Tag Archives: Palmach

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: Yitzhak Rabin

In Memory of a Great Israeli Hero

Yitzhak Rabin in 1948

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) was born in Jerusalem to Russian-Jewish parents who settled in the Holy Land during the Third Aliyah. He was raised in Tel-Aviv, and at the age of 14 enrolled in an agricultural school founded by his mother, at the same time enlisting in the Haganah defense force. Though originally hoping to be an irrigation engineer, he ultimately decided to stay in the military and fight for the Jewish homeland. In 1941, he joined the Haganah’s elite unit, Palmach, and his first mission was to assist the Allied Forces in the invasion of Lebanon during World War II. After the war, he spent time training new recruits and worked against British efforts to restrict Jewish immigration. At one point, Rabin was arrested by the British and spent five months in prison. During Israel’s War of Independence, Rabin was the Palmach’s COO and commanded its second battalion. He was in charge of the southern front against Egypt, and was involved in the capture of the cities of Ramle and Lod, and the liberation of Ramat Rachel. He was part of Israel’s delegation during the 1949 peace talks that ended the war. He later headed Israel’s Northern Command, and in 1964 was made Chief of Staff, the top general of the IDF. It was under his tenure that Israel planned and executed the miraculous Six-Day War and recaptured Jerusalem. For Rabin, this was the culmination of his military career, and the fulfilment of his dreams. It was time to retire. The following year, he was made ambassador to the United States, serving in that role for 5 years. Rabin was instrumental in getting the US to start selling its fighter jets to Israel, and during his time the US became Israel’s biggest military supplier. He returned to Israel following the Yom Kippur War and was elected to the Knesset. Several months later, Golda Meir resigned and Rabin became Israel’s prime minister. In 1976, he gave the difficult order to plan a rescue operation for Jewish hostages held in Entebbe, resulting in the stunning Operation Thunderbolt. A year later, his Labour Party was defeated in the elections, but Rabin remained in the Knesset, and in 1984 was appointed Minister of Defense. As terrorism from the West Bank got worse, Rabin instituted an “Iron Fist” determent policy, and during the First Intifada was nicknamed “Rabin the Bone Breaker”. Nonetheless, the violence only worsened, and Rabin decided to give peace a chance. He won the 1992 election and returned to the role of prime minister, his main goal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. He signed the controversial Oslo Accords in 1993, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He also worked out the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994. Meanwhile, Rabin was a huge economic reformer, transforming Israel from a state with a more socialist bent to a fully capitalist one. His “Yozma” program encouraged foreign venture capital and led to the development of Israel’s booming high-tech sector. His government boosted spending in education by 70%, and in 1995 instituted Israel’s universal health care system. On November 4th of that same year, Rabin was tragically assassinated by an extremist for “capitulating” to the Arabs. The square where he was shot was renamed after him, as were many other streets and landmarks. Politics aside, very few people have done more for the State of Israel and its citizens than Yitzhak Rabin. He is rightfully remembered as one of Israel’s greatest heroes.

Video: Bill Clinton Describes His “Love Like No Other” for Yitzhak Rabin

Words of the Week

It does no good… to brand one as an “enemy” or “anti-Semite”, however tempting it is to do so even if that person vehemently denies it. It can only be counterproductive. On the contrary, ways and means should be found to persuade such a person to take a favourable stance, at least publicly. We haven’t got too many friends, and attaching labels will not gain us any.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Yitzhak Sadeh

Israel’s First Commando

Yitzhak Sadeh

Izaak Landoberg (1890-1952) was born to a religious Jewish-Polish family in Lublin, then part of the Russian Empire. He was a student of Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin in his youth, but drifted towards secularism as a young adult. An avid athlete, Landoberg particularly enjoyed wrestling, and was once crowned St. Petersburg’s wrestling champion. When World War I broke out he joined the Russian Army and fought valiantly, receiving a medal. During this time, he met Joseph Trumpeldor and became a Zionist. He helped Trumpeldor establish the HeHalutz movement, which trained young Jews in agricultural work to settle the Holy Land. In 1920, he made aliyah and changed his last name to Sadeh, “field”. He joined the Haganah, and co-founded Gdud HaAvoda, the Labor and Defense Battalion, along with 80 others who worked tirelessly to drain swamps, pave roads, plant farms, defend Jewish settlements, and build kibbutzim. Sadeh defended the Jewish residents of Haifa and surrounding towns during an Arab uprising in 1929, and again during the Arab riots between 1936-1939 as the commander of the Jewish Settlement Police. It was during this time that he created two new fighting units. The first was Nodedet, a troop unit that started going on the offensive instead of always being on the defence from Arab violence. The second was Plugot Sadeh, “Field Companies”, the Haganah’s commandos, the first Jewish elite strike force. This evolved into the Palmach in 1941, which Sadeh commanded until 1945. At that point, he was made Chief of Staff of the Haganah, and set the foundations for the future IDF, crafting its first protocols, structures, and training procedures. Sadeh played an instrumental role during the War of Independence, commanding several brigades and creating Israel’s first armoured (tank) brigade, too. Sadeh retired at the war’s end with the rank of major general, and went on to have a successful literary career, publishing a variety of books, essays, and plays. Today there is a Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature given in his honour, as well as several kibbutzim and many streets named after him in Israel. There is also a “Yitzhak Sadeh Wandering Song Club” with hundreds of members (mostly soldiers) that gather over bonfires, food, Israeli folk songs, and Sadeh’s wise words, seeing in Sadeh their spiritual mentor. Sadeh is recognized as one of the “fathers of the IDF”. This friday is his yahrzeit.

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Words of the Week

If I am to understand that you are inquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.
– J.R.R. Tolkien