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Network Jews: Ziva David from CBS’s ‘NCIS’

If NCIS only sounds vaguely familiar to you, here’s a clue: it’s that show clogging up your parents’ DVR. Not to be confused with the similarly-named CSI, it’s been on the air for nine years and has even earned its own spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles. Yes, the show’s lead, TV veteran Mark Harmon, is one of the biggest draws for those who once watched St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting. But something else makes it must-see TV: it’s the best place to watch a Jew kick ass on a weekly basis.

It’s not often that an Israeli character makes the cover of TV Guide Magazine. In fact, it’s not often that an Israeli character is regularly featured on an American television show. As adapting hit Israel shows for American TV becomes more common (think In Treatment and Homeland), there’s an indelible Israeli personality that’s been around for the past seven years: Ziva David, Mossad liaison to the U.S. naval agency NCIS.

What’s most notable about Ziva being a Jewish character so prominently spotlighted in the show is how little her Judaism is actually featured. Sure, she sports a Star of David around her neck and occasionally makes a Jewish reference, but she’s more accurately described as a nonreligious, secular Zionist. What her unexplored religious identity leads to is a portrayal of Ziva as a stereotypical Israeli rather than as a stereotypical Jew.

Ziva’s cultural trappings include a remarkable ability to butcher the English language, constantly confusing expressions and eliciting sarcastic mockery from her comedic teammate Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), himself a champion of all that is Italian. The Internet is full of clips of Zivaisms, including one that starts with Tony firing off expressions at her, receiving only blank stares in return.

Linguistic difficulties aside, Ziva is the show’s most stable and dependable character, as steadfast as Harmon’s Gibbs. Upon her arrival in Washington, D.C., Ziva proves her loyalty time and again, first saving the life of her future mentor Gibbs by shooting her murderous half-brother who was threatening him. That selfless, endearing act is representative of the kind of behavior that Ziva later exhibits over the seasons as she bends over backward to defend her teammates amid, and in spite of, the jokes her foreigner status frequently elicits.

Ziva’s portrayer, Cote de Pablo, is not Israeli, nor is she Jewish. Though the Catholic-born Chilean actress’ pronunciation of the name of her character’s home country leaves something to be desired, she does capture a certain Israeli toughness and no-nonsense attitude.

As far as plot developments go, her character’s existence has facilitated trips for the whole NCIS crew to Israel, painting the Jewish state as a staunch American ally. Objectively, there’s no reason why Israel should even be a topic on this navy-centric show, yet Ziva’s presence prompted me to establish a lasting connection to the show—I got to root for the Israeli chick, who was Jewish like me, even if we didn’t actually resemble each other all that much.

Ziva is a rock, sternly committed to defending those she cares about and to serving the country to which she has newly sworn allegiance. She’s not the kind of Jewish character we usually see on television, and she redefines what being the token Jew on a TV show may imply. This Jew may still be the butt of jokes, but she’s definitely not going to take the abuse lying down.

When he’s not working in the world of Jewish outreach, Abe Fried-Tanzer can be found blogging away about movies and television.

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