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Mossad and Morality on Film

Most films conform to conventions that reflect the attitudes of their filmmakers, and films about the Mossad, or Israel Secret Intelligence Service (its current name), are no different.  Hollywood's latest Mossad movie—The Debt, featuring a star-studded cast including Helen Mirren—is a well-acted exploration of Israeli intelligence failures, moral ambiguities, and, of course, Jewish guilt.

Relevant Links
How the Mossad Operates  Dan Yahkin, Globes. The agency invests heavily in people and in technology; failures are the exception to the rule.
Zohan and the Quest for Jewish Utopia  Michael Oren, Azure. Adam Sandler’s hit comedy reflects a deep divide between Israeli and American Jews. (PDF)
Dear Mr. Spielberg  Calev Ben-David, Jerusalem Post. The former Mossad chief who oversaw the operation dramatized in Spielberg’s Munich takes the filmmaker to task for his poor research methods.      

The story of The Debt begins in East Berlin in 1965.  Three Mossad agents—David, Stefan, and Rachel—are closing in on a Nazi war criminal, a gynecologist with a particularly loathsome past.  The team's mission is to capture him and transport him to Israel for trial. To entrap him, Rachel becomes one of his patients.

The three Mossad agents become famous for capturing the doctor, and thirty years after the event, Rachel's daughter writes a book about their triumph.  But the book's publication threatens to reveal the fact that there was no triumph in East Berlin: Instead, the mission went violently awry.  It falls to Rachel to try to repair the damage.

Intelligence operatives tend to appear in American popular culture as a limited number of types.  Most popular are the amoral supermen ruthlessly dedicated to their craft (with perhaps a touch of redeeming irony, like James Bond) or lost souls who are radically alienated from their previous lives and grasping for a moral center, like Jason Bourne.  There are also more human spy types—working-class stiffs, like Harry Palmer of The IPCRESS File, or the terminally world-weary, like Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  

As for the spymasters, they are cynical and amoral—if occasionally brilliant and charming, like George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  They are pictured as implementing either perverse government policies or their own rogue operations.  Regret and failure are common enough; but, with few exceptions, emotional depth is not a hallmark of the writing or acting in spy movies.  And in serious films and literature, supermen are often fated to be brought down to earth. 

Thus, film spies are frequently called upon to face Nazis or terrorists; and an occupational hazard of such pursuit is regression to the moral mean.  The bad guys get humanized: Nazis are softened by age, and terrorists expound the justice of their actions.  The hunters, meanwhile, become brutalized, forced to face the effects of revenge and violence on their souls.  Moral parity or even moral inversion can result.

Israeli agents on American screens present more extreme pictures of the general types and dilemmas.  Some Israeli operatives are two-dimensional super-warriors.  Tough Israeli bodyguards abound.  On NCIS, the improbable ex-Mossad agent Ziva David—whose father, of course, is head of Mossad, and who has joined the U.S. Navy criminal investigation branch to liberate herself from her past—is a one-woman army, full of secrets. She is the most positive recurring Israeli character on American television.  And then there is Adam Sandler.  There have been multiple movies about the heroic Israeli raid on Entebbe, but the real-life commandos pale before the comic apotheosis of the Israeli hero in Sandler's You Don't Mess with the Zohan.

On the other hand, Israeli agents who are portrayed as less than heroic experience not only failure or regret but extreme inner conflict.  This treatment holds true whether the author or filmmaker is Israeli or American.  Israeli authors, notably Amos Oz and David Grossman, also regularly engage in the torment of their protagonists, many of whom are in or on the verge of flight from the world or from themselves.  Unmitigated success—much less happiness—is never an option for Israelis in serious film or literature; the life-and-death predicaments and secrets of spies are perfect for dramatizing such a perspective.  (One would never know from Israeli films and literature that opinion polls, for whatever they are worth, consistently show Israelis as among the happiest people on earth.)

