Skip to main content

Netflix and Israel: A special relationship

As with various entertainment platforms, Netflix has been willingly subsumed into the Israeli hasbara industry
The logo for the online streaming giant Netflix is displayed on a tablet (AFP)

Back in 2016, the Israeli embassy in the United States tweeted with regard to Netflix’s global expansion: “For the 5+/- days a year the weather’s not good… @Netflix, now in Israel!”

What fortune, indeed, that Israel managed to erect itself on stolen land with such favourable meteorology. And speaking of luck, Netflix has proven itself a veritable godsend for Israel, for a lot more than five days out of the year. As with various entertainment platforms, Netflix has been willingly subsumed into the Israeli hasbara industry.

Celebrating Mossad

The latest pro-Israel production to grace subscribers’ screens is the six-part Netflix series The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Israel’s celebrated Mossad agent Eli Cohen, executed in Damascus in 1965. 

Predictably, the series humanises Cohen as a humble, loving and dedicated patriot engaged in noble subterfuge on behalf of innocent Israelis under attack from dastardly Syria. No mention is made of Israel’s preeminent role as attacker-provocateur, while its history of mass slaughter in the service of predatory regional designs is - as usual - disappeared under the mantra of “self-defence”.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The point of Israeli propaganda is to invert the victimiser-victim relationship

But The Spy is only the beginning. Search “Israel” on Netflix and you’re bombarded with all sorts of offerings, from Inside the Mossad to Fauda, a series about “a top Israeli agent [who] comes out of retirement to hunt for a Palestinian fighter he thought he’d killed”. In the trailer, we learn that “Abu Ahmad has the blood of 116 Israelis on his hands” and that “no other terrorist has killed so many: men, women, children, elderly, soldiers”.

Never mind, then, real-life episodes such as that time in 2014 that the Israeli military had the blood of 2,251 Palestinians on its hands, including 299 women and 551 children.

The point of Israeli propaganda is to invert the victimiser-victim relationship, such that Israel’s institutionalised terrorisation of Palestinians is somehow retaliatory in nature, while those on the receiving end of more than seven decades of Israeli aggression are cast in the role of aggressors.

The moral of the story

The Netflix list goes on. Also featured are two films titled The Angel and The Spy Who Fell to Earth, released in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and concerning the same character: Egyptian Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of late president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In their book Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman note that Marwan was the coordinator of a 1973 Libyan-Egyptian-Palestinian plot to shoot down an Israeli El Al airliner in Italy, in response to Israel’s shooting down of a Libyan airliner, which killed 105 people on board.

Marwan personally delivered the requisite missiles to the appointed Palestinians in Rome, but “the plot failed … What the Libyan, Egyptian, and Palestinian conspirators never knew was the secret about Marwan: He was a paid agent for the Mossad, one of the best Israel ever had.”

While the moral of the story for Arabs is perhaps that spying for Israel is a good way to achieve posthumous Netflix stardom, this particular anecdote should also effectively annihilate Israel’s claims to have the wellbeing and security of its citizens at heart.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Gideon Raff attend a screening for The Spy in LA on 5 September (AFP)
Sacha Baron Cohen and Gideon Raff attend a screening for The Spy in LA on 5 September (AFP)

Then there’s When Heroes Fly, the 2018 series about four Israeli military veterans traumatised by the 2006 war on Lebanon; just because Israel did the vast majority of killing and other damage doesn’t mean the role of victim should be wrested from its soldiers.

A Haaretz article assures us that “Netflix’s New Israeli Thriller ‘When Heroes Fly’ Is Almost as Much Fun as ‘Fauda’” and that the series is “gripping enough to satisfy anyone with a ‘Fauda’-shaped hole in their lives”. To be sure, it’s hard to think of anything more fun than war and trauma.

Last but not least, there’s the Netflix film The Red Sea Diving Resort, about the Mossad’s white-saviour efforts in the 1980s to evacuate Ethiopian Jews via Sudan to the Promised Land. (Of course, the land in question would turn out to be not so promising for many, as Ethiopians who were forcibly administered contraceptive drugs or shot by Israeli police can presumably testify.)

The film is directed by Gideon Raff, who also created The Spy and Hatufim, the inspiration for everyone’s favourite racist series, Homeland - to which Raff contributed as well. Talk about finding your niche.

Shameless spectacle

Apparently, there’s nothing incongruous about Israelis wailing over death and displacement in Ethiopia - and the moral imperative to save the victims - when the entire Israeli enterprise is built on, well, death and displacement.

The Nakba in 1948 saw hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed, 15,000 Palestinians murdered, and an additional 750,000 forced to flee their homes. The pattern of ethnic cleansing has only continued since, punctuated by straight-up bouts of slaughter.

Israel's hidden propaganda war
Read More »

In what can only be described as a spectacle of utter shamelessness, The Red Sea Diving Resort includes lines like this one from a blond female Israeli agent: “We’re all just refugees, aren’t we?” 

The film ends with the reminder that “there are currently more than 65 million displaced refugees around the world”; to hell with the fact that, thanks to Israel, there are well over seven million Palestinian ones.

And while a male agent in the film alleges that there’s “another bloody genocide” transpiring in Ethiopia but that “nobody gives a shit because it’s in Africa”, Israel’s genocidal quest to wipe out Palestinian identity is evidently of no similar concern.

As it turns out, my own Netflix search for “Palestine” - ditto for “Lebanon” and “Syria” - produced largely the same smorgasbord of Israeli spy thrillers and other “fun”. When I tried searching “Nakba”, the top result was Bad Boys II, starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith; a bit further down was The Red Sea Diving Resort.

Disappearing act

I recently contacted Netflix for a response to criticism that it serves as a venue for Israeli propaganda, and received the following statement from a spokesperson: “We’re in the business of entertainment, not media or politics.

"We understand that not all viewers will like all of the programming we offer. It’s why we have a diverse range of content from all over the world - because we believe that great stories come from anywhere. All Netflix shows feature ratings and information to help members make their own decisions about what’s right for themselves and their families.”

Just because there is 'Arabic content' on Netflix doesn't mean it does anything to humanise or contextualise the Palestinian struggle

My attention was also directed to some examples of the “diverse Arabic content on the service and under development”, the first being Comedians of the World, a show featuring 47 international comedians - four of them in the Middle East.

But it’s a far cry from Middle Eastern comedians to the likes of The Spy - which, like all Israel-centric “entertainment”, is inherently political - and just because there is “Arabic content” on Netflix doesn’t mean it does anything to humanise or contextualise the Palestinian struggle.

Netflix’s special relationship with Israel may be lucrative for those involved, but by helping to boost Israel’s ratings in a show of brutality that has already gone on seven decades too long, the company is entirely complicit in Israel’s Palestinian disappearing act.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Belen Fernandez is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.