Tag Archives: Mizrahi Jews

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: Moshe Safdie

Visionary Architect

Moshe Safdie (b. 1938) was born in Haifa to a Mizrachi Jewish family originally from Syria. He grew up on a kibbutz where he was a beekeeper and goatherd. When he was 15, the family moved to Montreal, Canada. Safdie went on to study architecture at McGill University. For his thesis, he came up with the idea of 3D, prefabricated modular units. Safdie quickly made a name for himself as a young architect and, at just 23, was invited to design Habitat 67 during Montreal’s World Expo. In 1970, Safdie opened a branch of his firm in Jerusalem to focus on restoring the Old City and building up the new city post-reunification. He designed the famous Porat Yosef Yeshiva (originally the vision of the great Ben Ish Chai), the beautiful Mamilla Center, as well as Yad Vashem, and Ben Gurion International Airport. Safdie achieved international renown, and went on to design some of the most iconic buildings in the world (see below). This includes the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, the National Gallery of Canada, and the world’s longest “horizontal skyscraper” in China. Meanwhile, Safdie has taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and directed it for a number of years. He has also published a dozen books, and has been featured in six films. Today, Safdie Architects has offices in Boston, Jerusalem, Toronto, Shanghai, and Singapore. Safdie is still deeply involved, and maintains a research fellowship at his firm to develop new architectural ideas and futuristic projects. He has won countless awards, including the Order of Canada, the Wolf Prize in Architecture, and multiple honorary doctorates. The Moshe Safdie Archive at McGill University is among the largest architectural collections in the world, with over 140,000 drawings, 100,000 photos, and over 2000 sketches.

*November is Mizrachi Heritage Month.*

Moshe Safdie at TED: How to Reinvent the Apartment Building

Words of the Week

Woe to mankind! For they see, but do not know what they see; they stand, but do not know upon what they stand.
Rabbi Yose (Talmud, Chagigah 12b)

Some of Moshe Safdie’s best-known projects, clockwise from top left: Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City, Kauffman Center in Kansas City, National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Habitat 67 in Montreal, Jewel Changqi Airport in Singapore, and Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Jew of the Week: Sir Sassoon Eskell

Father of Iraq

Sassoon Eskell (1860-1932) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and illustrious Mizrachi Jewish family. At the time, some 40% of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Eskell’s father was a rabbi, and at one point served as the chief rabbi of India’s large Baghdadi community. Eskell studied law and economics in Istanbul, London, and Vienna. He spoke nine languages fluently, and became the official translator (dragoman) for the Ottoman government in Baghdad. When the Ottomans drafted a constitution and established a new Turkish Parliament in 1908, Eskell was elected as Baghdad’s deputy representative. He also served as the under-secretary of state for trade and agriculture, and represented the Ottomans on multiple international delegations. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Eskell was among the key figures that pushed for Iraqi independence. He was one of two Iraqi representatives that negotiated with Winston Churchill in creating the new state and choosing its first king. Eskell went on to be Iraq’s first finance minister, and continued in this role through the next five governments. He was the primary advisor to the Iraqi king and prime minister, and was described as “by far the ablest man” on Iraq’s governing council. Eskell was elected to the first Iraqi parliament in 1925, and continued to serve on it until his death. He is often referred to as the “Father of Iraqi Parliament”. Among his many significant achievements was making sure that Iraq’s oil was sold to the British for gold, not pounds sterling. While this was unusual at the time, the British pound soon lost most of its value and was no longer backed by gold. Sassoon thus ensured Iraq’s wealth was not diminished, and that it would continue to profit from its oil sales. These funds were critical in ensuring the success and viability of the nascent state. Eskell was also a major philanthropist and gave countless sums to charity. Much of his wealth went to the Jewish National Fund to support the re-establishment of Israel. The village of Kfar Yehezkel in Israel is named after him. Among his many other awards and honours, Eskell was knighted by King George V. Several years ago, the Iraqi government demolished his historic 100-year old home in a controversial move that made way for a new development.

Words of the Week

Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.
– Alexander Hamilton