The 2004 Israeli film Walk on Water is an example of this genre.  The protagonist, an Israeli agent fighting inner demons, succumbs to compassion and fails in his mission against an elderly Nazi war criminal.  It is, finally, the Nazi's grandson who faces his grandfather's evil and acts to end it.  In 2005, Steven Spielberg's Munich created the archetypal tormented Israeli agent: Avner, leader of a team tasked with killing the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the 1972 massacre of members of the Israeli Olympic team in that city.  As the team experiences failures, Avner is overcome by suspicions and doubts and ultimately abandons life in Israel.  The inner and outer collateral damage of revenge becomes the main thrust of the plot.

The Debt, like the 2007 Israeli film on which it is based, explores the failures and inner conflicts of Israeli intelligence operatives.  The Nazi in the film is appropriately evil, a fitting target for punishment.  But the focus is on the Israeli agents and the price they pay.  Their mission and secrets corrode their souls. Justice is ultimately done in The Debt, but the insidious deceit spanning 30 years is punished as well.

The film also raises more radical issues of moral inversion.  The Nazi doctor in The Debt taunts his captors with statements about the passivity of Jews going to their death in the camps—echoing George Steiner's 1976 novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., in which Hitler himself argues that Nazism and the Holocaust were the fruit of the Jews and their God.  Is such moral inversion a goal of The Debt?  Probably not.  Is the question meaningfully raised by the film?  Almost certainly not.  Is it an unthinking provocation thrown out by the filmmakers against the viewers and the past?  Or a mere device in the service of filmic drama?

Viewers of The Debt are left with troubling questions.  But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in this movie, as in other movies about Israel made for Western audiences, these questions are based on the filmmakers' assumptions—assumptions about the existence of a Jewish guilt complex, the pervasiveness of secrets undermining the legitimacy of the protagonists' larger intentions, and the common cinematic belief that guilty consciences lead to redemption, or at least enlightenment.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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A. Schreiber on September 7, 2011 at 10:06 am (Reply)
Meh. Same old, same old. Israeli spy suddenly wondering who's right after all. We've seen it a million times, including (one which the author forgets) The Sword of Gideon, back in 1986. It's such a Hollywood fictional convention. Comparable, actually, to the fictional convention, also present here, of the tough-yet-beautiful female who is somehow capable of beating up men ("kicking butt", it is always referred to) who outweigh her by 100 pounds.
Sam on September 7, 2011 at 12:08 pm (Reply)
Joffe's offers a nice exposition of this particular movie genre, but he doesn't make his argument until the end and then just leaves it. The "so what" factor is seriously missing here.
maruli aritonang (from indonesia) on September 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm (Reply)
It is written "The bad guys get humanized: Nazis are softened by age, and terrorists expound the justice of their actions.  The hunters, meanwhile, become brutalized, forced to face the effects of revenge and violence on their souls.  Moral parity or even moral inversion can result." In Indonesia, the media(s) usually call this human rights harassment; which means that as if no justice can be done to such crime. The NGO (non government organizations) always defend the rights of the criminal and even blame government officer (police, judge, etc) for accusing or giving punishment for such crime, especially terrorism.
Dr. Fein on September 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm (Reply)
What an outrage. Why aren't Jews allowed their justice by Hollywood? Or by their own cinema? Since this is a remake of an Israeli film, I think we have to ask whether or not there actually *is* a Jewish guilt complex that prevents us from celebrating our victories fully.....Of course, we are enjoined not to rejoice in the deaths of our enemies by the Torah itself, and perhaps that very Jewish value is at the center of much of our soul searching when we finally obtain a victory, or some sort of justice in cases like this. As Jews, I think we tend for a deeper point to things--and simply as human beings, we seek to defend our loved ones against danger--and to defend ourselves against madness when we are forced to kill in the defense of those we love. Surely it cannot be the case that Jews are the only ones who may be troubled when they are sent out on assassination missions? And surely, not all are troubled by such missions.

