Mossad, TV and the movies – how Israeli spies took over our screens

September 27, 2020

Niv Sultan stars in the TV series ‘Tehran’, about a Mossad hacker smuggled into Iran to help blow up a secret nuclear site



[Note by Tom Gross]

There have been a number of articles in the US and UK this weekend praising the new Israeli TV series “Tehran” about a female Mossad hacker smuggled into Iran to help blow up a secret nuclear site. (I attach two of those articles, from the British papers the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, below.)

The show was a hit when shown in Israel in June and July, and also in Iran and the Arab world in July and August after it was bootlegged and illegally streamed across much of the Middle East.

The show was bought by Apple TV and the first episodes were released in the US and Europe this weekend.

One of the writers of “Tehran” was also one of the creators of “Fauda,” another Israeli show later picked by Netflix, which has become a hit throughout the Middle East and even (as I noted in a 2018 dispatch) praised on Hamas’ website in Gaza for its realistic depiction of Hamas.



The dialogue in “Tehran” (which I watched on Israeli TV in June) is in Hebrew, Farsi and English. Israeli and Iranian actors worked together on the series. The Iranian actors were, of course, exiles based in the US and UK (two also acted in “Homeland”).

Contrary to some press reports in the West this weekend, the lead Israeli actor in “Tehran,” Niv Sultan, is not of Iranian-Jewish descent – in fact she is an Israeli of Moroccan-Jewish descent and knew some Arabic from home. But she learned Farsi especially for the program.

Some members of the Israeli cast, such as Liraz Charchi, who plays one of her Mossad handlers, was already fluent in Farsi, but Sultan did not know the language, which she learned in four months.

One of those quoted in the Financial Times piece (below) is Sima Shine, a former head of intelligence gathering on Iran for the Mossad (2003-2007) and later in charge of the Iranian file for Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs from 2009-2016. Sima is a long-time subscriber to this email list.

She says that it’s good that the program “Tehran” depicts the Iranian security apparatus in an intelligent and largely accurate way.



“Fauda” announced on its official Instagram page last week that it would be back for 4th season.

“Fauda” focuses on an undercover Israeli commando unit whose members embed themselves among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, gathering intelligence and preventing terror attacks.

Netflix bought the show in 2016, a year after it was first shown in Israel. Two of the show’s creators (journalist Avi Issacharoff, and actor Lior Raz, who plays Doron) served in the army unit depicted in the series.



“Fauda” star and Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Amedi, 32, has shared a video on twitter for his fans in the United Arab Emirates. (The UAE this month officially made peace with Israel.)

“If I can speak for all Israelis, we all think peace is a good thing. It’s the right thing and we can’t wait to visit your beautiful country. Hopefully you will come to Israel as well,” he said in English before he blessed those watching from the UAE in Arabic.

Video here.

Amedi’s music has been played on the radio in the UAE this month.



The trailer for Season 3 of “Shitsel,” the popular Israeli drama about a complicated ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, has been released.

Video here.

Among this stars of the show is Shira Haas, who also stars in Unorthodox.

The show originally aired in Israel in 2013 and ran for two seasons. The new season picks up four years after the end of the second season. “Shitsel” later became an international hit on Netflix. Season 3 will be shown in Israel at the end of 2020 and on Netflix in 2021.



“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, is also mentioned in the Financial Times article on “Tehran” below.

Not mentioned by the Financial Times is that a graphic novel version will be available next month. “Sapiens: A Graphic History” will be narrated by a caricature of Harari. It’s the first of four planned volumes covering the material in the bestselling book, which has sold 16 million copies in 60 languages worldwide.

The nonfiction book charts the course of the development of humans from the prehistoric era to modernity. It was originally published in Hebrew as a textbook for Harari’s students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



On a separate note, also regarding a forthcoming Netflix production, Italian superstar Sophia Loren is to act once again after an 11-year screen absence. She will play a Holocaust survivor who befriends an orphan in a Netflix film “The Life Ahead,” directed by her son Edoardo Ponti

The Hollywood magazine “Deadline” reported last week that the film will premiere in Rome in October, and be available on Netflix from November.

Loren won her first Oscar in 1961 for “Two Women,” before receiving a second, honorary, Oscar in 1991 for “a career rich with memorable performances that has added permanent luster to our art form”.


Among past dispatches concerning TV and film, and the Mossad:

* (About Fauda) What if ‘The Wire’ were set in Ramallah? (& Jewish-Arab celebrity wedding in Israel) (October 11, 2018)

* “The Inevitable Lies of Unorthodox” (May 3, 2020) which touches on the Israeli show ‘Shtisel’, which humanizes ultra-orthodox Jews in a way that many critics say the German-made Netflix hit ‘Unorthodox’ fails to do so.

* Another Netflix hit “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” about the daring Mossad-led rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s, is written about in this dispatch:

Coming soon to Hollywood: The Mossad’s very own holiday village (April 23, 2018)

* Israel Harel, “The man who made the Mossad” (February 19, 2003)



Mossad and the movies — how Israeli spies took over our screens
Hit drama ‘Tehran’ is the latest in a series of thrillers that trade in the mystique of Israel’s secret service

By Mehul Srivastava in Jaffa
Financial Times
September 26, 2020

When a series of unexplained explosions rocked Tehran in July, the Israeli actress Niv Sultan posted a video of herself watching the news, with a coy expression on her face.

For fans of Israeli spy dramas, the video made total sense — Ms Sultan is the star of Tehran, a TV show about a Mossad hacker smuggled into Iran to help blow up a secret nuclear site.

The show, bootlegged and illegally streamed this summer across much of the Middle East, including Iran, is the latest in what has become Israel’s most resilient cultural export: espionage thrillers that trade on the mystique of the Jewish State’s secret services, both feared and admired in the region. This weekend it will be launched in the US on Apple TV.

In recent months, the latest season of Fauda (Chaos), has consistently been among the top-watched shows in Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates on Netflix, with Arab audiences intrigued by the exploits of a shadowy Israeli unit that operates covertly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film about the Mossad’s daring evacuation of Ethiopian Jews out of a 1984 civil war, also has a loyal audience.

“We all know to laugh, how to fall in love, but we don’t all know how the spy world looks like,” said Avi Issacharoff, the journalist who co-wrote Fauda, Israeli television’s first breakout international hit. “This is not just a cliché, that this is a world in the darkness, and so suddenly to find and learn about the world of espionage through a realistic lens — people are attracted to that.”

Even Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor famous for playing satirical characters such as in the film Borat, abandoned comedy to play Eli Cohen, a famed Israeli double-agent embedded in the Syrian government before the 1967 Six-Day War and hanged in a public square in Damascus after he was discovered.

“Unfortunately, these are the headlines we are in too often, because of the situation here,” said Arik Kneller, the agent who sold the Israeli show Prisoners of War, which was remade as the hit US series Homeland. “It appears that this is our claim to fame abroad, whereas in Israel, people are telling more personal, and less political stories, especially in cinema.”

Israel has a serious literary and cinematic history — including the books of Amos Oz and Yuval Noah Harari as well as films such as the Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir — but the exploits of its spies and assassins have become a profitable niche.

Just as India is best known for Bollywood, and China for its kung fu and Han-era historical dramas, Israel’s violent birth and its constant battles with its neighbours have made espionage its cultural watermark.

Part of the commercial success can be tied directly to the reputation of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign spy agency, said Avner Avraham, who retired after 28 years with the service and set up a cinema consultancy and speakers bureau called The Spy Legends Agency.

“In the spy world, the agencies are both always secret and always on the top of people’s imagination,” said Mr Avraham, who advised actor Ben Kingsley for his role as Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was abducted by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in Jerusalem.

It also helps that it is official Israeli policy for spymasters to brag of their exploits, adding to the perception in the Middle East that the Mossad is everywhere, listening to everything.

Embarrassing failures are far outweighed by the successes, including, most recently, the spiriting out of an abandoned Tehran warehouse of the entire nuclear archives of the Islamic Republic, proudly displayed on TV by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April 2018.

The realism helps too, said Sima Shine, who kept an eye on Iran for most of her career at Mossad and the National Security Council, and watched Tehran closely when it aired in Israel.

“It’s good that they give a lot of credit to the security apparatus [in Iran], and they don’t show them as stupid — instead they show them as operating quite well,” she said. “We see the demonstrations by students, and the counter demonstrations, and the hidden parties of young people — we know that all these things are happening in Iran.”

The Iranians were equally fascinated by the drama and perturbed by inaccuracies, said Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, the Washington-based think-tank.

“This is the first time a wide Israeli audience got a glimpse of their enemy, Iran, beyond the news cycle. This is also the first time Iranians got to see what Israelis, to an extent, think of them,” she said.

The timing helped too. “The unusual explosions must’ve added more interest in the series for both audiences as it unintentionally served as publicity for Tehran because the plot is about Israel taking out nuclear facilities.”

For Israeli directors and film-makers, the hope is that other art will eventually come to the international stage. One show, Shtisel, about the ultraorthodox community, is already on Netflix, and others, such as Yellow Peppers, about an autistic child, was remade as The A Word for British television.

“The obvious stuff has gone through,” said Mr Kneller, who hopes that female Israeli television writers will soon come to dominate the cultural output, pointing to Thursday’s Emmy nomination for Fifty, a series by Yael Hedaya, about an Israeli screenwriter turning 50. “Maybe now the less obvious stuff will shine also.”



Tehran, Apple TV+ review: a tension-building, heart-stopping gender-swapped Bourne Identity
By Ed Power
Daily Telegraph (London)
September 25, 2020

Apple’s megabucks foray into original television has veered from the sub-prime (Jennifer Aniston comeback vehicle The Morning Show) to the ridiculous (Game of Thrones wannabe See). But the tech giant has struck the motherlode with Tehran (Apple TV+), an irresistibly tense conspiracy thriller from Moshe Zonder, one of the brightest talents in the new wave of Israeli drama.

Zonder already has a cult following thanks to Fauda, a suspenseful caper set against the Israeli-Gaza conflict that has become a huge hit for Netflix. With the eight-part Tehran he now turns his gimlet gaze towards the hegemonic rivalry between Iran and Israel.

It’s claustrophobic stuff in which the titular mega-city comes alive as a noir-ish purgatory brimming with midnight rendezvous, brutal agents of the state and calculated flurries of violence. And it features a star-making turn by Niv Sultan as Tamar Rabinyan, a Tehran-born hacker and Mossad agent on the run from both Iranian and Israel intelligence.

Some of the appeal is undoubtedly down to novelty. The grit, the noise, the heat of Iran floods the screen: it truly feels as if Zonder is taking you somewhere you’ve never been (although not actually to Tehran – the series was filmed in Athens).

There is an instructive early scene in which Rabinyan is travelling in a cab towards a hush-hush meeting when the driver idly points towards a public hanging. The corpse dangles from a crane in the middle of a bustling interchange. The usual rules, Zonder is telling us, do not apply here.

He is also a master of pacing and Tehran unfolds like a coiled spring left suddenly loose. Having entered the country disguised as a flight attendant, Rabinyan’s mission involves assuming the identity of a local electrical company employee and then breaking into a corporate mainframe. Her goal is to neutralise the regime’s air defences in preparation for a bombing raid on its nuclear facilities, all at the behest of the Israeli Defence Forces’s Unit 8200 – a real life cyber-intelligence crack squad – of course.

However, the situation turns horrifically violent when a figure from her alter-ego’s past intervenes. She’s already drawn the suspicion of Faraz Kamali, the buttoned-down head of investigation of the Revolutionary Guard. Shaun Toub is terrifying in the role and captures the contradictions of a man who can speak with huge kindness to his wife one moment and lash out at a woman weeping in his interrogation room the next.

Also with a close eye on Tamar is her Mossad handler in Tehran (Navid Negahban, aka baddie Abu Nazir from Homeland). He’s got her spooked with his capacity for off-the-cuff killing and leads Tamar to realise she must go it alone and face up to her past life in the city.

Strip away the subtitles and the beautiful yet subtlety alien Middle East vistas and what’s left is essentially a gender-swapped Bourne Identity. But Zonder orchestras the tension masterfully, crafting a thriller as stylish as it is heart-stopping.


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All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.