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.