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Netflix’s The Spy Accused of Being Propagandist

Wesam Abo Marq Wesam Abo Marq
5th September 2022
Netflix’s The Spy Accused of Being Propagandist
The show sparked controversy in the Arab world (Getty).

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

Sacha Baron Cohen, an English and half-Israeli actor and producer, has gone undercover for a very different kind of role in Netflix's miniseries "The Spy." Sacha Baron Cohen is the executive producer of the series, and he played Mossad spy Eli Cohen. While some praised the series for recreating the spy's story, others criticized it for Hollywood sensationalism that fabricated historical truth.

Who Is Eli Cohen?

According to Eli Cohen’s biography, Cohen was born in Alexandria in 1924 to Syrian parents from Aleppo. Cohen remained in Egypt after his family immigrated to the newly formed Israel in 1949. According to Cosmopolitan, he worked with the Mossad agent Avraham Dar to establish a smuggling channel for Egyptian Jews into Israel. In 1956, Cohen and other Zionist Jews were expelled from Egypt.

Dan Peleg, a senior Israeli Mossad officer, hires Cohen and assigns him the task of establishing contacts with prominent figures in Syria in order to learn what plans they have against Israel.

Cohen infiltrated the Syrian government for four years, from 1961 to 1965, using the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet. 

On May 18, 1965, Mossad agent Cohen was tried and executed for espionage by Syria at the age of 40. To this day, the location of Cohen's body is unknown.

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An Overview of the Series

Netflix produced the series, which is based on Eli Cohen's life story. Gideon Raff, best known for the critically acclaimed Hebrew-language drama series Hatufim—Prisoners of War—and its American adaptation, "Homeland," wrote and directed "The Spy."

The six-part series depicted Cohen's transformation from an Israeli department store employee to a spy infiltrated in Syria by assuming the identity of an egocentric businessman named Kamel Amin-Thabaath.

How Did the Arab World React to the Show?

The Netflix series "The Spy," which portrays the life of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, played by controversial actor Sacha Baron Cohen, has sparked controversy in the Arab World.

Dyab Abou Jahjah, a political activist from Lebanon, wrote about the show on Twitter, saying, "For those of you who are watching #TheSpyOnNetflix. The true story of Israeli spy Eli Cohen. At the end, the [expletive] is apprehended and hanged. Is this a hint? I, for one, did not watch it. This is something I know from history. Go watch something other than propaganda now. You are most welcome."

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The Series Scenes Spark Outrage

The six-episode series aimed to glorify the spy's image by focusing solely on Israeli narratives. It aimed to highlight Israeli intelligence's "heroism" in contrast to the Syrian political class's dishonesty and betrayal.

Several viewers have questioned the veracity of these scenes:

Cohen's Relationship with Amin al-Hafiz

The miniseries revealed that Eli Cohen had a close relationship with Amin al-Hafiz, Syria's military attaché in Argentina and the country's upcoming president. They first met in Buenos Aires, according to the drama, where al-Hafiz later used him to advance his political agenda.

According to al-Hafiz interview with Aljazeera in 2001, al-Hafiz stated he was in Argentina in 1962, long after Cohen arrived in Damascus, and he met Cohen once following his arrest in 1965. Al-Hafiz said that their friendship was created by the Egyptian media as part of a defamation campaign, 


Cohen and Amin al-Hafiz’s Wife Relationship

The series implies that al-Hafiz's first lady and Cohen had a romantic relationship and that al-Hafiz accepted their sexual relationship. There was a scene where Cohen gave al-Hafiz fur as a present for his wife. The drama featured a sensationalized scene in which al-Hafiz's wife grabbed Cohen by the crotch, according to the Radio Times.

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Photo Description: Cohen/Kamel with al-Hafiz and his wife (Netflix).

Such scenes were criticized by Syrian watchers of the series, who accused it of changing Syrian customs and morals.

In another scene, al-Hafiz and his wife were present and appeared sad at the time of Cohen's execution.

In an Al Jazeera interview in 2001, al-Hafiz stated that his wife had never met Cohen. He also mentioned that neither he nor his wife were present at Cohen's execution.

Appointing Cohen As Deputy Defense Minister 

In the series, al-Hafiz appoints Kamel/Cohen as deputy defense minister.

According to an article in Orient News, it was impossible for Kamel Amin Thaabet to attain the position of deputy defense minister. This position is only restricted to military personnel, so Kamel or another civilian would not be considered. 

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Photo Description: In this scene, al-Hafiz appointed Cohen as the Deputy Defense Minister (Netflix scene).

Cohen’s Role in the 1963 Syrian Coup

The series depicted the military coup of 1963. In the drama's plot, Cohen managed a lavish party to confuse authorities, giving al-Hafiz the opportunity to depose President Nazim al-Kudsi.

Al-Hafiz did not use the coup to immediately take power as the series depicted. Lu'ay al-Atassi was chosen as president first, after al-Kudsi. On July 27, 1963, al-Hafiz was elected president after al-Kudsi's resignation a few months later. There is no proof connecting Cohen in any way to the coup.

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Photo Description: Choen/Kamel’s lavish party that help al-Hafiz in the 1963 coup (Netflix scene).

Cohen’s Role in the 1967 War

Years before, in 1962, Cohen went to the Golan Heights undercover with his friend Maazi Zahreddine. Cohen also suggested the Syrian army to plant trees near the Golan Heights to provide shade for soldiers. The Eucalyptus trees grew and eventually revealed the exact location of the Syrian base. The intelligence Cohen provided at the time, according to then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, assisted Israel significantly during the 1967 war.

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Photo Description: Cohen/Kamel visiting the Golan Heights (Netflix scene).

Despite Cohen's death two years earlier, some people believe his intelligence played a role in winning the Six-Day War.

According to Salah al-Dalali, who presided over the court that sentenced Cohen to death, Cohen's goal was to kill Nazi officers who were remaining in Damascus rather than learn more about the front. He was also tasked with keeping track of Jews' living conditions in the Syrian capital.

According to Amin al Hafiz's Al Jazeera interview, if Cohen knew critical information about the Golan Heights, every military organization in the world would have adjusted its data to ensure that the released information would have no effect. Moreover, he stated that an Israeli military plane flying over Palestine may have gathered more data than Cohen.

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Misbar’s Sources



The New York Times



Asharq Al-Awsat




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