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I grew up hearing about Eli Cohen through my involvement within the Religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva. His grainy black and white photo was in our camp song book where there was a song about him. We were told how he was a spy, and how he was instrumental in providing information that helped the State of Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. But that was it.
I was excited to see Netflix had commissioned a 6-part miniseries on Eli Cohen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Coming on the back of incredible Jewish/Israeli stories like Operation Finale and Red Sea Diving Resort which both showed the incredible sacrifices made by ordinary Israelis to right the wrongs of history. Why a story like the capture of Eichmann, or the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, or even that of Eli Cohen is of interest to a multinational corporation like Netflix, or its audience, still boggles me. But as a Jewish member of the audience, it is inspiring to see parts of our story displayed for the world to see.
What struck me most about The Spy were the sacrifices not only of Eli himself, but also of his handlers, his superiors, and his wider family, but most importantly his wife Nadia. She lost her husband in the most extraordinary way – both in life and death.
In life, as The Spy depicts, Eli slowly but surely became so immersed in his alter-ego, Kamel Amin Thaabet, that in his visits home he found it difficult to assume his normal identity. Eli, as The Times of Israel stated was “a daring Israeli agent who embedded himself in the upper echelons of Syrian society in the 1960s and provided crucial intelligence to the Jewish state.” So charismatic was he, that he almost became the Deputy Minister of Defence at a time of imminent danger from Syria to Israel. You can see the emotional trials this erosion of his true personality had on his wife Nadia (played by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem who also appeared in Homeland and Prisoners of War) throughout the 6 hour-long episodes.
In death, Nadia has had to live everyday campaigning for the return of her husband. Marking the 50th anniversary of Cohen’s death in 2015, Nadia addressed a memorial dedicated to her husband, saying: “Do not forget where Eli lies. He is not with us. I ask, on this special occasion, that you do all you can to bring him home, to the country for which he fought, and paid for with his life.”
Netflix has done a great service to Eli’s memory, and the sacrifices of Nadia, their children, and all other bereaved families. A series like this allows their collective heroism to not just be nationalistic, but to be adopted by a new audience.
Watch The Spy on Netflix
About the author – Rabbi Alon Meltzer
As a father, rabbi, and sociologist, Jewish community is everything to Alon Meltzer. Currently he serves as Director of Programs at Shalom and Rabbi of Or Chadash Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.
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