NCIS Tel Aviv?


Every morning, at my kitchen counter, I leaf through two Israeli dailies, both of them in English.  The Hebrew papers I read in cafés, not every day.  I watch the TV news at 8 pm, on Channel 2.  I rarely watch the Israel Broadcasting Authority news in English, but you can see it – and everything else I just named – every day, on the Internet.  An engaged American Jew in Beverly Hills or Boston can read Ha’aretz or Yediot on his or her smartphone, the same way I do.  If you get into the habit, you can be no less well informed than a Jew in Jerusalem. 

But your experience of the information will be different.  Reading Israel in the Diaspora is not the same as reading it here.  I don’t mean that the experience is “lower” for Jews who have not made aliyah.  Certainly, aliyah is not a realistic option for every Jew.  And the choice of non-aliyah may also facilitate certain important Jewish values – religious pluralism comes to mind – as many of us who live here are well aware, sometimes ruefully. 

I’m drinking Italian coffee, turning pages in my hometown paper, the Jerusalem Post.  I sail past an op-ed about “self-hating” Jews and land on the back page at “Arts and Entertainment,” my favorite section.  A photo of four young, smiling tourists posing at the Western Wall, like a Birthright pic on Facebook.  Headline reads: “CSI stars ‘gather evidence’ in Israel.”  Subhead reads: “Four actors from the cluster of CBS-TV crime-scene investigation dramas visit Israel for the first time and declare it ‘close to a utopia.’”

Such an article cannot be skipped over.  The four guys in the picture seem different from the stressed-out characters they play.  They are on vacation, relaxed, having fun – “the actors Segwayed in Tel Aviv, floated in the Dead Sea” – and not solving gruesome murders in front of the camera, take after take.  The best line in the story belongs to Owen Benson Miller, who plays an African American cop in “CSI:Miami”:  “As a Christian, he says he ‘had very high hopes for Israel and it’s lived up to and surpassed what I had in mind,’ despite hurting his knee while horseback riding in the Galilee.”  In other words, not quite a utopia. But close enough.

The eight-day trip was arranged by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  The Post article is credited to Israel 21c, a news service providing articles that engage the reader while stressing Israel’s brightest sides.  You may have read this story too, on a screen near you.

Al Buckley, who plays “Adam Ross” in the New York version of CSI, is “an Irish Catholic familiar with the Bible. “  Buckley says he “feels healthier from eating Israeli cuisine,” singling out the cucumbers and tomatoes for breakfast and the “unbelievable” hummus, possibly “the best I’ve ever had in my life.”  (Carmine Giovinazzo – “Danny Messer” of “CSI: NY” – is pictured but not quoted.)

On the Israel 21c website are two additional group photos, at Caesarea (Herodian grandeur   meets beachfront lifestyle), and at a medical technology firm that has developed an “exoskeleton” that can enable paraplegics to walk.  Summed up in the words of the one Jewish actor in the group, Ryan Wolfe of “CSI: Miami”:  “Israel is the finest combination of the ancient beginning of civilization and the most progressive, cutting-edge community of right now.” It is Wolfe who pronounces Israel “as close to a utopia as I’ve ever seen.”

The CSI article, judged in its own terms, is a home run of hasbara – variously translated as “explanation,”  “public diplomacy,” “PR,” or “propaganda.”  Indeed, it’s a Hollywood version of Israeli reality – idealized and prettified – and genuine, so far as it goes.  Once, Hollywood made movies like “Exodus” or” Cast a Giant Shadow,” warming the hearts of Zionists everywhere.  Now, they make “Munich” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” whose messages are less clear, perhaps subversive.  So the hasbara specialists in California and Jerusalem team up and take another tack, enlisting familiar TV faces as enthusiastic pitchmen for the Jewish State.

Is this a good and valuable thing?  Is it worth the money and effort?  Does it work – and on whom?  Breathes there a soul who believes that Israel is all peaches and cream?  At the end of the day, does it aid Israel’s cause to flood the information marketplace with stories that omit fundamental, omnipresent problems – or do such efforts often backfire?  Is the bright side disingenuous by definition?  But does every story have to include conflict and death, like an episode of “CSI”?  Isn’t it nice to be uplifted once in a while? 

Reading the 21c story against the Israel I live in, I am unavoidably put in mind of a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” penned in Los Angeles around 1942 by the brilliant German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht.  He was not a Jew, but he was a Marxist, and fled the Nazis too.  He landed in California in 1941 and tried to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, but without much success.  Meanwhile, more adaptable émigrés, such as Billy Wilder, were thriving.  Brecht was not so much a refugee as an exile, and his acerbic view of Hollywood reflects it.  In the “village of Hollywood,” he wrote, people have

. . . come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven.  It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.
(Translation by John Willett)

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but you do get the point.  Imagining an Israel of omnipresent prosperity and leisure, cutting-edge science and heavenly beauty, is indeed utopian, in the undying spirit of Theodor Herzl’s fantasy novel of 1902, “Altneuland.”  But Israel has never been a utopia, and won’t be anytime soon.  Just ask Reform rabbis, Eritrean asylum seekers, Palestinians, frightened haredim, displaced Gush Katif settlers, underpaid workers, disgruntled students, and pretty much anyone else who lives here. 

Recently, Jews the world over re-read the weekly Torah portion “Shelach-Lecha,” which features the famous tale of the twelve spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land.  After 40 days of evidence-gathering, they return with sobering news.  In verses of close proximity, Israel is described as both “a land of milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) and a “land that devours its inhabitants” (13:32). 

In the Bible story, the Israelite masses despair, and want to return to Egypt, for which they are punished.  They will die in the desert and not enter the Land.  But now that we, their distant heirs, have re-entered Israel, the spies’ candid prefiguration of Brecht seems both valid and necessary.  On the other hand, a Hollywood segue to a Segway in Tel Aviv sounds pretty good too.


Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of its Engaging Israel project.

‘NCIS’ Mossad agent’s cover gets blown — she’s Chilean


Two days before her first appearance in the cast of the top-ranked TV show, “NCIS,” actress Cote de Pablo was given the script of a lengthy phone conversation — in Hebrew.

“I got a Hebrew teacher and didn’t rest or sleep for 48 hours,” recalled the tall, slim, dark-haired actress. “I wanted to do the language justice. I want to apologize to all Israelis if I didn’t succeed, but boy, did I try.”

De Pablo, born in Chile’s capital of Santiago, plays Mossad agent Ziva David, lending an exotic touch to the all-American ensemble of the CBS “JAG” spin-off series, now in its fourth season.

The job of the show’s six-person elite team from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service is to crack all crimes involving, in any way, a member of the Navy or Marine Corps.

Consistently rated among the top 15 prime-time shows on American television — and in half a dozen other countries — in a recent week NCIS reached the No. 1 spot. It stands out in the well-worn genre for compelling story lines, intense pace and frequent leavenings of humor.

At the beginning of a nearly two-hour interview at a Hollywood restaurant, the 29-year-old actress greeted a reporter in South American style, with kisses on both cheeks (it’s a rough job, but someone has to do it).

How had she managed the transition from a nice Chilean girl, educated in a private Catholic school, to the role of an Israeli agent, customarily wearing a pistol on her hip and a golden Star of David around her neck?

“Ziva David was a new character, introduced at the beginning of the third season last year, and our executive producer, Don Bellisario, conducted a worldwide search for the part,” De Pablo said.

“I was one of the last to audition, and I don’t think they had a clear idea of what they wanted. So I interpreted Ziva as a cool, competent woman, not the usual Hollywood sex symbol with big boobs, but [someone] who was comfortable in her own sexuality and used to working with men on an equal footing,” she explained. “It helped that by my looks, I could be taken for almost any nationality.”

In her very first episode, De Pablo established Ziva David’s background and crammed in enough action to fill a full season. The character’s father, the deputy director of Mossad, had sent her to the United States to rescue her half-brother, Ari Haswari, who had killed a veteran NCIS female agent.

Ari and Ziva have the same father, but his mother is Arab (all right, some creative plotting here), and she discovers that he has gone psycho and turned into a Hamas terrorist.

Ziva ends up killing Ari, thus saving the life of NCIS team leader Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), who quickly figures that he can use someone of Ziva’s talents.

Starting on this dramatic note, David/De Pablo has since proven her value as a straight-shooting agent and as an actress, though she considers that her character “is still under construction.”

David’s Jewish identity rarely comes up in the series, although in one episode, a redneck character, noting her Star of David pendant, observes, “We don’t deal with your kind here.”

A running ploy plays off David’s foreign origin, and De Pablo — who speaks like a native-born American — has to feign a slight accent for her role. She is also the occasional butt of good-natured kidding when she draws a blank at an American slang expression.

De Pablo does get quite a few letters from Jewish men, who wonder whether she is an actual Member of the Tribe. Other Jewish admirers pay her the ultimate accolade, “You rock.”

The actress spent the first 10 years of her life in Santiago, the eldest daughter of an upper-class, right-wing family and, given the social stratification of Chilean society, never met a Jewish child or, for that matter, any poor people.

That sheltered environment changed when her mother, a television personality in Chile, was offered a job at a Spanish-language network in Miami. In an unusual gesture for a macho Latino, her father agreed to give up his business and the entire family moved to Florida.

At age 13, De Pablo started taking acting, singing and dancing lessons in Miami, and in her late teens, struck out on her own to study music and theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

While there, she took a psychology class and took her teacher’s advice as her personal motto: “Never say yes, if you want to say no.”

“Those words gave me the strength to be honest and to speak my mind, which, I think, is a very Israeli trait,” De Pablo mused.

She graduated in 2000, and the same year moved to New York, where she discovered a Jewish environment and the harsh realities of show business for an aspiring actress. The once-cocooned upper-class girl moved into a tiny apartment, made the endless auditioning rounds and worked as a waitress in an Indian restaurant in Manhattan and an Italian eatery in Brooklyn.

Gradually, she started getting small parts with the New York City Public Theater; in the TV soap opera, “All My Children”; and in a brief but memorable Volkswagen commercial as a hip-swinging charmer.

By 2005, she was ready for her Broadway debut as one of the female leads in “The Mambo Kings.”

Along the way, De Pablo had an extended relationship with a Jewish boyfriend, whose family had emigrated from Europe.

“I was really impressed by the women in the family,” she recalled. “They were such incredibly passionate, opinionated and independent women.”

She also immersed herself in the history of World War II, the Holocaust, the capture of Adolf Eichmann and “became fascinated by the Jews’ struggle for survival,” she said. “I identified with them.”

Now, De Pablo works frequent 14-hour days, five days a week, on the set of “NCIS” and has adopted the cast as her “family.” She has little time for hiking, her favorite recreation, or visiting unspoiled, nontouristy places, and is surprisingly frank about her lack of social life.