For a few weeks in February, the world fixed its attention on a curious incident in a Dubai hotel room, where the life of a senior Hamas operative was apparently snuffed out by a team of anywhere from 11 to 26 international assassins.
Reportedly using false British, Irish, Australian, and French passports and claiming identities traceable to real-life, unwitting Israeli citizens, the team was captured on closed-circuit TV cameras at Dubai International Airport and at the posh hotel where the hit took place. Images of fake beards, ersatz hairpieces, and ridiculous tennis outfits were beamed around the world by Dubai law enforcement. The affair had all the elements of a riveting spy novel.
In fact, a series of novels by the bestselling thriller writer Daniel Silva all but anticipated it. Spanning nine books, dozens of European and Middle Eastern locales, and topics from Holocaust-era art-plundering to papal succession to militant jihadism, Silva’s wildly successful novels about the Israeli spy Gabriel Allon locate their strategic and moral epicenter at “King Saul Boulevard,” the mythical headquarters of “the Office,” a thinly veiled pseudonym for the Mossad.
Like others in its genre, the Allon books—all of which have been New York Times bestsellers—center on the exploits of a master spy who always gets his man. Yet in Silva’s enthralling and crisply written series, Gabriel Allon is a reluctant warrior who was plucked from art school to hunt down the Palestinian masterminds of the 1972 Munich massacre. Constantly in and out of retirement, Allon travels the world from Argentina to the Alps in search of the bad guys.
The success of Silva’s series lies in its presentation to the broader world of the importance and fragility of the noble, flawed project of Jewish renewal in Zion, and of the Herculean efforts by a select few to protect it. In politics and in tone, Allon and his retinue serve as modern-day ambassadors to the Gentile world—unafraid to defend their people, ardent in their opposition to evildoers, yet constantly willing to check their moral compass against the often violent and sometimes ethically dubious course their superiors, and Jewish sovereignty in general, demand that they chart.
Politically speaking, both Allon and Silva hew closely to mainstream Israeli and Diaspora views on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the War on Terror, and reading the series from beginning to end illuminates an intriguing evolution in those views. In the first novel in the cycle, The Kill Artist (2000), Allon saves the life of Yasir Arafat, targeted for assassination in New York City by a small militant group of Palestinians that had splintered from the PLO after Arafat began participating in peace talks. The Israelis in The Kill Artist, while deeply wary of the “Father of Palestine,” afford him respect and recognize him as the last, best hope for peace between the peoples. Arafat is depicted in the book as pensively resigning himself to a smallish Palestinian state, “much less than he had wanted when he set out on this path—back then he had dreamed of the destruction of Israel—but it was the best he was going to get.”
Flashing forward five books to Prince of Fire (2005), we find an ailing, isolated Arafat holed up in Ramallah and showing no remorse for the bloody second intifada he unleashed after spurning Israel’s magnanimous offer at Camp David in 2000. Now Allon and his counterparts seethe with hostility to Arafat, who, it is revealed, had personally ordered the murder of Allon and his family years earlier in Vienna as payback for the Munich retribution.
In an interview with the talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, Silva himself acknowledged this sea change in Israeli—and American—perception of the conflict:
What impacted [Prince of Fire] most was my personal anger at Palestinian leadership for failing to take advantage of the opportunity to create a state, and live peacefully. Instead, they allowed Hamas and other Palestinian militants to bomb the daylights out of the Israelis.
Nevertheless, Silva furnishes, in his own words, a “deeply sympathetic” treatment of the principal Palestinian characters in his novels, who are master terrorists. He has them recite poetry and wax eloquent about their lost, beloved Palestine. At the end of Prince of Fire, Allon and his boss-mentor, legendary spymaster (now spy runner) Ari Shamron, discuss the Arab dispossession in 1947-48: “Did we drive them out?” Allon asks Shamron. “Of course we did,” the old man replies, but only “in a few places, under specific circumstances.”
Far more than other recent fictional nation savers, such as 24’s Jack Bauer and Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, Allon grapples with the ethics of King Saul Boulevard’s tactics and strategy, never fully comfortable with the deadly means he applies in the service of worthy ends. In The Kill Artist, Allon argues that “we killed thirteen members of Black September, and it didn’t bring back one of the boys they slaughtered in Munich.” Shamron’s chilling rejoinder is a simple, “Yes, but it felt good.” Notwithstanding this exchange, Allon always fulfills his mission, however hesitantly.
And in so doing, Allon displays far more intestinal fortitude and conviction than do other depictions of Israeli protectors in postmodern popular culture, such as Avner Kaufman, the haunted, dispirited assassin of Steven Spielberg’s film Munich. Like Allon, Kaufman is a young, multilingual, exceptionally talented Mossad agent whose German parents fled to Israel during the Holocaust. And, like Allon, Kaufman barnstorms Western Europe with a crack team of watchers and wheelmen stalking the Palestinians behind the massacre.
But falling victim to moral equivalence, as Gabriel Schoenfeld has noted in these pages (“Spielberg’s ‘Munich,’” February 2006), Kaufman sours entirely on the Zionist project and moves his family to New York.
