Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
– Carl Sagan
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
The Rabbi Who Captured a Lion, and Saved Israeli Farmers
Raphael Meir ben Yehuda Panigel (1804-1893) was born in Bulgaria—then part of the Ottoman Empire—the only child of a wealthy and religious Sephardic Jewish family. When he was 3 years old, the family moved to Jerusalem. Despite being orphaned at 15, Panigel soon became a respected rabbi in the Holy City. At just 27 years old, the community appointed him as their official emissary to travel around the world to teach Torah and to collect funds in support of the old yishuv, the Jewish community that struggled to make a living in the Holy Land. In 1845, he was received by Pope Gregory XVI and inspired him to support and protect Jewish communities in Christian lands. Rabbi Panigel made several trips across North Africa, gaining a reputation as a holy miracle-worker. In one famous incident that happened in Tunis, a lion escaped from the city’s zoo and was terrorizing the locals. Incredibly, it was Rabbi Panigel that captured the lion. When he was asked how he did so, he replied that one who is righteous and fears God need not fear anything else. In 1880, Rabbi Panigel was appointed the Rishon LeZion, Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and in 1890, the Ottomans made him hakham bashi, chief authority representing the Jewish community. He composed a penetrating work called Lev Marpe with novel Torah and Talmudic insights. He was also instrumental in developing heter mechira, allowing Jewish farmers in Israel to continue working during the Sabbatical shemitah year (such as this year) in a kosher way. As the shemitah of 1889 approached, the struggling Jewish immigrants of the First Aliyah worried how they would survive if they had to let the land lie fallow, considering the country was then completely undeveloped. After consultations with other Torah luminaries, Rabbi Panigel found a way to work around the shemitah restrictions, allowing the faithful farmers to survive while also adhering to Torah law. Rabbi Panigel was the first to institute heter mechira, a practice which continues in Israel to this day. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the famous “father of Modern Hebrew”, wrote of how he was inspired by Rabbi Panigel and described him as being of “electrifying” holiness, like one of the Biblical Patriarchs.