Tag Archives: Spy Chief

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: Yossi Cohen

The Real James Bond

Yosef Meir Cohen (b. 1961) was born in Jerusalem to a religious-Zionist family with deep roots in the ancient city. He is a 9th-generation Israeli, and his ancestors were among the founders of the Mea Shearim neighbourhood, one of the first outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Cohen grew up studying in yeshivas and was a member of the Bnei Akiva religious-Zionist youth movement. After completing his military service in the IDF as a paratrooper, he spent some time studying in London. Returning to Israel in 1982, he joined the Mossad and quickly made a name for himself. He was the only religious officer in the Mossad at the time, and originally worked as a spy recruiter and handler. Over the years, he also led a number of daring spy missions which are, of course, all classified. Cohen was awarded the Israel Defense Prize, given to those distinguished individuals who are recognized for playing an instrumental role in keeping the Jewish State safe. By 2011, Cohen had risen to deputy director of the Mossad. Two years later, he was appointed Netanyahu’s national security advisor. In 2016, he took over Israel’s top spy job, becoming Mossad’s director. His task was to clean up the organization, restore its prestige (after some high-profile failures) and, most importantly, end the threat from Iran. It was Cohen who oversaw the stunning 2018 operation to raid Tehran’s nuclear archives. And it was Cohen who oversaw last week’s devastating assassination of Iran’s nuclear chief. Back in 2016, he similarly took out Hamas’ terror chief in a complex operation in Tunisia. Over the past four years, Cohen has transformed the Mossad into, by some counts, the world’s second-largest intelligence agency (after the CIA). He presides over a network of an estimated 7000 agents. Meanwhile, thanks to Cohen’s diplomatic wisdom and his fluency in English, French, and Arabic, he has also served as Netanyahu’s chief negotiator, and was behind the Abraham Accords that brought peace between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. He is working to bring more peace agreements with neighbouring countries, including Oman and Saudi Arabia. Last year, The Jerusalem Post ranked Cohen as the most influential Jew in the world. Netanyahu has said that he believes Cohen alone to be capable of leading the nation in the future. Despite being a grandfather, Cohen still runs marathons. All of this, combined with his gracefulness and charm, is the reason he has been described as Israel’s James Bond.

Words of the Week

The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.
– Stephen Hawking