Sylvia: Tracing Blood

Sylvia: Tracing Blood is an Israeli documentary about Mossad super spy Sylvia Raphael.

Raphael was not Israeli by birth, and indeed was only sort of Jewish. She was a South African, half-Jewish and for the most part not practicing. But she was an idealistic sort, and from a pretty early age she identified strongly with Zionism, and with what she saw as Israel’s heroic underdog struggle to survive in a hostile region.

After moving to Israel and becoming a Mossad agent, she specialized in infiltrating the PLO and other enemies of Israel, often working her way stunningly high up in their organizations, aided precisely by the fact that she wasn’t fully Jewish, hadn’t been raised in Israel, and so did not naturally come across in subtle and unsubtle ways as an Israeli. Her cover was that of an international photojournalist operating out of Paris, outspokenly supportive of the Palestinian cause and hostile to Israel if not anti-Semitic. As such she became at various times in her tenure as a spy a confidant of Yasser Arafat and other PLO bigwigs, and a sort of nanny to the children of the King of Jordan.

Her role as a spy was not just to gather information. She was part of a team that assassinated various key targets of Israel and the Mossad, such as some of the terrorists who participated in the horrific murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, though I don’t believe she ever actually pulled the trigger for any of the team’s killings.

In 1973, Palestinian leaders decided they would try to set up this team of Mossad assassins in such a way as to humiliate and weaken them.

For the longest time, in spite of their superior numbers, the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular had done nothing but lose to Israel. Israel kicked their ass in war, and Israel kicked their ass in the unconventional warfare of spying and assassination and the like. The Arabs looked forever futile by comparison, with their only “successes” being occasional high profile terrorist acts that only damaged their international reputation. The Mossad in particular had a veneer of infallibility and invincibility.

The Palestinian plot to knock the Mossad down a peg worked to perfection. First, they created the impression that some Palestinian agents would soon be meeting with the Palestinian terrorist leader who reportedly had masterminded the murders at the Olympics, who was the most sought after target of all for the Israeli assassins. Then, knowing that the Mossad was watching their every move, the agents traveled to the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer. There, passing as common civilians, they befriended a local Moroccan, a waiter, who was quite happy to make their acquaintance since Arabs were very few and far between in that part of the world.

The idea was for the Mossad to jump to the conclusion that this poor fellow must be the terrorist leader they sought, which is exactly what happened. The waiter was ambushed at the first opportunity and murdered in front of his horrified pregnant wife, shocking the tranquil little town that had experienced its last murder 36 years earlier. (According to the documentary, Raphael thought the whole thing didn’t smell right from the beginning and sought to have the operation halted, but was overruled.)

The truth came out almost immediately, that the Mossad had blundered its way into killing an innocent nobody. If anything, the consequences of this were even more devastating than the Palestinians had dreamed. Multiple members of the assassination team, including Raphael, were arrested before they could escape Norway. Some of them—despite their reputation as the wisest and toughest of tough guys—sang like canaries. Israel’s network of spies and assassins in Europe—long speculated about but never proven—was exposed, and for a change Israel had to deal with condemnation by world opinion. (That’s routine now, given Israel’s behavior in recent decades, but back then it was still pretty rare.)

Israel and the Mossad looked evil and—probably more embarrassing to them—incompetent.

Raphael was among those tried and convicted. Sentenced to five and a half years in prison for her role in the killing, she in fact served only a little over a year before being released and booted out of the country. She lived in Israel for a time, actually returned briefly to Norway and was deported again, and eventually settled back in South Africa, where she died of cancer some years later.

Sylvia: Tracing Blood presents Raphael’s story largely favorably. It’s an Israeli film, and in Israel she is almost universally regarded as a hero, and the film reflects the common assumption of the audience that she was an effective warrior in a just cause. The interviewees chosen are almost all strongly pro-Raphael.

But I wouldn’t say it’s hagiographic. It’s not shy about pointing out Raphael’s impressive and admirable qualities, but here and there it implies that Raphael and Israel had plenty of morally difficult choices to make along the way, and that reasonable people can disagree about whether they always chose wisely. More of the participants in the film sing the praises of Raphael than not, but I never felt I was being manipulated to take her side; it felt like the filmmakers understood that there’s nuance here that should make an intelligent viewer hesitate to endorse her and her cohorts without qualification.

I found the two interviewees that get the most screen time to both be highly likable. There’s her jovial South African brother, and the now quite elderly Norwegian man who served as her attorney in the Lillehammer case, fell in love with her, and married her.

This film could be a good companion piece for the documentary Leila Khaled: Hijacker, about the Palestinian fighter/terrorist who, among other things, played an instrumental role in the hijacking of two planes. Leila Khaled: Hijacker is told from primarily a Palestinian perspective, which takes it as obvious that in a broad sense the Palestinian cause is just, and that wavers on the question of whether Khaled’s willingness to use the methods she did in support of that cause renders her heroic or misguided.

