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”.
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
Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.
Shulamit Cohen (b. 1917) was born in Argentina and raised in Jerusalem with her twelve brothers and sisters. Her father was from a wealthy Egyptian-Jewish merchant family, and her mother was the daughter of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem. In 1936, the family experienced severe financial strain, and Shulamit’s father arranged her to marry Joseph Kishak-Cohen, a wealthy businessman from Beirut. Shula moved to Lebanon, and had five kids by the time she was 24. One day in 1947, she overheard people discussing military activities against Israel. Shula recorded the information in a letter to the Haganah, which was fighting for a Jewish state in Israel, addressing it to her brother in Jerusalem. Five weeks later, an agent of the Haganah’s secret service contacted her. For the next 14 years, Shula worked as an Israeli spy in Lebanon. Her work consisted of two major goals. The first was to gather intelligence about Arab military activities, which she was able to do by getting herself into Lebanon’s high society, including the home of the prime minister, who considered her like one of his own daughters. The second was to help smuggle Jewish families fleeing persecution in the Arab world, particularly from Syria. Over the years, she helped countless families find safe passage to Israel. Shula communicated with the secret service using invisible ink, under the code name “Pearl”. She was first caught for smuggling in 1952. Pregnant at the time, Shula was taken to jail just three weeks after giving birth, and spent 36 days in confinement. She continued her clandestine activities for another 9 years before things got too dangerous and she moved to Rome for three months. Upon her return in 1961, she was immediately arrested for espionage. The trial went on for several months during which she was brutally tortured. She was initially sentenced to death by hanging, but the verdict was softened because she was a mother of seven. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years of hard labour. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Lebanese citizens, and used them in a prisoner exchange for Shula and a captured Israeli pilot. Shula has lived in Israel ever since, and still volunteers at schools and IDF bases, despite her advanced age. Two of her sons have high-ranking roles in the Israeli government. A book about her story has been published, called Shula: Code Name The Pearl.
UPDATE: Sadly, Shula Cohen passed away in May of 2017.
Words of the Week
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill