January 28, 2013
TV's NCIS on those Sinister IsraelisBy Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Israelis portrayed on CBS's long running series NCIS -- the Israelis who are not "Americanized," anyway -- are becoming become more and more sinister. Since NCIS is one of the top-rated television programs in America, anyone concerned about Middle East policy, let alone fairness to the State of Israel, ought to be aware of how Israelis are being treated on this show.
Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), former Mossad agent working with NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) has turned American citizen and NCIS agent, largely out of rebellion against her Israeli father, Eli David (Michael Nouri), the head of Mossad. Eli always seems to sacrifice the interests of his own daughter to his sense of the security needs of the State of Israel.
In the January 8, 2013 episode, "Shabbat Shalom," written by Christopher J. Waild, Ziva's father awaits her in her car and tells her that no one knows that he is in America, that he has not even brought body guards. Ostensibly pouring on an Israeli version of stereotypical Jewish guilt, and addressing her as a third person, he laments, "My daughter has made no effort to visit me [for] the last two years, so I must go to her. I am here for you, Ziva."
Ziva is suspicious of his intentions, but is also worried that his enemies will try to kill him. He promises her that his intentions are honorable, after she asks whether seeing her was his only motive for coming. He assures her that he has come to the States only to mend fences with her. At a later meeting he tells Ziva that he is considering retirement and hopes to make up for his past bad decisions as a father when he is free of his Mossad responsibilities. But she is still skeptical, wondering aloud in his presence whether he is confusing retiring with repenting, and adding that only the latter matters to her. Eli responds with some cryptic reference to taking steps to his redemption.
Dutiful NCIS agent that she is, Ziva informs her commander, Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) of her dad's presence. Gibbs in turn tells his boss, Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll), who has had a good but strained relationship with Eli David. While he admires Eli somewhat, Vance is skeptical about his old friend, noting that Eli David is on his way out in a changing political climate and that he may be regarded as "too old school" in his own country which is now looking for "accountability." (Did Israelis not care about that before?) Vance adds that with the world on the verge of a nuclear war, the last thing needed is Eli David "poking the bear with a stick."
Vance soon discovers that the head of Iranian intelligence, Arash Kazmi (Nasser Faris), is also in Washington. Vance and Gibbs are worried that Eli wants to prove that he is still an "asset" to the Israeli government by taking out a high level Iranian target. They confront Eli in Ziva's presence, and Eli, who has obviously counted on this very scenario, brings Vance, Gibbs and Ziva to Kazmi's hotel room.
Kazmi and Eli reminisce about being friends while growing up, in Eli's words, on different sides of "the Israeli-Palestine" border. (One wonders what border the show's staff is referencing, let alone by what sanction they have declared "Palestine" to be a country.) Writer Waild depicts the two men as genuinely committed to fostering "open, honest dialogue" despite their polar differences. Yet he has Eli observe, "If either of our nations knew, we would both be dead." Is the implication here that the Israeli government would be as ruthless as the Iranian government if it learned that one of its officials was in personal dialogue with an official of an enemy nation? Or is the suggestion that there are militants on both sides who would assassinate dissenters? Or possible assassins among vast segments of each population?
Eli wants Vance, who has "stopped taking my calls," to use his political moxie to ensure that Eli remain in office long enough to advance detente. Vance agrees, and invites his old friend Eli and daughter Ziva to Friday night dinner. Vance and his spirited wife Jackie (Paula Newsome) had planned a romantic evening without the children, but Jackie, a good sport, prepares a traditional Shabbat dinner.
In order to protect his peace mission, Eli has killed a tabloid journalist who photographed his arrival in America. Writer Waild does see that it is noted twice that the murder was accidental, though Eli did try to dispose of the body in the Potomac. Ziva finds out about her father's murderous act, confronting him before entering the Vance home, and joining him only to fulfill his request for one last Shabbat dinner together. About to recite Hebrew prayers, Eli says that "the purpose of all these traditions is to always remind us of what God has given -- life, freedom and family."
Unable to bear her father's pious (hypoctrical?) sentiments after he had committed and covered up a murder, Ziva storms out of the house to inform Gibbs by phone of her father's deeds. Just after that, a sniper riddles the home with bullets, killing Ziva's father and Vance's wife, Jackie, a lovely character.
I have to confess that for more than a moment, the episode had me angry about Eli's deceptions and about his bringing death to the door of an innocent African American woman. Then I wondered whether writer Waild had considered that Ziva had been irresponsible in not telling Gibbs right away that she had recognized her father's hat and coat in a photograph retrieved from the camera of the dead journalist, or that the correct protocol would have been for Vance and Gibbs to have seized Eli David and Arash Kazmi for their own protection.
