A Brother’s Keeper

In 2004, Maurice Cohen, brother of Eliahu Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy, told me a story about love and patriotism    . . . a  story of heroism. About a man who loved his wife but loved his country more. . . so much more that he laid down his life to save it. I wrote the story and sold it to Moment Magazine. They published it in 2005.

Moment Magazine’s promotion of The Spy

In 2019, Netflix launched The Spy, a limited original series that borrows liberally from the Moment article. In the Netflix version, however, Eli Cohen is more anti-hero than hero. Here he is ruthless, inconsiderate, arrogant. Maurice spoke of a man with deep commitments, who would never willingly brutalize another human being. Somewhere between the lines of both lies the truth about the man Eli Cohen actually was.

Maurice Cohen, 2004

When I met Maurice, I instantly disliked him. He was cagey, strange. I had to accept him, even learn to like him – he and an old friend were engaged, and she was smitten. Maurice, she explained, was a fascinating man with a compelling past. “He was a spy,” she whispered, “Mossad. Retired.”

He shared his story with me, and I remained skeptical. At first.

“I could have saved Eliahu Cohen,” Maurice told me, shaking his drooped head in exaggerated shame. “My big brother. I could have stopped the hanging.” He inhaled deeply, looked into my eyes for the first time ever, and said. “I decoded his messages. I knew he was our man in Damascus, and I didn’t say a word. If I did, maybe he’d be alive today.”

“You can sell this,” he said. “It’s a story you’ve never heard.”

That was absolutely true. Even if he had embellished the story, it was saleable. And timeless.

Maurice worked for Mossad decoding and encrypting messages. His job was to receive and decode telegraph messages, which he then delivered to headquarters. He was never supposed to know the identity of the senders. He discovered Eli by a freak coincidence and told no one what he knew. Maurice was an old man plagued with guilt by the time I met him. Asking me to write the story was his act of contrition.

I queried Moment Magazine, and they were quick to send me an advance and a publication contract.

Nadia and Eli Cohen – from Moment Magazine, June 2005

Over the next several months, I became intimate with the details of Eli and Maurice’s story. Their parents’ emigration from Aleppo, Syria to Egypt; Eli’s underground activities in Egypt and their separate immigration to Israel. Eli’s great love affair with Nadia. His gift for languages, his recruitment into the Agaf ha-Modi’in, a branch of the IDF, and his subsequent transfer to the Mossad, where he was assigned, in 1963, by, to travel to Argentina. There he was instructed to establish the persona of Kamel Amin Sa’Abet, a rich Syrian expatriate hungry to return to Damascus.

A reckless risk-taker, Eli seemed fearless. Once relocated to Damascus, tirelessly smuggled valuable information from Syria into Israel. In 1965, he was caught and hanged. His work enabled Israel to prevail in their 1967 War, which they fought against the United Arab Republic, the combined, Soviet-supplied air forces and armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Maurice (who died in 2006) carried with him deep remorse. “I should have told my mother. Or Nadia (Eli’s wife). They deserved to know. I didn’t even confront Eli. Maybe he would have come home instead of persisting in such a dangerous game.”

Eli Cohen’s story had been told and re-told. What made my article for Moment unique was Maurice’s perspective. His was an excruciating task. Duty to country required him to keep his brother’s mission secret, but his duty to family . . .. This was a story with what the film industry would call “legs.” It deserved to be turned into a film.

The week before I turned in the final draft of the essay I titled “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” while attending the Cannes Film Market, I told a producer friend what I was writing for Moment. “Let’s make that movie,” he said. “What a story!” We planned to announce our intent to make the film at an industry party the following night.

When we met for breakfast the following morning, our attorney greeted us with a small notice she’d read in Variety. Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Sony Pictures Co-Founder/Director Michael Barker were in talks with Nadia Cohen, widow of Eli Cohen, to make a love story. Raising money for a film is a daunting enough task. We could never compete with Sony.

We scrapped our plans, and I rarely thought about Eli and Maurice thereafter. The Moment article was inaccessible online, so I couldn’t use it as a clip, and I began to doubt I ever wrote it at all.

Until my son suggested I check out Netflix’s original series about Eli Cohen. I watched the trailer and smiled. It’s about Nadia and Eli’s love story, the slant Pierce and Barker spoke about at that Cannes party. I binge-watched the show.

