an agent blows his cover by mentioning the wrong chicken dish. In “The Spy,” the bad guy is a Syrian intelligence chief who doesn’t buy Cohen’s playboy-businessman act but can’t quite figure out why – until he does. (At times he reminded me of Larry David when he leans in for a staring contest with a friend he suspects is lying.)
But mostly the agents get away with it, and that’s when things get most interesting. Often they develop what appear to be real relationships with the people they are spying on, at times blurring professional lines. At least twice in “Fauda,” the protagonist, Doron, has to betray a Palestinian with whom he seems to have formed a deep connection.
You can watch all three shows as simple thrillers and appreciate the heroic and sometimes morally reckless lengths to which Israel must go to protect itself. But I see something else: a subconscious Jewish yearning for acceptance in a region that has long rejected Israel. Because when the characters aren’t shooting or torturing each other, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Undercover work is its own form of empathy, however cynical. “Fauda” depicts a reality in which an Israeli Jew can pose all day as a Palestinian boxing coach and at night slip back over the Green Line to sleep in his own bed. If the Arabs and Iranians ever stopped hating us (and vice versa), the shows suggest, both sides might see that other boundaries are easily crossed.
Some Israelis and Palestinians dismiss “Fauda” as a glorification of Israeli misrule in the territories, but the series shows enough bad behavior on both sides that a viewer from Mars might have trouble picking a team. That too is a form of boundary-blurring.
All three series also remind you that Israel isn’t a European “colonial” project but a nation now with a majority of Mizrachi Jews with roots in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Writer Matti Friedman has called this new Israel a “continuum of Judaism in the Muslim world.” The shows suggest that old hatreds aside, the national cultures aren’t as far apart as they seem. Beneath the violence and mayhem are glimpses of common ground – the way the European Union dissolved warring nations into a zone of common political, economic and cultural interests.
Which brings me to the United Arab Emirates and its blooming normalization with Israel. In a different era – that is, one without a global pandemic, a national racial crisis and a U.S. president banking on chaos as a campaign strategy – it would and should have been a much bigger story. True, the UAE is a relatively minor and distant player in the scheme of things. The normalization agreement doesn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and could even increase intransigence on both sides.
But it does suggest a different story, one that hasn’t been heard in the Middle East. It creates a sense of possibility, symbolic perhaps but still potent, of Arabs and Jews in some kind of accord. As David Horovitz put it in the Times of Israel, “for the first time, an Arab state — and a thriving, influential Arab state at that — is telling its people, ours, and the world that it is not merely resigned to our existence, or prepared to tolerate us, but inclined to actually like us. Israel. The Jewish state.”
A cynic might point out this is less a lovefest than an arranged marriage: The UAE, like its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, shares with Israel a self-interest in countering the influence of Iran. When it comes to pleasing the United States, money and jet fighters speak louder than pan-Arab solidarity.
And yet, the UAE’s gesture is one that emboldens Israelis on both sides of the political divide. Hawks see it as vindication of a policy that says you don’t need to solve the conflict with the Palestinians in order to win over Israel’s neighbors. And doves say normalization shows that Israel’s real existential threat is not from the “Arab world” but from the consequences of an unjust occupation.
(Ami Ayalon, whose new book describes his evolution from the head of Shin Bet to one of Israel’s most outspoken proponents of a two-state solution, has another view: The UAE agreed to ties because Israel suspended its West Bank annexation plans. “This is what we have been saying for 27 years, at least: We should make some concessions on the Palestinian issue so we can make a better reality and be accepted by our neighbors,” he told me for an article I am writing about his memoir.)
All these interpretations can be true: Israelis on the right and left yearn for “normalization,” at least on their own terms. Until it comes, the sublimations of television spy dramas will have to do.
Andrew Silow-Carroll, @SilowCarroll, is editor in chief of The Jewish Week.