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Jews in Pop-culture: a Critical Examination Part II

July 9, 2009 – 11:52 pm7 Comments

Ziva David, NCIS

Ziva David, NCIS

By Anthony Frosh

NCIS is not first class drama.  The plots are quite often formulaic, and the acting is often melodramatic.  Nevertheless, it has the rare distinction of being the only mainstream network show (we are aware of) with an Israeli as one of the main characters.

Chilean actress, Cote de Pablo, plays Ziva – a former Mossad assassin who is now working with an American intelligence agency.  Ziva is a strong-willed female character, who is highly competent and intelligent.

Ziva wears a Magen David around her neck, which the camera is often focuses upon.  Given that she is a secular Israeli, we’re not sure how realistic it is that she would wear such a necklace, although we appreciate that it is sometimes used as plot device.  It also serves to demonstrate that Ziva is proud of being an Israeli.  It’s rare to find an Israeli who is neither religious, nor the child of Olim, who expresses such patriotism as Ziva.  Her character is more reminiscent in some ways of a classic character in an early Israeli kibbutz drama (or alternatively, think Naomi, the Israeli soldier in Portnoy’s Complaint) than a typical Israeli of the current day.

While in the early kibbutz dramas, Ziva’s character would have been a Zionist heroine, in NCIS, Ziva serves as a counterpoint to her American colleagues. Sometimes this plays out showing Ziva as superior to her American team members.  For example, she is fluent in numerous languages (Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Russian amongst others), in sharp contrast to the monolingual Americans.

She is more deadly with a weapon or in armed combat than the Americans – and it could be said that it is a rather comic book portrayal of a Mossad assassin.  This is perhaps never more humorously than when  Ziva is giving her colleagues a tutorial on knife throwing. “In the Mossad we have a saying, ‘Knives never run out of bullets’.”

Ziva is also portrayed as being more ruthless than her American colleagues.  The program takes great lengths to display the Americans as more concerned with respecting human rights.  For example, Ziva (clearly representing the whole Israeli security establishment, if not Israeli society in general)  is frequently shown to be wishing to disregard the rights of witnesses brought in for interrogation, and her American team members are forced to remind her “that’s not how it’s done in America.”  We should mention that compared to some of the other Mossad agents and assassins that make guest appearances in the show, Ziva is quite tame.

It’s not that we idealise the Israeli security establishment, but we feel the contrast drawn between the ruthlessly pragmatic Israelis and the far more ethical, process-driven Americans is a myth that is sustained for the sake of patriotic American audiences.  One only has to look at Abu Ghraib or the Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay for evidence that the American security establishment is far less palatable than is portrayed in NCIS.

Despite our misgiving, we must admit NCIS remains a guilty pleasure of ours. In a network television landscape where it is difficult to find many unashamedly Jewish characters (let alone an Israeli), we have a soft spot for Ziva David.

Your thoughts?

Postscript:

We should mention that in the latest series that has been airing locally on the Ten Network, there has been considerable focus on the issue of Ziva’s duel loyalty.  The dramatic tension has largely been built around whether Ziva can be trusted to more loyal to NCIS than the Mossad.  Depending on your perspective, this is either the classic dilemma of the diasporite Jew, or the classic canard about the diasporite Jew.

Local viewers will just have to wait and see how it plays out.  However, given Network Ten’s strategy of showing several old episodes in between every new episode, it may take a while.

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