Today, the 18th Iyar according to the Hebrew calendar, marks fifty years since Eli Cohen was hanged in Damascus. The Israeli public will forever remember Cohen as an honest and serious man who was devoted to his people and his country, and who operated with a deep conviction that he was serving his nation despite enormous but necessary risks. The image of his body dangling from a rope is etched in the hearts of many Israelis, and his name is spoken with reverence. Speaking in an interview with a Syrian reporter 24 hours before his execution, Eli Cohen said,
I went to Syria on a mission from the Israeli intelligence to secure a future for my wife, my children and my family.”
Many times I have been on the Golan Heights with a group of students from Alexander Muss High School in Israel or Birthright in a former Syrian bunker and looked down on the view the Syrian military had of Israel until the Six Day War. The scenery is so tranquil and peaceful it is difficult to comprehend that for the first 19 years of our State’s existence life under the shadow of the Syrian gun emplacements on the Golan was extremely arduous. An entire generation slept in the bomb shelters at night and farmed in armour-plated tractors. All that changed with the Israeli capture of the Golan Heights in the Six Day War.
Guiding an “Amazing Israel” Taglit-Birthright group at Mitzpe Gadot, a former Syrian bunker on the Golan Heights
In a case of truth being far stranger than fiction, Eli managed to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Syrian government and military. Israel’s, seemingly miraculous victory of the Six Day War, specifically the capture in just one day of the apparently impregnable Golan Heights owes a lot to the spectacular intelligence provided by Eli Cohen. Nadia Cohen, Eli’s widow, in an emotional address to the Keneset a few years ago declared,
Eli volunteered for the service out of a love for the State, for the nation, for this land. Nothing could have stopped him. He could have continued with us, but what can we do? He paid with his life and the family lost a dear person. I thank the nation, the nation that has memorialised him. Eli is viewed by this nation as a hero, and a legend.
Eli Cohen’s son, Shaul, was only 2 weeks old when he last saw his father. At Kfar Habad, on July 29, 1977, at the joint Bar Mitzvah for 100 fatherless boys, in the presence of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Shaul was asked to say something on their behalf. This is what he said:
I would like to have been like all other children. I would have liked my father to be a simple man and not a hero. The he would be alive and I would have had a father whom I knew, and who lived with us like all other fathers. I have read everything about my father’s life and what he did for our country. I have collected all the books, articles and photographs. But I have hesitated to talk about him until now for I knew that it still hurt my mother when my father’s name was mentioned.
I will now make my vow. I promise, you, father, that in my life I will never fail you. I will do my duty with all my strength and devotion for the State of Israel. I will be a faithful son of an admired hero. I will try to be like you, father. That is my pledge.”
There are few like him in the Israeli Hall of Fame. Many heroes fought their people’s enemies courageously on the field of battle, but few were spies, undercover warriors, who constantly risked their lives in solitude, conducting a war of the mind. Eli Cohen’s name and selfless deeds will live forever in the memory of our people.
Eli Cohen z”l (1925-1965)