For the first four episodes, I really liked it. It had flaws – weak writing, absence of necessary exposition, choppy editing – but I was so close to the story that the holes didn’t bother me. Besides, it was largely the story Maurice told me to write. He was depicted transcribing messages as they beeped in from Eli in Syria. At Episode Five, when the fictional Maurice intercepts a message about the Singer sewing machine, I was sure that Moment Magazine article had to be a screenwriter’s source. I was the first to write about that incident. No one else has yet published another version.

How could I not be flattered? Someone actually paid attention to what I wrote. I Googled the essay at Moment, and there it was, on the web in a blatant pitch for Netflix. Underneath photos of the series star Sacha Baron Cohen and a link to the series’ page, the copy reads, “In honor of this Friday’s premiere, we pulled a Moment exclusive from the archives: Am I My Brother’s Keeper? 

I have my clip now.

I wish I liked the Netflix series more. There are so many omissions, so many ways the production fails to present a whole picture of the given circumstances.

In this telling, nothing explains Eli Cohen’s work. There is no end to justify his means. As the episodes progress, it must seem to the unschooled eye that he was simply an arrogant, evil man, who was used by a ruthless Israeli machine to spy on the unwitting, unsuspecting, innocent Syrians. In this version, Cohen worms his way into the confidence of the upper echelon of the Ba’athists in power and becomes a ruthless agent willing to betray everyone whose confidence he has won. He facilitates murder and mayhem. He enables Israel to take the Golan Heights. By the time he slowly mounts the gallows for his public execution, most of the audience must think he deserves to die in ignominy.

Israel comes off looking greedily aggressive. No backstory details the struggle for survival that threatened Israel from 1948 on. There is no mention of the fact that Israel’s Arab neighbors were (as they remain) sworn to eradicate the Jewish state. War was perpetually imminent. Syrians invested millions in building bunkers to hide their troops and weaponry. They armed Palestinians to wage guerilla warfare against Israelis. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt consolidated efforts to make war against Israel. In June 1967, they attacked. The result was the Six-Day War. 800 Israelis and 20,000 Arabs died in 132 hours of fighting.

Without Cohen’s intelligence, there is no telling how many days the fighting might have continued, how many more lives would have been lost.

Eli Cohen was undoubtedly a complex character. His love of country hardly justifies the hideous nature of the acts he enabled, and no patriotism could validate what his years in Damascus did to his family. I only wish that Netflix had taken the time and the care to explore his multiple dimensions. That it had allowed for more subtlety, more nuance. Then I would feel like I had contributed to a job well done.

Border Wars on the Mind

I perceive Gaza these days through a Texas-tempered lens.  Watching the hateful  citizenry of the wealthiest country in the world scream obscenities at indigent waifs displaced by violence and poverty, instructing them to go back to where they come from, I am reminded of stories my mother told about her arrival in Kingston just before WWII.  My mother was no waif, and poverty was not the impetus for her flight to the Land of Opportunity, but her stories inevitably lead me all the way to Gaza.

Mom’s family arrived without their patriarch in April, 1939, toward the end of what proved to be her junior year in high school.   She surprised herself by passing the English regents exam in May and so began the process of applying to college.  Her senior year felt friendless to her; classmates jeered her, mocked her accent.  Girls in the lunch room turned chairs over so she could not sit with them, and in gym class, they threw dirty socks and wet towels at her.  Teachers derided her, telling her they were unable to understand her when she spoke, deliberately refusing to call on her in class. The entire community – especially the entrenched first-and-second generation descendants of immigrants– treated her and her siblings as interlopers, avoiding them all at synagogue and football games alike, attempting to rebuff her brother’s attempts to join the Boy Scouts, even suggesting on numerous occasions that the lot of them return to their “own country.”

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother,  was 16 in 1939.

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother, turned 16 in 1939.

Of course, they owned no country any more than those homeless children seeking asylum at our Southwest borders do today.  Born in Austria during a time when Jews were highly respected, my mother reached her teens at precisely the time when Jews were successfully relegated to the status of lice.  Her passport, any European’s primary form of identification, was stamped Israelische, marking her as an outsider, a member of the tribe of Israel.  She was not Austrian.

Which was initially why she joined the Jabotinsky youth, planned to leave the vitriolic land of her birth to claim her rightful home in Eretz Isroel.

My grandfather put a stop to that.  “You think I’ll let you leave the Nazis only to throw yourself into the hands of the Arabs who want you dead?  Besides,” he told her, “the Jews cannot own the ‘promised land because the Europeans will never let it go.  You will come with us to America.’”

She was only 15; she acquiesced.  Ironically, she emigrated without her father.  In a move that may have helped to seal the fate of the Middle East, the United States closed its borders to Jews like my grandfather, who were born in countries that seemed somehow un-Caucasian, such as Poland, and were frantically seeking refuge under Lady Liberty’s lamp.  While my mother endured the slurs of her classmates, her father lived in Havana, working to become a Cuban citizen who might then be allowed to enter the United States.

America has never really welcomed the huddled masses.  At the end of WWII, American money –much of it from second and third generation Americans protecting their American territory from newcomers to these shores – veritably gushed in support of the partition of Israel, over the protestations of the local Palestinians.  It was more expedient to force the displacement of the Palestinians, to fuel the hatred of neighboring Arab countries, who wanted nothing to do with either Palestinians or Jews, than to profer better solutions to a problem to which they had been catalysts in the first place.

Over the arc of time, the European imperialists and Americans had imposed arbitrary boundaries across the Middle East, comporting themselves like puppet masters overseeing a bloody marionette show for their own entertainment.  In much the same way the British and the French turned Iroquois against Algonquin in the so-called French and Indian War by arming the natives and rewarding their aggression, the Western world played the locals off against one another, all over the Middle East.  Today the forces seem to have raised the stakes,  and they produce animatronic battles between Palestinian and Israelis (and between Suni And Shiite Muslims elsewhere), doling out money to each side so that the show runners can sit back and watch both sides exchange bombardments.   In the present Gaza conflagration, the U.S. has steadfastly encouraged the warring factions to go at one another, financing a bloodier extension of the age-old Jacob vs Esau, Isaac vs Ishmael rivalries.  They have sent millions of dollars to Hamas for the building of missile tunnels; and they have sent more millions of dollars to Israel for the building of The Dome.  The combatants in Gaza are egged on, like contestants in an obscene reality television show, while the odds are alternately stacked for one side or the other.

Unfortunately, each side is fueled by the deeply religious conviction that that side has a God-given right to the land, was placed there by divine ordinance.  Religion is an immovable feast.

But even were the religious obstinacy absent, neither side has anywhere else to go. The two peoples are caught in a battle for survival, and until one side finally trusts the other enough to make concessions, they’ll be unable to settle things.  So long as Hamas promises to eradicate the Land of Israel by any means possible, Israel cannot trust them to honor boundaries; so long as Israel won’t concede the West Bank, which Israel considers essential to guarding against eradication, Hamas won’t accept compromise.

Which leaves them both unable to stop fighting.  If there were another place to create a homeland; if, for example, the US offered a chunk of Arizona or Utah – where vast open areas of desert beg to be developed – as an alternate place to establish Israel or Palestine, would one group exit and start over?  We’ll never know.  Because both groups are as unwelcome in their diaspora as the children being sent back to South and Central America are in theirs.  So neither side is able to let go of their claim to the land of Abraham, their common ancestor.  They’re orphans, hated universally, shunned by all.

Somewhere I imagine closed circuit television cameras recording the action, playing back the videos in some perverse gambling casino, where bets are flying, emirs and pashas and captains of industry and Wall Street moguls and all kinds of professional gamblers are getting rich placing bets on how many Palestinian children will die in how much time and how many weeks Israeli children can hold out in their giant dome before it’s their turn to be destroyed.

It’s a vicious storm, from which nobody is safe.

Clash of the Titans

            You know why New Yorkers are so depressed?  (beat, beat) It’s because we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,
and (sigh) it is New Jersey. Ba-dum bum.

As an undergrad at Columbia, I worked as a receptionist in the School of Engineering.   I loved my job for two reasons: first, because I had a lot of time to do my own work while I kept watch on the front desk and fielded questions; and second, because I could listen bemusedly to the idle gossip of the students and professors who were constantly milling about the offices.

