I can’t help but think that NCIS officer Ziva David is not what Max Nordau had in mind when he developed the concept of Muskeljudentum (Muscular Judaism). Living in an environment of anti-Semitic discourse that saw the Jewish male as sickly and weak, Nordau advocated a physical Judaism that would challenge anti-Semites by carving a new Jewish body, lithe and muscular and capable of fighting back. His ideas enjoyed wide support in the early decades of the 20th century, and became a major ideological component of the Zionist “New Jew.” If Muscular Judaism didn’t quite dispel the image of the intellectual Jew incapable of harming a fly, it at least created a counter-image: the strong, aggressive Sabra, unafraid of combat.
This is certainly the role played by Ziva (Cote de Pablo) on NCIS, the popular CBS procedural about a Navy Criminal investigative agency. Ziva, who joined in the third season, is the unit’s resident killer, and the only officer other than the team leader Gibbs (Mark Harmon) capable of routinely disarming and capturing suspects. Though played by a non-Jewish actress, Ziva is our most prominent televisual Israeli, helping, in her own way, to spread awareness of Israeli culture: She sports a Star of David necklace, listens to the popular band Hadag Nachash, and if she sometimes pronounces “layla,” the Hebrew word for night whose first syllable rhymes with “eye,” like the Eric Clapton song, her dialogue with other Israeli characters likely exposes the audience to more Hebrew than they’d otherwise hear in a lifetime.
But what have we really gained with Ziva David? Yes, Ziva is superficially a sexy, kick-ass Israeli, but beneath the surface she is simply a reversal of the old anti-Semitic stereotype. Instead of the weak, mother-obsessed Jewish male, we have a trained assassin psychologically scarred by her father. As a character, she’s remarkably regressive, an image of Feminism that gives comfort to threatened men. For all her strength, she cannot be strong on her own. She demands recognition and validation from paternalistic men in order to justify her life.
This aspect of her character came across most forcibly during the show’s sixth and seventh seasons when Ziva’s dual loyalties to NCIS and Mossad were put to the test, and she was forced to choose sides. The old canard claimed that American Jews were loyal to both the U.S. and Israel, but Ziva actually had dual loyalties; there was always the possibility that Ziva was spying on America after having earned Gibbs’s trust. But if it seemed that Ziva’s conflict was between two countries, she was actually torn between two men: her father, a major Mossad figure, and Gibbs. After learning her father set her up, she was adrift, not a part of NCIS or Mossad. That is, until she and Gibbs reconciled. “He raised you to be a ruthless, soulless killer,” Gibbs tells her, then he whispers something in her ear, and kisses her hair as she starts crying. While I’m sure Sofia Coppola was furious at having the ending of “Lost in Translation” co-opted for the scene, the more important point is what it says about Ziva’s need for male approval and her lack of patriotism. Somehow in the transition from the Jewish tradition to the Israeli Fatherland, it became impossible for her to dissociate the father from the state. She’s loyal not to a tradition or a nation, but to a daddy.
Ziva is hardly unique as a TV character in encoding the opposite values of those she seems to portray. For all its progressiveness, “Modern Family” presents an extremely conservative image of the family. Gay marriage is OK, the show tells us, just as long as only one parent works and the other stays home raising the kid. There’s certainly a place for a character like Ziva on American TV; I just wish that there was a Jewish version of “Veronica Mars” — the best Girl Power show of recent years — to balance things out.