These films remind me of the spate of post-Vietnam movies about the troubled GI's that came back to the US. . . . A way of patronizing, exoticizing, marginalizing, and ultimately dehumanizing the GI's -- all in the service of a political message about the war and about the government.
Simon on September 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm (Reply)
The Israeli secret service is very efficient.
walter rand on September 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm (Reply)
There is a Yiddish expression that describes the phenomenon of remorse and self-flagellation that the characters of these type of movie genres experience:
[seh verginnen sich nicht die recht zu tun wie andere folker tun, wenn es kommt zu nekomen die schrechlichkeiten eingesezt oif Yidden"] [they do not feel self deserving of the right to do as other peoples do, when it comes to avenging the horrors inflicted on Jews.] Consider the attitude of the majority of nations who massacred millions of people over the history of mankind who showed no remorse for their actions after the end of their conflicts, e.g. where are the apologies and self-incrimination, and self-flagellation, and remorse expressed as a national apology to the victims of the Crusades, invasions of numerous countries and the slaughter that followed, the apology for the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I and II, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, the slaughter carried out by the tribes in the Congo. Japan's apology to the U.S. for Pearl Harbor and our apologies to Japan for dropping the atom bombs on them. Do the North Vietnamese apologize or agonize over the horrors they inflicted on the South Vietnamese?, etc. etc. etc.
I have yet to see any national remorse from any of these sources, nor have I seen any movies, or literature in their media expressing regret for what they did. These movie makers who cast Jewish revenge as a regrettable and self-destructive phenomenon on the avengers should approach it as a force to be reckoned with in hopes that it may prevent future calamities for the Jewish people.
Jacob on September 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm (Reply)
It's not Israeli literature -- or Israeli film -- it is Jewish. The troubled warrior is fundamentally Jewish. Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, they all go back and forth and run the line of morality. Even in the Rape of Dina when Jacob curses his sons, they respond, "but should our sister be treated like a whore?" Jewish culture stems from Talmudic culture, which if anything proves there is no black-and-white. I'm proud that we can be honest about our emotions. I think the Nazi's speech is accurate to his character -- which is what he is missing, HUMANITY. Jews fought for humanity and won, this is a bad thing? These stories are not of guilt, it's of ethics, it's of humanity, it is quintessential Jewishness and when we shy away from that we are, as David said in the film, animals -- we are not animals, by following in the Jewish culture we affirm our humanity despite what any Nazi spits in our face. There is a reason the Jews have survived, because our way of thinking cannot be destroyed as it is more powerful than the fascist take by power approach, we take by idea; and yes, when in history we must react with violence, we are almost broken. This is not a weakness, emotional honesty is a strength. Let's keep it up.
Len on September 7, 2011 at 11:48 pm (Reply)
I agree with Alex when he says "Most films conform to conventions that reflect the attitudes of their filmmakers, and films about the Mossad, or Israel Secret Intelligence Service (its current name), are no different." However, I view the filmmakers attitude towards Israel, the Mossad, Jews and America quite differently than Alex. The filmmakers showed Mossad agents as incompetents and liars. It showed Israel Mossad as helpless and lacking courage and innovation; and showed America as more concerned with public opinion than bringing a mass murderer to justice. I don't believe any of his. I don't believe the Mossad would leave its agents with a Nazi in their hands without a plan as to what to do with him. This was a manipulative, anti-Israel film, made to make Israel look bad, and Jews weak. And in general I do not go for fictional Holocaust films. I think they are an insult to those who lived through it.
Lawrence of Bessarabia on September 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm (Reply)
After looking forward to seeing this film I felt disappointed and somewhat betrayed for the very reasons enumerated by Len.

If the Jewish protagonists feel guilty about what they are doing it plants a seed in the the mind of the viewer that they did something morally reprehensible.

The actions of Mossad agents and subsequent rationalizations should be viewed through the cinematic prism of their gestation i.e. "Defiance" and "Schindler's List."
Peretz KRAICER on October 25, 2011 at 3:23 am (Reply)
I have just become aware of your newsletter, after several decades of reading on the Internet. It is a treat not to be compared, disparagingly, to our--Israel's--neighbours. I look forward to following your daily editions. כה לחיי.

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