In order to bring "resolution" to this situation, the series turns to three writers, Waild, Scott A. Williams and Gary Glasberg, for the January 15 episode, "Shiva." It begins with a scene in which Ziva, in deep mourning over her father's death, is standing in a synagogue sanctuary, praying aloud: "Why should I not be angry,[what] with all that has been taken? Why should I have faith in You? Show me a sign that I should not lose hope." Her colleague Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) has been tailing her lest she do something rash (characteristically Israeli?). He expresses his condolences as soon as she eyes him, and Ziva tells him that sympathy is the last thing that she wants, that what she needs is revenge.
In all fairness to the writers, they do not indulge much in the vengeful Jew canard. True, their Israeli-American woman wants vengeance, and understandably so. But Director Vance, who has just lost his wife, is also made to say that he wants justice in a way he never wanted it before. Note the contrast in the language, however, and also in the world view, for he adds immediately, even in his grief, that Jackie would not have wanted war to break out "over this," that if war breaks out, "she dies in vain."
Ziva's personal grief is compounded, aside from the unresolved issues with her father, because she must behave as though he had not died, lest war break out between Iran and Israel before all the facts are in. Jewish mourning practices are given brief deference as Medical Examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum) sympathetically tells Ziva that he understands that Jewish tradition calls for the remains to be released as soon as possible, and that he will do all he can to help.
It turns out that the assassin was a Swedish mercenary with terminal cancer who was willing to die as long as his wife and son were compensated. (The writers make a point of having the terrorist tell Ziva, who pursued and shot him, "I did not expect you to come after me rather than checking on your father.") At first, the NCIS crew suspects, and maybe even hopes as the least of all possible war triggers, that responsibility for the murders rests with a Pro-Palestinian, anti-Mossad organization founded by a Swedish-American Texas oil magnate.
Though Ziva stays at Tony DiNozzo's home out of concerns that she may also be a target, she is hunted down and contacted over the internet by her deceased father's protégé, Ilan Bodner (Oded Fehr), who threatens: "Don't make me find you. You know I can and will." Bodner, who comes across right away as rude, angry and aggressive -- and later, as an out-and-out war monger -- does not want to leave the investigation to NCIS. He immediately seeks to blame the Palestinians or the Iranians. When urged to show restraint by Gibbs and by the acting director, Bodner proclaims that "Eli David may have died on American soil, but the blood in his veins pumped through a heart that belonged to Israel. I make no promises."
It should be noted that the writers have Bodner speak in almost racist terms. They also have Kazmi the Iranian describe Bodner as "arrogant and ill-tempered. Eli could teach him nothing but to be suspicious of everyone, trained by the best." Gibbs quickly discovers, with the help of a Hebrew lesson by Ziva, that Bodner wired the money to the Swedish assassin in order to kill his Israeli mentor so that the Eli's former policies would prevail! Kazmi is blown up in his car, along with his entourage (or innocent American drivers?). The clear message is that a bad young Israeli killed an older Israeli who was having a change of heart and then kills an older Iranian with a similar change of heart, and is responsible for the death of a kind African American wife and mother who prepared a Shabbat meal for her husband's Israeli friends.
True, the writers are careful to have Kazmi observe that his own countrymen would kill him if they knew about his plan. But the moral of this story is definitely that Eli David may not be so "old school" after all in that younger Israelis are even more militant when it comes to provoking a war with Iran. The issue of Iran's nuclear weapons timetable is not discussed here. The implication of this episode is that one bad Israeli can do more damage right now than bad Iranian policies.
Am I being oversensitive in my interpretation?
It would seem that NCIS has not been kind to Israelis in the past, especially Israeli men, in the Ziva David story lines. When we first meet Ziva, in September 2005 at the beginning of the third of ten seasons of NCIS, her mission is to retrieve a Mossad agent named Ari Haswari (Rudolf Martin). Viewers know that Ari killed agent Caitlin Todd (Sasha Alexander), a beloved member of the NCIS crew, just to pain Gibbs, who reminds Ari of his Israeli father. The Israeli father, a Dr. Weinstein, impregnated a Palestinian physician and then abandoned her, for the purpose of having a child who could infiltrate the Palestinian community. He groomed the offspring, Ari, to be a mole in Hamas after having Ari's mother killed in a "retaliatory" strike.
Writers David P. Bellisario, co-creator of the series, and John Kelley kept loyal viewers wondering all that summer whether Ari, who had one point targeted American military wives and children, was working for the Israelis or Hamas or was some kind of mercenary. Their Dr. Weinstein is none other than the Deputy Director of Mossad, who also happens to be Ziva's father, ostensibly by his Israeli wife. Ziva cares about her half-brother (half-Hamas brother?), but when Ari is about to murder Gibbs, Ziva kills Ari, and then chants Hebrew over her brother's body, as she will later do for her father. Apparently, the series writing staff later Hebraized Dr. Weinstein's name to Eli David in order to focus on the Ziva David character who became very popular. To make Dr. Weinstein (and Ziva) more sympathetic, the writers disclose that Ziva's little sister Tali was killed in a Hamas suicide bombing.
