I have just finished watching The Spy, a Netflix six-episode series based on Mossad Israeli spy, Eli Cohen. I watched it all in one sitting. It was spell bounding. Born in 1924, in Alexandria, Egypt, and as a Jew, Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen‘s life seemed to entwine itself with the tumulus region and the times. Always a few steps ahead of what could have been considered dangerous living; some might have called Eli impetuous and cocky. Some might conclude that it was his impulsiveness and cockiness that eventually got him caught and executed. But who was Eli Cohen?
I must admit that until I watched the series I did not know much about Eli Cohen. After much research on Eli Cohen’s call to fame, I think Netflix kept pretty close to Eli Cohen as secret agent. But Eli Cohen was beyond a Netflix script; he was an incredible individual who seemed to throw caution to the wind for love of Israel. Some may argue that Eli Cohen was a narcissist who enjoyed danger for the sake of self fulfillment and gratification. But regardless of opinion, no one can deny Eli’s courage and resiliency.
Eli was an activist at heart. He always had a cause. He eventually left Egypt under suspicion of being subversive. During the Suez crises of the 1950’s Israeli/Zionist organizations were actively helping Egyptian Jews avoid the rise in anti Semitism and often assisting them in Aliyah toward Israel. It was clandestinely referred to as Operation Goshen. In 1955, Egyptian authorities supposedly “uncovered” a Zionist “spy ring”; disguised as Egyptians, Zionists allegedly sabotaged various British and American assets in the region. It was dubbed the Lavon Affair. Although unable to prove it, and because Eli was on the radar as a Zionist activist, he was under suspicion of involvement in both Operation Goshen and the alleged sabotage. In the meantime, the Suez Canal crises had raised the ante on anti-Jewish sentiment and persecution of Egyptian Jews. Eli eventually decided to leave Egypt. In December 1956, he landed in Haifa, Israel.
Eli worked for counterintelligence agencies soon after his arrival in Israel, but his strong desire had always been Mossad field operations. Unfortunately his first application for a position with Mossad was rejected leaving him unsettled and working at mundane jobs. When he was later approached by a Mossad recruiter, he did not hesitate. He was ready to start. Keeping Mossad a secret from his wife and family, he gave up his “normal” job and started a rigorous regimen of training. His cover story was a government contracting job to purchase arms for the military. A two-year katsa or field officer training was accomplished in nine months. Eli had amazing memory. Mossad had one objective in mind; to send him to Syria to determine military power and intentions.
Although Eli spoke fluent Arabic, he required a Syrian accent which was quite different from the Egyptian accent he grew up in. He spent most of his training learning a Syrian accent and taking on a new identity. He was to become affluent business man of Syrian descent, Kamal Amin Ta’abet. Kamal was a rich ex-pat living in Argentina with a strong desire to return to his “roots” in Syria. His lavish living, smooth talking, and reputation for exquisite tastes, opened doors to Syrian diplomats, military commanders, and upper crust Syrian society, always eager to rub elbows with the rich and famous. These connections eventually took him to Syria and helped him settle in an affluent part of Damascus. He found an expensive apartment conveniently located across a military installation.
Eli’s James Bond persona slithered smoothly through the Syrian business world and high society. Eli was likable. Everyone was comfortable to talk and divulge. He managed to develop strong ties with Syrian high ranking officers, who took to asking for his advice and also sharing military strategic plans. When the Ba’ath party came into power, he posed as one of its most ardent supporters. He was invited to meetings and allegedly helped the Ba’ath coup take over the country under the new Ba’ath President, Amin el Hafez.
Eli gave outlandish parties frequented by high government officials, military personnel, and other members of the Syrian elite. Some articles described these parties as “orgies”. Beautiful women, entertainers, pretty airline stewardesses, and a free flow of alcohol provided an atmosphere of quasi debauchery and “loose lips”. While Eli remained sober, his guests talked and revealed information he diligently sent to Israel.
His handler became concerned when Eli started going “off script”. He had close calls, especially when he felt that the situation justified taking an unauthorized chance. He ignored his handlers’ advice on transmitting information; always on the same hour. But if truth be told, Mossad was more concerned in getting the vital intelligence out of Syria than the unorthodox methods Eli used to obtain it. Eli was transmitting information Mossad only dreamed of having. Eli’s coup d’état was an unplanned trip to the Golan Heights. The epicenter of Syrian artillery against Israel. The personal guided tour revealed Syrian fortifications and underground tunnels. Eli also discovered Russia’s involvement in providing superior artillery arms to the Syrian army.
Eli Cohen spent four years (1962-1965) as Kamal Amin Ta’abet. He was brought in from the “cold” three times to visit his wife and kids in Bat Yam. The last time he returned home he had misgivings in returning back to Syria. He wanted to spend time with his family he had not seen for a year. But he had also become too valuable an asset to be brought back from the “cold” yet. The information he was gathering was unprecedented. During his Golan Heights visit he became aware of a Syrian plan to divert headwaters that normally flow to the Sea of Galilee, thus cutting off Israel’s water supply. It was also at this time that Eli acquired information on Al-Fatah (Palestine National Liberation Movement). Al-Fatah was plotting guerrilla and terrorist attacks in North Israel. Yasser Arafat was an upcoming leader of that organization.
Eli Cohen is personified as a hero. His courage and love of Israel remains undisputed. But Eli Cohen is more than that. Eli Cohen is every Jew who has lived through discrimination, persecution, fear, and hatred for being a Jew. Eli left university in Alexandria, because as a young Egyptian Jew he was expected to pay tuition. Jewish students were also constantly harassed by the Muslim Brotherhood. So he decided to study at home. When he tried to enlist in the Egyptian military he was refused on grounds of “split loyalty”. Although an Egyptian, as a Jew he was not to be trusted. Sounds familiar?
Eli’s Zionist activism was nurtured by those who hated him for being a Jew. His unconditional love of Israel counteracted Arab hatred toward his country. Israelis became resilient because they soon realized that they must go at it alone. When asked why Mossad did not ask the CIA for intelligence or assistance, Mossad Chief Meir Amit is said to have allegedly said that Israel cannot rely or expect outside assistance. He reminded; it had not been that long when Jews in Europe were told not to worry. How did that turn out?
It is said that it was Eli Cohen’s impulsive nature that resulted in his capture. But he had uncanny instincts. When he saw an opportunity he took it. After his trip to the Golan Heights he convinced the Syrians that he was concerned about soldiers working in the heat for long hours on the Golan. At Mossad expense he bought eucalyptus trees and had them planted at intervals, inadvertently marking all Syrian fortifications on the Heights. Israel used these trees as markers during the six-day war; Israel took the Golan Heights in two days!
Eli Cohen is remembered for being the ultimate spy. Israel’s James Bond. But he was also a husband, father, son, and brother. A few hours before his execution he wrote a letter in Arabic to his wife Nadia. The short letter strips the intrigue from the man. Sending her love and kisses, and asking her forgiveness, he gave his family his blessings. In a September 2018 interview, 83 year-old Nadia Cohen described her husband as happy and smart; “… liking people especially our nation and Judaism”. She described him as a traditionalist, “Shomer Masoret”. Not much of a James Bond image. Nadia Cohen and her children are still fighting to bring Eli’s body back from Syria. We should all pray that one day they will succeed, because Nadia and Israel deserve closure.
Zionce, S. (September 20, 2018). Animagazine. The Spy’s Widow//After, many decades, Nadia Cohen is keeping the memory of her husband, Eli Cohen, Isreal’s most famous spy, alive. Retrieved September 8, 2019 from: https://www.amimagazine.org/2018/09/20/the-spys-widow/