A favorite topics of discussion, and one that kept the entire entourage laughing, was the preponderance of New Jersey residents who commuted to Columbia for work and study.  Considered an inferior lot by the resident New Yorkers, they became the butt of a favorite euphism.  “No, s/he’s not dumb; s/he’s from New Jersey.”

New Yorkers and New Jerseyans have always rankled  one another.  And for good reason: we’re a lot alike.  Despite some historical divergences, we come from a nearly identical background.  The Dutch and the English — followed by at least a smattering from every other nautical country in the world  — settled in both places and created a multicultural community conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all merchants are created equal to the task of making money.  New York and New Jersey have beaches and farms and cities and quaint small towns, and their people are reputed to be abrasive, loud and insistent.

Since the 19th Century, people have chosen to live in New Jersey in order to work in New York or have chosen to work in New York because that is where the jobs are. New  Jerseyans have been subjugated to service of the big brother state as well as the city, and the citizens of NJ have had to pay two tax masters for their incomes, one in a state that offers no benefits for the money charged.  When I was young, the resentment toward my city was palpable; today it’s more subtle.

New Jersey and New York have a lot in common and a lot to compete over, and the states have had a tradition of rivalry that has, at times, been less than congenial.

I often imagine what it might be like if one day the people of New Jersey felt that New York had dominated them long enough and signed a pact to obliterate the city and its environs, replacing it with Jersey City as the Big Apple.

It wouldn’t be a difficult task to target NYC for ill.  A few well-aimed scuds or rockets, and whole sections of the city would fall before any defensive measure might be taken.  The playgrounds in lower Manhattan would easily be destroyed, and the bodies of small children would make appropriate poster photos for use in the manipulation of public opinion. In no time at all, NY would return fire, and all too soon, the children of Secaucus and Newark would be lost in heaps of flames, and their photos, too, would adorn the banners of the righteously infuriated.

Whose side would the world take?  The people on both sides of the Hudson look alike, smell alike, sound alike — most people outside the area can’t tell the difference between a New Jersey and a New York accent.   To a Californian, residents of New York and New Jersey are roses that pretty much smell the same.

You can see where this is going, and I am sure you get the drift of my parable.  I apologize, but I can’t help it that there is an obvious, albeit overly simplistic, kinship between this scenario and Israeli-Palestinians conflict.

Both New York and New Jersey were populated by people who arrived from somewhere else with nowhere else to go.  They over-ran the locals and set up shop, creating a refuge for others in a land that had once been hostile but now offered succor.

Palestinians and Israelis are in the same place because they are unwanted anywhere else.  They live in a hostile environment that needs considerable adaptation before it provides sustenance, but both peoples have learned a way to get what they want from it.  Both peoples need to live in the land called Israel, and both peoples deserve to stay and call one another equal.

What they need from the worldwide community is assistance in finding a way to make peace, to find a way to live together without killing one another’s children.  Both sides have suffered greatly, both sides need to stop fearing the other. But instead of encouraging peace,  the world seems eager to cheerlead for a war. Television and the web casts encourage us to be spectators, to take our lunches to a hill and root for one side or the other while we watch them gouge one another.  And the attention does little more than to egg the violence on.  Facebook is covered in posts about the evil Jews — why is it still okay to openly hate Jews and women? — and the bloodied Palestinian children and  with retorts reminding the world about the so-called Holocaust (as though there haven’t been numerous holocausts in the past century and its successor) and the horrors wrought against the Jews.  Antisemitic diatribe, answered by indignant defenses, fuel the fires of dissension between the peoples, and the violence simply escalates.

Whenever I pass through the Columbia campus, I am reminded of how similar today’s students are to my classmates and me back in the olden days.  Much as we were during the Viet Nam War, students are out in varying numbers, marching with placards, chanting, demonstrating.  Only there’s a marked change in the sound and feel of the presentation today.  Most of the protesters on College Walk favor the violent overthrow of the Israeli government.

“Violence is justified,” chants one large group holding a poster bearing a Magen David (Star of David), an equal sign and a Nazi Swastika; “when the people are occupied.”  “How many babies will you allow Israel to kill?”  “How many babies will you allow Hamas to kill?” Someone answers from a shadow. The chanting gets louder, the peripheral voice is hushed.

I find myself nostalgic for the good old days of anti-war protesting on campus.  Whatever happened to “Give Peace a chance”?  Or “Stop the violence.”  “No war. Peace now.”

Where are the cheerleaders for peace?  Where is the outcry against the jihad to eradicate the Jewish people?  Where is the nonviolent pressure brought to bear toward an independent Palestinian state and the coexistence of two equally liberated, fully empowered peoples to live alongside one another . . . kinda like New Yorkers and their counterparts in New Jersey?

There’s enough vitriole out there.   No one wishes for war.  Ask a Palestinian mother what she wants, and she will reply the same way a Jewish mother will respond:”I want my children to be safe and to live in peace.”Shalom and Salaam are the same word.

Hey, neither New York nor New Jersey ever really needed to be the conqueror.

A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children – Part X

Mom and I had grown apart as I aged.  While she adored my three kids and was thrilled that we had chosen to bring them up Jewish, she was as deeply engrossed in her career as I was in mothering.  My family and I had moved to Arizona in 1972 to be close to her, but when I moved back to my beloved East in 1987, I felt a kind of relief.  I would no longer have to face the daily disappointment, recognizing that the expected connection we had always had no longer seemed to be there.  We spoke on the phone several times a week, and we visited as often as we could, but for better and worse, it was never the same.

Just before she died in 1999, Mom asked me if she had done enough.

Charlotte with her younger sister Ruth (center) and Ruth’s husband Uncle Fred. The three were constant companions, especially after Herma’s death, and when Charlotte died suddenly in 1999, the loss was devastating to the last remaining sister.

She wasn’t ready to go — she shouldn’t have been; she was only 76, was still tutoring and teaching every day, still contributing to the world in her varied ways.  She had volunteered in Israel, the culmination of a childhood dream, and had traveled back to Zagreb among other places in Europe to revisit both halcyon and heinous days of her youth; she was an active participant in a life broadly lived.  All five of her grandchildren and six step-grands adored her, and her still-growing legions of former students continued to call and visit her regularly.  There was so much left to live for.  What else could I do but nod vigorously and reassure her, “You have, mom.  You’ve done plenty.”

No one could have done more.

Archive From Moment Magazine: Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

By Carla Stockton as told to by Maurice Cohen,  ©2000 by Moment Magazine

I have spent the better part of my life keeping secrets, State secrets family secrets, emotional secrets. I have guarded them, held them close to my heart, and locked them in my mind. Each secret has given me moments of pride, of joy, of pain. But there is one that has been breaking my heart since 1962. It may have saved my country, but has most certainly cost me a piece of my soul. This is the secret of Eliahu Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy.
Eli has been dead for 40 years now, and though I did not kill him, I am fully aware that my failure to disclose what I knew my have sealed his fate. Like Eli, I was a member of Israeli Intelligence, a Mossad agent, now retired. It was the intersection of our lives in that agency that led to my personal hell. I will tell you this story, but let me start closer to the beginning.


In 1914, our father, Shaul, then 12, and his parents left their home in Aleppo, Syria and immigrated to Alexandria, Egypt. Thousands of Jews fled Aleppo that year, and our mother, Sophie, seven at the time, was among them as well.

Egypt was the land where our parents met and where Eli and I were born- he in 1924 and I three years later. We were the second and the third of eight children, seven of whom who survived to adulthood.

As Jews, we were double outcasts. Egyptian Muslims were growing increasingly hostile toward Jews, and the British who ruled Egypt until 1954, did nothing to temper the discrimination. From our earliest childhood, we knew that we were interlopers in Egypt and longed to create a place where we could truly belong.

By the time I was ten, the Zionist movement had gained considerable momentum among young Jews like myself. I joined the Halutzim, the Pioneers a kind of boy scouts for Zionist youth, and by the age of 14, I was a troop leader. We scouts were all-out nationalist for a country that did not yet exist, and our mission was to use our knowledge of Jewish history and culture to inspire younger Jews to join us. Though not yet adults, we sought to hasten the creation of the Jewish State, a land where we could celebrate our heritage without fear or shame.

Eli, already too old to be a scout, was active in the Zionist underground. Egyptian law required all males, including Jews, to serve in the army, but he was rejected on the grounds of questionable loyalty. Instead, Eli enrolled at the University of Cairo to pursue a degree in electronic engineering. At the University, Eli and other Jewish students were persecuted by the Muslim Brotherhood, so he withdrew to continue his studies at home, which I later learned had given him more freedom to work on behalf of the Zionist cause. We, his family, were blissfully ignorant of the fact that Eli was already on shaky ground with the Egyptian authorities. This was the first of Eli’s many secrets.

Eli in Egypt
When I was old enough for the army my father arranged for an exemption and pulled strings to get me appointed to the King’s Guard. In 1946, I went to work as a file clerk for the British Army at the Royal Army Forces Corp head quarter in Ismailia. At night, I studied accounting at La Societe de Comptabilite de France and architecture at the British Institute of Engineering Technology.

But conditions for Jews in Egypt were worsening. One evening, I was arrested and, having no legal identification in my possession, was incarcerated. In the absence of a proper jail, my captors kept me in an outhouse for the night before taking me to Ismailia for arraignment. Sitting in the car along the way, I became gripped by fear when I realized that I had nationalistic Israeli songs written in Hebrew in my pocket.

Cautiously, I ripped the papers into tiny pieces, chewed them to a pulp and threw them out the window. When we reached the police station, a small piece of the paper remained in my pocket. I needed an efficient way to rid myself of the songs. A janitor cleaning the floors became my only opportunity to divest myself of the last scrap. I wrapped it in a one-pound note and dropped it to the floor. The custodian saw the bill and quickly put his foot over it to claim it for himself. The paper landed in the garbage, courtesy of the cleaning man who had eyes only for the money. It was my first act of espionage.

Shortly thereafter, I was discharged from Royal Army Headquarter and it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to find another job in Egypt. It was 1948; Israel had declared statehood and the situation for Jews in Arab lands was becoming ever more dangerous. Consequently, my family decided that my sister Odette, my brother Ezra and I would make aliyah.

It was around that time we first learned Eli had become involved with the Haganah (the underground military force in Israel from 1920-1948 that eventually became the Israel Defense Forces). Mutual friends told me that Eli was connected to people who could produce forged visas for Jews seeking to leave Egypt. When I had difficulty getting my exit papers, I went to Eli and sought his assistance. He denied that he could help. I now understand that his denial was an essential act of self-preservation. Abetting a family member would have compromised his cover and placed him at risk of imprisonment, torture and death.

In time, after much trouble, Ezra, Odette and I received our exit papers and departed for Brindisi, Italy, where we obtained the necessary documents to enter Israel, Ezra was 19, the perfect age to join the now official Israel Defense Forces. I was 21 and took a job at the post office.

Eli remained in Egypt with the rest of our family. But from 1950 on, a new wave of persecution was unleashed against Egyptian Jews. Like thousands of other Jewish families, my parents and younger siblings let everything behind and immigrated to Israel.

Eli stayed. He was now a member of the Israeli intelligence unit that was attempting to sabotage Egypt’s relationships with United States, Britain and other Western powers. Unbeknownst to us, training and planning were underway for what would later be called the Lavon Affair, after Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon. This spy network, code named “Susanah” was designed to penetrate attack and disrupt civil and military installation within Egypt.

In 1952, the free Officers Movement, a revolutionary group backed by the British and led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (who would become President of Egypt), toppled King Farouk. That same year, Eli was arrested, along with many others on suspicion of engaging in Zionist activities. Eli was questioned extensively by the Egyptian Muchabarat (intelligence agency), but no concrete connection to any subversive movement could be established.

Around this time, my brother was sent to an espionage course in Israel. It had been years since we’d seen our Eli, so you can only imagine our excitement when he telephoned Odette to divulge that he was in the country. She immediately told me the name of his hotel in Tel Aviv, and I jumped in my car to see him. But I missed my chance. His superiors discovered that he had contacted us and spirited him away before I arrived. He was sent back to Egypt.

In 1953, the Egyptian authorities uncovered the Jewish spy ring, which promted the Lavon Affair, and took 11 Jews into custody, Eli among them. Once again, he was released for lack of evidence. Eli’s comrades were not so fortunate. Two were hanged, the others imprisoned. The incident sparked official attacks on Jewish homes, and over the next three years Egyptian Jews were arrested in droves.

In December 1956, Eli was expelled from Egypt for good. With the help of a Jewish agency in Cairo, he crossed the Mediterranean and made aliyah by way of Naples; he moved in with our parents their apartment in Bat Yam and petitioned for a position as a translator for Israel Intelligence Operations. Despite his facility for languages, his extensive intelligence training and his role in the Israeli underground, he was turned down because he was not proficient in Modern Hebrew.

Eli & Nadia’s wedding
Now a private citizen, Eli found work as accountant and inspector for HaMashbir, a chain of retail stores. For a time, it seemed he would just assimilate into Israeli society, obscure and anonymous. I smile to think how he must have enjoyed this brief reprieve from espionage.

I, meanwhile, had become fluent in Hebrew and made great strides in both my personal and professional life. In 1952, I married Hanna Shirazi and took a job as district substitute for post-masters who were ill or on leave. A year later, Hanna and I had our first son, Shaul. Not long after, I became Post master in Eilat. Like all other Israeli men, I also served in the military reserves. While on duty I was constantly asked to join Army Intelligence, but I was a happily married man with growing family and had not the slightest interest in being a hero or in leaving the happy nest I was feathering. So I turned down all offers.

All of us Cohens, as a matter of fact were immersed in our private lives. Even Eli was to find true love above ground. It was I who introduce Nadia Magled to my big brother.

One day, my wife called me at work to ask me to stop in at her sister Hela’s dressmaker’s shop to pick up two dresses she had altered. When I arrived, Hela was fitting a very pretty woman for a new dress. The young woman was clearly curious about me and asked Hela in crisp, succulent Iraqi Arabic from where she knew this fine looking young man. “Is he Ashkenazi? What is his parentage?” After Hela explained that I was her brother-in-law, the young woman blushed and remarked shyly, “If you’d been a bachelor, I would have introduced you to my sister Nadia who lives with our parents across the street”

I smiled and told her, “If your sister Nadia is a pretty as you are, I will gladly arrange for her sister to meet my brother.”

We made all the necessary arrangements, and when Nadia and Eli met, it was immediately clear that they were meant to be together. At age 30, Eliahu cut a dark, handsome figure; he was well spoken and polite. Nadia, 25, was shapely, olive-skinned and slightly taller than Eli.

They were married in August 1959 in a modest ceremony at a Sephardic shul in Tel Aviv and settled near our parents in Bat Yam. Eli, Nadia and soon had their first daughter, Sophie, and they comfortably blended into the landscape of middle-class Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence continued to try to recruit me and, in 1960, I took a leave of absence from my job to accept an officer’s commission. Given my knowledge of many languages, I specialized in cryptology.

Eli, now fluent in Hebrew, was also sought after by Israeli Intelligence. He was recruited by the Agaf Ha-Modi’in, a branch of the Israel Defense Forces known by the Hebrew acronym AMAN, meaning simply “intelligence branch”. Enjoying the idyll of home and family, Eli initially refused to enlist. Then, rather mysteriously, he lost his job at Ha Mashbir and, unable to support his family, finally accepted the offer from AMAN.

Neither of us, of course, was aware of the other’s espionage trade, and even if we had been, Eli and could never have discussed our work. What I am about to tell you I have mostly learned in the years since his death.


After an intensive training period and transfer from the IDF to the Mossad, Eli was dispatched to Argentina. We have family in that country, and some years later, I met our aunt, our mother’s sister, who told me she had seen Eli there.
Eli had explained that he was merely a tourist who brought regards from her nephews in the old country. She suspected, but never knew for a fact, that he was her nephew. What a risk my brother took being cordial with our family members.

Yet it was precisely our family background that made Eli so valuable to the Mossad. Eli, like the rest of us, had spent his childhood absorbing the Aleppo-accented Arabic spoken at home and had heard enough stories about Syria to allow him to appear familiar with its intricate twists and turns.

The Mossad recognized this opportunity and transformed Eli into a new man. Literally, my brother became Kamel Amin Sa’bet, rich Syrian emigre who had inherited vast wealth and a thriving family business from his father. Kamel Amin Sa’bet conspicuously spent his money (provided by his bosses at Mossad) hosting parties for the local Syrian community, making it clear to anyone who would listen that what he really desired was to be back in Syria, contributing to the growth of its government and working toward the destruction of Israel.

