Netflix's 'The Spy' slammed by Arabs after it's accused of being pro-Israel
While 'The Spy' and Sacha Baron Cohen's portrayal of Eli Cohen has drawn an overwhelmingly positive response on social media, users from countries like Syria, Egypt and Lebanon have criticized the streaming platform for its supposed pro-Israel bias in its content
Netflix's 'The Spy' has drawn an overwhelmingly positive reaction on social media since it aired September 6, with many praising Sacha Baron Cohen's dramatic turn as Eli Cohen, a Mossad agent in the 1960s. However, some Twitter users, mostly from the Arab world, have expressed outrage over what they see as pro-Israel content with a political agenda being aired on the streaming platform, according to a report in Gulf News.
The miniseries is based on the true story of the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who became Mossad's "Man in Damascus". From 1961 to 1965, he took on the identity of a wealthy Syrian businessman Kamel Amin Thaabet and successfully infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian political and military establishment.
US-based Netflix has been trying to develop local content based on the countries it is being streamed in. Part of this expansion has meant that there have been several Israel-centric projects with a political or military subtext over the years, such as 'Fauda’ (2016), 'Mossad 101' (2017), 'Hostages' (2016), 'The Angel’ (2018) and 'When Heroes Fly' (2018).
There are also other projects that concentrate on Jewish culture like the popular 'Shtisel'. In contrast, Netflix MENA (which airs in the Middle East and North Africa) doesn't have a high subscription base. Netflix released its first Arabic original series 'Jinn', a high school drama, with no political overtones, only in 2019. It has plans to release two other non-political Arabic originals, 'AlRawabi Schools For Girls' and the supernatural series 'Paranormal'.
Outraged Twitter heaped their ire on Netflix's 'The Spy'. Lebanon-born political activist Dyab Abou Jahjah tweeted "For those of you who are watching '#TheSpy' On Netflix. The story of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen. The [expletive] is caught and hanged at the end. Is this a spoiler? Well, I didn’t watch it. I know this from actual history. Now go watch something else than propaganda. You are welcome.”
Unlike conventional spy thrillers in the West like 'James Bond' that are often stripped of their political context and viewed as mere entertainment, TV series depicting Mossad agents or Israeli undercover agents are not viewed as just entertainment. In this tense region, battle lines are often drawn in the cultural and ideological space of on-screen depictions and representation, especially when they are "inspired" by true events like 'The Spy'.
Twitter user @Humayunhussain pointed to the volume of Netflix's Israel-centric content, saying: "They've just had two original Netflix movies about Mossad agents and their 'heroics' - 'Red Sea Diving Resort' and 'The Spy'. Far be it, they'll depict Muslims in a good light! Shame on Netflix!" A long thread of users replying to his tweet agreed with his point of view, like @Oneforsorrow87, who called 'The Spy' "pure Israeli propaganda".
Gideon Raff, the creator of 'The Spy', also helmed 'The Red Sea Diving Resort', a film about another Mossad agent who helped Ethiopian Jewish refugees escape to Israel, which starred Chris Evans. The film was released on Netflix July 31.
The Gulf News report quoted actor Khalid Al Farraj who accused Israel of using Netflix as “a drama platform through which they propose their heroism, history and imaginary intelligence, while we watch,” referencing Raff’s ‘Red Sea Diving Resort’. Another user, Officialstory6 went a step further and accused the streaming platform of being a mouthpiece of Zionist propaganda, tweeting: "Netflix produces so many pro-Israel Mossad spy thrillers that it can be treated as a Zionist propaganda media company?"
Besides 'The Spy' and 'The Red Sea Diving Resort', the other Netflix show that has drawn the ire of the Arab world, in particular, is 'The Angel’, about Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan, nicknamed ‘The Angel’ by Mossad. Egyptian journalist Soha Ibrahim retweeted a pro-Palestine user's comment about Netflix creating damaging Muslim stereotypes and labeled 'The Spy' and 'The Angel' "Mossad propaganda".
Syrian Amal Katrib tweeted: "Disappointing to see the limited scope of @Netflix's #TheSpy. It dwelled on the lifestyle's impact on the immediate family, failing to showcase the immense deceit felt by others and the debilitating downstream complications of said 'intelligence'."
Other users like @ChangeLebanon used sarcasm to point out how 'The Spy' portrayed its Arab characters, tweeting: "Watch 'The Spy” on Netflix and you will see how easy is to fool Arabs. #Elicohen played everyone and easily. #Arabs are just soft and rapidly tempted... bottle of wine, Rolex and a hot lady -- he will tell you everything he knows."
This latest storm of Twitter outrage adds to the streaming platform's missteps in the Middle East. Back in 2018, it stirred controversy when a Netflix production used a major street in Amman, Jordan, to portray a Tel Aviv street scene by putting up Hebrew-language street signs, cars with Israeli number plates and people dressed as Israel Defence Force soldiers.
The transformation of the location outraged Amman residents who wrote to Jordan's Royal Film Commission (RFC) demanding an explanation. In the letter, residents wrote: "This farce must be stopped. We won't stand for Amman being used to promote the Zionist enemy."
The streaming giant's attempt to enter the Middle East market with its first Arabic original 'Jinn', which premiered June 13 also backfired. The Jordanian production faced backlash from government agencies for its use of overt foul language and on-screen kissing which was not representative of the region's society and its cultural norms. Hopefully, the streaming platform will be able to navigate the waters of such Middle East dramas better in the future.