Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

The sublimity of Ziva David

Interesting article by Joel Schalit on the role of a fantasized Israeli identity for certain American right-wingers (which I heard about on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News). Schalit discusses the prominence of online commenters who claim to be Israelis bringing the realities of Israel’s precarious situation to an ignorant US left audience, who on investigation turn out in fact not to be Israelis or indeed Jews, but conservative American Christian zionists. A fantasy about Israel as a hard-headed reality serves a particular function in justifying American foreign policy.

Maybe the most high-profile example of this is the character of Ziva David on NCIS. Ziva, a former Mossad agent turned NCIS investigator, is an appealing character. She’s competent, smart, and funny, as well as being somewhat psychologically  damaged in the sort of way that makes for endearing TV characters (it also doesn’t hurt that the character is played by Cote de Pablo, who is very pretty although not even slightly Israeli).

But she also functions as a strange metonym for Israel. Her Mossad background is, particularly in her early appearances, brought up through references to her skills as an assassin and torturer, that is, through her extra-legal ruthlessness. The show is both horrified by and enamored with this ruthlessness – Ziva is continually reminded by other characters that her methods are not acceptable in America, with a mixture of pride, awe, and regret. Ziva, and thus Israel, is presented here as sublime in Burke’s sense, as inspiring a kind of fear that leads to admiration. The racist uses to which Burke puts this concept of the sublime (the natural sublimity of Blacks is adduced as a justification for slavery) perhaps points towards the racism underlying Israel’s simultaneous exclusion from and inclusion in Western “civilization” which Schalit notes in right-wing American attachments to Israel.

Israel, in the person of Ziva, functions as a kind of screen onto which Americans can project the terrible things America actually does abroad, but which it is ideologically committed to claiming not to do. I wonder if the approval of the assassination of bin Laden is a visible sign that US ideology has changes such that this disavowal is no longer necessary.

(There’s also something to be said about the fact that the role of fantasy-Israel is played by a female character, particularly as the other way in which Ziva’s Israeli-ness is figured is through her willingness to flout American gender roles, with her “just butch enough” clothing, her unabashed attitude to sex, and her occasional hints at bisexuality. This may be of a piece with the role female IDF soldiers play in the spurious “feminism” of American islamaphobes).