Jew of the Week: Gamliel Cohen

Father of Israeli Espionage

Gamliel Jamil Cohen (1922-2002) was born in Damascus to a religious Syrian-Jewish family, and grew up in the city’s Jewish Quarter. Yearning to live in the Holy Land and inspired by the Zionist vision, he left Damascus at the age of 21 and literally walked to Israel. He joined a kibbutz started by Ashkenazi immigrants. Despite being the odd one who was darker-skinned and spoke no Yiddish, Cohen quickly fell in love with the sense of unity and brotherhood, as well as the important pioneering work of developing the Jewish ancestral homeland. His uniqueness caught the attention of the Palmach, the commando unit of the pre-IDF defence force, the Haganah. The Palmach sought to launch an intelligence unit that could infiltrate Arab governments, and were looking for talented and dedicated Arab Jews. In 1944, Cohen became their first recruit. Together with Iraqi Jew Shimon Somech, they created the first unit of Mista’arvim (recently popularized by the show Fauda). The term itself came from the name of the ancient Mizrachi Jewish communities living in Arab lands that were distinct from, and pre-dated, the Sephardic Jews that joined them after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. After several years of training, Cohen moved to Beirut in 1948 and set up Israel’s first official intelligence outpost, living undercover as Yussef el-Hamed, a textile shop owner. By this point, his operation was overseen by the newly-formed Mossad. Cohen’s trailblazing work and espionage innovations paved the way for more famous later spies like Shula Cohen and Eli Cohen. In 1954, Cohen married a fellow Syrian Jew who also worked for the Mossad. Together, they moved to Paris undercover as Arabic journalists. Cohen managed to get hired by the Syrian Embassy in Paris, from which he sent critical intelligence to the Israeli government. In 1958, the Cohens moved to Vienna to continue their work as “journalists”. In addition to infiltrating the embassies of Arab states, they also found information on neo-Nazi groups and exposed war criminals in hiding. Cohen retired from active duty in 1964 and went on to train the next generation of Israeli spies. In his last years, he wrote the book Undercover: The Untold Story of the Palmach’s Clandestine Arab Unit. Almost all of Cohen’s work remains classified. He has been called the “father of Israeli espionage”.

Happy Israel Independence Day!

Zionism Before Zionism

Words of the Week

The U.N. did not create Israel. The Jewish state came into being because the Jewish community in what was Mandatory Palestine rebelled against foreign imperialist rule. We did not conquer a foreign land.
– Yitzhak Shamir

Jew of the Week: Harry Haft

“The Survivor” of Auschwitz

Herschel “Hertzko” Haft (1925-2007) was born in Poland and orphaned at the young age of 3. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, he ran a smuggling ring with his brother in order to survive. In 1942, he was sent to Auschwitz. An SS officer noticed his muscular physique and decided to train him to be a boxer. Haft was forced to fight other inmates (at the neighbouring Jaworzno camp), often to the death, for the entertainment of the SS officers. He won and survived through a total of 76 fights. With the Soviet Army closing in, the Nazis forced all the inmates on a death march, which Haft also managed to survive. During his escape, he killed a Nazi soldier and put on his uniform. He eventually made it to an American DP camp, and finally settled in New Jersey in 1948. Haft became a light heavyweight boxer and had 21 fights, of which he won 13. His last fight was against a young and up-and-coming Rocky Marciano, who later became heavyweight champion and one of the most famous boxers in history. The Italian mafia threatened Haft and forced him to lose the fight to Marciano. Haft decided to end his boxing career. He got married and opened a small grocery store in Brooklyn, where he lived the rest of his life quietly. In 2007, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. A film about his incredible story, The Survivor (starring Ben Foster, Danny DeVito, and John Leguizamo) was released yesterday in Israeli theatres and on HBO in honour of Yom HaShoah.

Words of the Week

We, the God-fearing, criticize and prosecute the secular state, while the secular Jews take action and create facts on the ground. I also used to think that this was the proper approach, and I would curse the heretics with great fervor, anticipating that my curses would be fulfilled. But that did not happen. On the contrary, I saw that they were becoming stronger and stronger. So, I said to myself, that perhaps it is better if we switch roles. I will build the land of Israel in holiness and the seculars can curse me!
– Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, renowned Hasidic leader and Holocaust survivor, on why he made aliyah.

Jew of the Week: Eytan Stibbe

Second Israeli in Space

Eytan Meir Stibbe (b. 1958) was born in Haifa to Jewish parents who had made aliyah from the Netherlands. He grew up partly in the United States. Stibbe joined the Israeli Air Force and became an F-16 fighter pilot. He served under the command of Ilan Ramon, who would go on to become Israel’s first astronaut. Stibbe served with distinction, and once tied a record by shooting down four enemy aircraft in a single battle over Lebanon in 1982. In another mission, he downed a total of five Syrian aircraft! Stibbe was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and went on to teach at the IAF Flight Academy. Altogether, he served with the Israeli Air Force for some 43 years. Meanwhile, in 1984 he joined Israel Aircraft Industries to help modify and improve Israel’s own Lavi fighter jet. The following year, he co-founded Elar, a new Israeli military tech developer. When he left the company in 2011 and sold all of his shares, he had become a millionaire. Stibbe then turned his attention to his new Vital Capital Fund, which invests specifically in projects designed to alleviate poverty and clean up the environment. The Fund has helped bring sanitation, electricity, and healthcare to millions of people around the world, and has won numerous awards for its philanthropic work. Stibbe has always dreamed of following his mentor Ilan Ramon to space. He purchased a $55 million ticket on board a SpaceX craft, in collaboration with Axiom Space, which took off on April 8th for a ten-day mission. This is the first ever privately-funded human mission to space, and Stibbe is now only the second Israeli ever to go to space. He is not only a passenger, but also doing important scientific work, carrying out a total of 35 experiments, including on space radiation, optics, and quantum communications. Because of several delays, the Rakia mission (from the Biblical Hebrew word for outer space) ended up overlapping with Passover. And so, Stibbe took with him a Pesach seder kit prepared by Chabad, with shmurah matzah and four mini-cartons of grape juice (wine is prohibited on the ISS!) The return trip has also been delayed due to poor weather, and is expected to finally return to Earth this Sunday.

Passover: Fighting for Freedom

Words of the Week

Moses spoke not about freedom but about education. He fixed his vision not on the immediate but on the distant future, and not on adults but children. In so doing he was making a fundamental point: It may be hard to escape from tyranny but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society. In the long run there is only one way of doing so – to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks