There are many kinds of speakers worthy organizations can get for their events.
Groups that combat disease or raise money for research into its causes ask scientists or doctors. Schools look for eminent graduates. Rabbinical organizations, needless to say, want rabbis.
You get the drift.
So who was the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces going to get?
Someone who was going to reassure parents of lone soldiers and IDF supporters in general? Or someone who was going to present them with facts? With inspiration?
Or perhaps someone who was going to scare them and thrill them with stories about exploits that their own kids will not be able to undertake?
That last one was the option that the FIDF took when it held its annual New Jersey gala dinner last Sunday. It had two speakers, business partners Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, who are the co-creators of the hit Netflix series “Fauda.”
The choice was a wise one; the dinner, in Teaneck, earned the FIDF more than $900,000.
It also brought “Fauda” to the attention of a whole new audience.
The show is about IDF members who go deep underground, what they find, what they do, and how it affects the world around them.
Mr. Raz, an actor who’s in the series, was such an agent — it makes sense, he’s an actor — and Mr. Issacharoff is a journalist and Middle East analyst whose written work shows up in the Times of Israel.
“Until the show was aired, the undercover unit was a kind of unknown territory for many people in Israel and all over the world,” he said. “We are trying to tell the stories of these people. Of these heroes.”
“Fauda” tells these Israelis’ fictionalized but reality-based stories.
First, the show title. “It was the walkie-talkie word for ‘I got exposed,’” Mr. Issacharoff said. “It was used in the 80s and 90s. They would say ‘Fauda, fauda, fauda.’ It’s Arabic for ‘chaos.’”
And it would be vitally important, because remember, Mr. Issacharoff said, “the work is very dangerous. The population is very hostile. Usually, in other places, if you work undercover, there is backup close by.” There, generally that was impossible, “and there were very precious minutes that could go by before they rescue you, and it could be deadly.”
Who are these undercover soldiers?
To begin with, they are volunteers. They go through psychological testing “to see if they are capable of working under huge pressure, of getting out of places quickly under that huge pressure, of dealing with very tough moments,” Mr. Issacharoff said. They also are put through a battery of tests meant to determine if “they are not radical. That they are not extreme in their opinions. That they do not want to become undercover soldiers because of bad motives.” And that radicalization, that badness of motive, could come from either side; Israeli zealots ready to demolish what they think of as an inadequately aggressive Jewish state could be as damaging as pro-Islamic terrorists. Both must be — and are — screened out, he said.
What volunteer undercover agents look like is less important, he continued. They can be Sephardi, and obviously able to pass as Arab, but they also could be Ashkenazi. “There is no discrimination about that,” he said. They must speak — or learn Arabic — and they must be able to assume convincing accents, either local or from some logical place in the Arabic-speaking world.
Although most undercover agents are men, there are women as well. “It’s not necessarily more risky for them, because they’re less likely to be suspected,” Mr. Issacharoff said.
After they pass all the psychological screening tests, the recruits go on a 16- to 18-month course. What do they learn there? “I’m not sure I want to get into those details,” Mr. Issacharoff said, agreeing that it’s safe to say that they learn a lot of useful stuff.
And then they are deployed.
“Fauda” tells these agents’ stories; to tell them, Mr. Issacharoff said, it also has to tell the stories of their enemies. “Of course, we were trying to bring the undercover agents’ perspective, but we also wanted to the bring the perspective of the other side.
“Even just from a dramatic point of view, we wanted to make the show as interesting as possible, so we tried to make the terrorists as interesting as possible.” In art as in life, they’re not just bad guys, even though many of them genuinely are bad guys. But they all are human. They are not cartoons.
“I would say that they can be evil, and at the same time they can be in love with their wives, and really love their children. We are trying to humanize the devil. It is not easy to do that for an Israeli audience.
“It is particularly not easy to do that from the perspective of the two Israeli Zionist men who are creating the show,” he added ruefully.
It’s hard enough to convincingly write yourself into the head of a male terrorist if you are an Israeli Zionist, he added; it’s even harder to do that for a female terrorist, of a male terrorist’s wife, if you are an Israeli Zionist man. “For my co-creator and me, getting the female point of view from the Palestinian side seemed like total mission impossible.
“But it seems that we did it, and even more successfully than we did with Israeli women.”
Still, he said, one of the agents “Fauda” followed at its beginning was a woman. That was before they knew that women could be undercover agents; they thought they were writing fiction. “And then we learned that there are women agents. And we did a lot to understand what motivates her, what makes her join a unit like that.”
Conversations with terrorists are not new to Mr. Issacharoff. As a journalist, he has met with members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among others. So “writing the show didn’t change my understanding of them,” he said. But it did stretch his imagination.
To his surprise, Israelis liked the show. He and Mr. Raz had assumed that they wouldn’t; “we were showing the bad people as also regular people,” he said. “In the first season, the arch terrorist is shown buying perfume for his wife. This is something you don’t get to see in Israel, so we were sure we’d be under heavy fire for it.”
They weren’t. “Fauda” became very popular. Why? “I think that maybe people wonder. They think, ‘Hey, maybe it’s not as simple as we thought it was.’ It’s not that we show them” — that’s the terrorists, the enemy — “as only nice. We don’t. We show them as people who are killing innocent people. But we help people realize that everyone isn’t necessarily all black or all white. All good or all evil.” Not everything is binary.
“Sometimes people want to get deeper into the details, to see that maybe there is something more interesting than we thought there would be there. Maybe something more complicated.”
The show dramatizes the undercover agent’s point of view. “You get to see what its like to go into a mosque and kidnap a wanted terrorist.
“And we want to stress that in the end, the undercover agent’s mission is to make as little collateral damage as possible. If the terrorist you want is in a hospital, you don’t blow up the hospital. You take him from his bed.”
“Fauda” is about to start its new season on Netflix.