The Israeli men on NCIS do not need to be members of the Weinstein family in order to become ruthless-killers. Is it a cultural predisposition? In the last four episodes of the 2008-9 season, co-creators Bellisario and Don McGill, with Shane Brennan and Jesse Stern, have Ziva secretly meeting with an Israeli operative, Michael Rivkin (Merik Tadros), whom her father sends to exploit Ziva's liaison position with NCIS, and perhaps to breed him a grandchild. Ziva struggles with her loyalties to Rivkin, now her boyfriend, to the State of Israel, and to the NCIS crew, even as we learn that Rivkin has been leading a terrorist cell so that he can kill its members on American soil, and has also been pretending to be the boyfriend of a young woman from a family of Arab Muslim immigrants, whose terrorist brother Rivkin has killed.
In the May 12, 2009 episode, "Semper Fidelis," written by Jesse Stern, DiNozzo, who is protective of Ziva, and Rivkin fall into a Twelve O'Clock High bravado. The cocky and cold-blooded Rivkin tells Tony, "You can question my feelings for Ziva. Unfortunately, you can't question her feelings for me." Tony replies that "NCIS" says that Rivkin has spent enough time with Ziva and enough time killing terrorists in the United States, and that he had better take the next flight out of Ronald Reagan. When Tony comes to Ziva's apartment to question her about use of her email account (perhaps by Rivkin?), he finds Rivkin there and places him under arrest for killing a terrorist and a United States operative. They fight.
Returning home and seeing some kind of violent struggle through her apartment window, Ziva rushes in to find Tony badly injured and Rivkin near dead. In the 2009 cliffhanger, entitled "Aliyah," broadcast on May 19 and written by David J. North, she follows them to the hospital where Rivkin, whose last words to her are, "I'm sorry," expires. DiNozzo does not apologize, but he clearly regrets what has happened. It is revealed that Rivkin's alcohol level was twice the legal driving limit -- a suggestion that the fight was really a draw even though Rivkin died? Ziva pronounces no Hebrew rituals over Rivkin because, as she puts it, "Michael was Jewish by birth, not by practice."
Ziva's father summons the entire unit to Israel for questioning, and Director Vance allows it. Defiant when questioned by Eli, DiNozzo rocks the Mossad chief when he asks, "What kind of father would throw an out of control assassin at his own daughter?" DiNozzo's remark provokes Eli to bear down on the arm injured in DiNozzo's fight with Rivkin. Yet he gets Eli to admit that Rivkin was doing his will and may not have been as "out of control" as everyone thought, including Ziva, who was loyal to NCIS after all, and had been trying to get Rivkin recalled as a renegade operative.
That season ended with Ziva feeling betrayed that her father did not share all the details of Rivkin's mission with her. Eli David provides his African American counterpart, Director Leon Vance, with Rivkin's information about North African terrorists. He immediately dispatches his daughter Ziva on a dangerous mission to Samalia, where she becomes a prisoner of a murderous terrorist cell, who demand: "Tell us everything you know about NCIS."
At the beginning of the 2009-10 season, Ziva is rescued by NCIS colleagues Tony DiNozzo and Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), dispatched by their commander Gibbs. In the second episode, "Reunion," written by Steven D. Binder, Ziva breaks with her father, who had put her in harm's way, and bonds with her surrogate father, Gibbs, assimilating fully into American life. The character herself becomes more likable and less sinister in the process of "de-Israelization." Ziva forgives Tony for killing Michael Rivkin and confesses to Gibbs that upon her arrival as a Mossad agent, her assignment (from her father) was to kill her brother in order to gain Gibbs's trust. She wants to make clear, however, that she had to kill her brother to protect him from being killed by others(!). (If this is not a dysfunctional worldview, nothing is.) Yet Ziva confides that when she finally pulled the trigger on her brother it was to save Gibbs' life, not because of orders. She declares to Gibbs that he is "the closest thing that I have to a father."
I wondered in the past where NCIS was going with such story lines. Now, I suppose, we know. The leaders of the State of Israel, according to NCIS, are into breeding decoy Palestinians rather than engaging in negotiation, and into motivating their own children to become ruthless killing machines dedicated to thwarting any peace efforts that would impede that vocation.
Elliot B. Gertel, Rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago, has been film and TV reviewer for the "National Jewish Post and Opinion" (Indianapolis), since 1979. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism.
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