Allon is no Kaufman. Despite losing his family to terrorists because of his role in the Munich aftermath, and despite his verbal wars with his Office superiors,Allon never despairs or wallows in the comforting muck of national self-abnegation. While much more textured and complex than fictional Zionist heroes like Leon Uris’s Ari Ben-Canaan, Allon shares their unwavering belief in the moral justification for, and historical significance of, Jewish self-determination.
Discussing how he conceived Allon as a character, Silva says:
There’s a tremendous amount of anti-Israelism in the world, particularly in Western Europe, and. . .I was just deeply concerned whether you could take an Israeli and turn him into a palatable continuing character for an American audience. And I was told that my concerns were way off base, and it was the best piece of advice I ever got.
Stylistically, the books also offer a telling portrait of the intersection between Israel and the outside world. Allon’s cover identity as a restorer of European artistic masterpieces requires him to live in the United Kingdom and Italy, where he seems far more comfortable than in his native Israel. At the same time, Allon’s masters in Jerusalem often find themselves at loggerheads with London, Paris, Rome, and even Washington. Silva says the spies of the Office “play in a very rough neighborhood, and they are willing to do things that traditional services are unwilling to do, simply because…they live on the razor’s edge there. A nuclear bomb in Iran looks one way to the people of the Netherlands, and looks a very different way to the people of Israel.”
This tension also permeates the three books—The English Assassin (2002), The Confessor (2003), and A Death in Vienna (2004)—that confront the explicitly European issues surrounding the Holocaust, Swiss banks, and the Vatican. While Silva presents these delicate issues with nuance and without resorting to hindsight, he unyieldingly points the finger at those—Austrian Nazi collaborators, Swiss art dealers, reactionary elements of the Church—who facilitated the immiseration and near extermination of Europe’s Jewry. In an illustrative passage, a new pope apologizes to the Jewish community of Rome, artfully confessing:
The Holocaust was not a Catholic crime, but the Church sowed the seeds of the poisonous vine known as anti-Semitism and provided the water and nourishment those seeds needed to take root and thrive in Europe. We must acknowledge this sin, and we must beg forgiveness.
Silva’s two most recent books have introduced yet another existential threat to the Jewish state—the Islamic bomb and its abettors in Moscow. Here, again, Allon confronts Jew-hatred on an even larger scale, carrying out missions on inhospitable Russian soil designed to neutralize the network of a notorious Russian arms dealer trading with al-Qaeda and Iran.
In so doing, Silva has managed to infuse the Soviet-era thriller with his trademark Jewish-Israeli twist; the specter of Israel’s nuclear destruction—and what the Jewish state and the world can ethically and pragmatically do to stave it off—looms forebodingly over both novels.
Born and raised Catholic, Silva converted to Judaism after writing the first book in the Allon series (he has also written three unrelated spy novels). Silva’s outside perspective proves to be both a strength and a weakness.
On one hand, he senses better than Jewish writers how Gentiles relate to the Jewish state. In the manner of a George Gilder or a William J. Bennett, Silva makes Israel both palatable and digestible to the outside world, helping non-Jews appreciate its precarious position as a canary in the coal mine.
On the other hand, Silva’s admiring depiction of Israel and its agents as the nerve center of international conspiracies runs the risk of reinforcing odious stereotypes of the conniving, controlling Jew pulling the strings of world affairs. Silva’s Israel-centrism also underscores the chief shortcoming in the spy-thriller genre: its inherent implausibility. Silva’s readers, like Robert Ludlum’s or Flynn’s or even William F. Buckley’s, are asked to suspend their disbelief as the story unfolds and a single intelligence service—even a single man—manages to unravel a tightly wound global conspiracy. But this baseline level of disbelief-suspension is amplified in the Allon series, where the Office—and, really, Allon himself—single-handedly saves the pope’s life (twice!); brings down a Russian arms-smuggling network; uncovers an international secret society within the Catholic Church; and, at America’s behest, destroys a Wahhabi-inflected terror network extending into the Saudi royal family itself.
Additionally, at times, Silva’s intimate knowledge of Europe outstrips his actual familiarity withIsrael itself; he’s far more authoritative writing about Rome and Zurich than about Ramallah and Zichron Yaakov. A former CNN producer and international correspondent for UPI, Silva can perhaps be forgiven for this tendency, but the reader in places finds himself wondering whetherIsrael is simply an artifice for an essentially European spy series.
In many ways, then, the author is the opposite of his protagonist: Allon is an insider, a decorated Sabra, a favorite son of Israel who’s constantly aimed at (and aiming for) the outside world; Silva is an outsider, an American, a non-Jew by birth who nevertheless has immersed himself in the inner workings of the Jewish state and its intelligence apparatus.
Even so, both the novelist and the spy share a common obsession with the clash of worlds, with the classic Jewish dichotomy (and union) between the universal and the particular, sticking up for Israel and world Jewry while owing the world an explanation, confident in the justness of their cause but always making a moral accounting of the tactics forced upon the Jewish state in the pursuit of its own survival.