One thing the films have in common is the tendency of the interviewees, not to mention the contemporary press, to go on and on about how good looking their principals were.

Indeed, I would say it’s even more pronounced in Sylvia: Tracing Blood. Over and over, participants rave about how beautiful she was. It becomes almost comical, and I assume the filmmakers were quite aware when editing the film how much of a theme this became.

When Raphael’s brother, with camera crew in tow, visits the prison where Raphael was incarcerated in Norway to see what more he can find out, he asks the clerk/guard at the entrance if he by chance happened to have been employed at this prison back then, and if so whether he might remember her.

At the mention of her name, the guard immediately lights up. “Oh, a beautiful woman!” and off he goes.

Actually, before anyone in the film mentioned her looks, I was impressed by how attractive she was in some of the still photos that are shown. So it’s not like I disagree. But it’s striking just how often the participants refer to her physical appearance.

I gather there was a lot more to her appeal than just looks. Yes, she was good-looking, like I say, but there are a great number of beautiful women in the world, and not all of them have this extreme an effect on almost everyone who encounters them, where they instinctively reference her beauty almost immediately when asked about her.

I infer that she had a powerful charisma, a sex appeal, that went well beyond external beauty. I think there was something about her dynamism, her personality, her brains, her confidence and competence, that, combined with her looks, made her extraordinarily attractive to almost all who interacted with her. (Aside from those she arranged to have killed and their loved ones, that is. I’m sure there are many Palestinians who would find her far from irresistible.)

While I wouldn’t say they’re a dime a dozen, there are indeed plenty of hot women in the world. Raphael was evidently one of the 1% of those hot women that people still obsess over decades later and feel privileged to have been close to.

Like I say, while the film reports how favorably she was and is regarded in Israel, showing us the memorials put up in remembrance of her by a grateful public in her adopted homeland, and introducing us to interviewee after interviewee who sing her praises, it allows at least some room to disagree.

Frankly, the figure who comes across as the hero of the film to me, and I doubt I’m the only one, is not Raphael at all but the Moroccan musician Chico Bouchikhi.

Bouchikhi is the brother of the waiter who was murdered by Israelis in the case of mistaken identity. He speaks in an eloquent and always dignified manner of what a heartbreaking loss it was for the family.

He is especially indignant—in sadness, not in anger—that Israel has never apologized, never admitted any wrongdoing. Even if you pin a certain amount of the blame on the Palestinians who manipulated the situation, and even if you want to paint Raphael and the Israelis as having had no malicious motive toward his brother and just having made an honest mistake, surely, he says, just out of basic human decency you should express regret about what happened. But no, like the American right, Israel treats it as unacceptable weakness to ever apologize for the blood it sheds, to ever acknowledge that it even might have been wrong.

Bouchikhi recounts how, as a highly-regarded musician, he has had the opportunity to perform for various dignitaries during his career, including top Israeli officials. He notes that there have been occasions when he and his fellow musicians were not searched and were basically ignored by security, who hadn’t the foggiest notion whose brother he was, where if he had had a mind to he could easily have smuggled in a gun and assassinated the Israeli Prime Minister or some such figure. But he never had any inclination to do so.

One of the reasons the situation in the Middle East seems so hopeless is that each side is sure that it has been treated abominably by the other (they’re both right, by the way) and that its self-respect if not its very survival depends on standing up for itself with violence against an implacable foe who understands nothing less, and taking an eye, or preferably a dozen, for an eye.

And so the cycle of atrocity and revenge just drags everyone deeper into a pit that becomes harder and harder to imagine ever escaping from. The only way out, it seems obvious, is for enough of the participants to swing to the opposite extreme, to choose the Gandhian stance of “No matter what you do to me, I will never retaliate with violence. I will oppose you when you are wrong, I will defy you, but nothing you do to me will cause me to hate you and act with malice toward you.”

That’s of course always easier to say as an outside observer, and it will routinely be greeted with scorn by the majority of those in the midst of the conflict—“Have you seen what these [Arab/Israeli] animals do to us! Why don’t you shove your pacifism up your ass?!”

Except here is someone who is very much an insider, a person who has suffered as much as any of them at the hands of those on the other side. And he has rejected the “necessary evil” of retaliation for the wrong that was done to him, chosen a different path. I was left with mixed feelings at best about Raphael (as I was about Khaled, after seeing Leila Khaled: Hijacker). It is Bouchikhi who stands out to me as the truly admirable, in fact inspirational, figure in this movie. His just happens to be a different, and ultimately far more valuable, form of heroism than is manifested by the Mossad or its Arab equivalents.


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