He was a talented actor, my brother. He quickly gained the trust of Syrian businessmen privy to the whereabouts of Adolph Eichmann, who was living in Argentina under the assumes name of Richard Klement. Later, while in Syria, Sa’bet was introduced to Karl Rademacher, a senior Eichmann aide who had been involved in the mass murder of Jews before joining the Syrian secret service.

But Eli’s target was Syria itself. In 1960 and 1961, several military coups upended the Syrian government (and its brief union with Egypt as the United Arab Republic), leaving the Ba’ath Party – a secular Socialist Arab group – in control. With the help of the Argentinean Syrians, Kamel Amin Saabet, an avowed Ba’athist, traveled through Zurich, Egypt and Beirut to Damascus, where he was introduced to some of the most influential men in the highest echelons of government. Sa’bet convinced them that he was willing to give his fortune, his hard work and his life to Syria. He settled easily into Damascus society.

The rest of us Cohens, of course, knew nothing of Eli’s other life. He told us that the Israeli government had charged him with the purchase of spare computer parts and other electronic instruments that were off limits to Israelis, for fear they’d be used for military purposes. This job, he added, required him to be based in Europe but travel widely. Looking back, I see I was naïve to believe these fairy tales. But I bought into his lies as easily as did Nadia.


By this time I had worked my way up through the hierarchy of the Mossad and was toiling in a high security, top secret unit that decoded and encrypted messages. At first I knew nothing about the messages I was decoding; they seemed like random words with no apparent significance. Then, as I honed my skills, it became clear that the transmissions were coming out of Damascus, from the agent we all called “Our Man In Damascus.”
Our Man in Damascus was an incredibly productive spy. In 1962, he solidified the Syrians’ trust in him and was invited to attend the Sixth National Convention of the Ba’ath Party. As a highly respected member of the Syrian National Council of Revolutionary Command and a volunteer for Radio Damascus, our spy had intimate access to both open and closed sessions of the party.
Eli With Arab Leaders on the Golan Heights
He managed to expose Syria’s plans to cut off Israel’s water supply by diverting the headwaters of the Jordan. He also provided the details of a plan drawn up by the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, to attack northern Israel through guerilla warfare. Armed with this knowledge, the Israeli government bombed Syria positions, preventing Syria from destroying the Israeli settlements of Dan, Dafne and Shear Yishub.

Through a twist of fate, I was made responsible for the codes Mossad “activators” used to communicate with Our Man in Damascus. He and his contacts typically sent messages that ended with a personal tidbit. It was these postscripts that led me suspect that Our Man in Damascus was none other than my brother, Eli.

One day a postscript read, “Did Nadia get the Singer sewing machine I sent her?” No code words “Nadia” or “Singer Sewing Machine” appeared in the code book. My superiors informed me that I was not cleared to decode such top secret sensitive materials. I asked my sister-in-law and learned she had indeed recently received a sewing machine.

This astonishing discovery was confirmed when another message concluded with, “Mlle Fifi a commence a marcher”. [ Miss Fifi has began to walk.] I knew that my niece Sophie had been delayed in taking her first steps and that Eli had been concerned about it.

Eli was our spy.


Now that I was certain Our Man in Damascus was my own brother, the secret gnawed at my insides, and I was dying to reveal it. But to whom? And to what end? I was tortured by the knowledge of my brother’s high risk mission. I had ferreted out the truth; now I had to swallow it and keep it deep with my belly.

Some month later, Eli visited and presented young Sophie with a pair of velvet slippers. Embroidered with golden thread, the shoes had sizes in Arabic numbers imprinted on the soles. “Where did you get these slippers?” I inquired. He bought them at a department store in Paris he said. “But”, I argued, “why would the sizes be written in Arabic for French sale?” He chided me for interrogating him and said that they were probably manufactured in an Arab country and exported all over the world. He then abruptly and definitively changed the subject.

I decided I had to hear the truth directly from Eli. He knew that I had a hard time getting telephone service in my new apartment. “You work for the Postal Service,” he remarked one day, unaware that I too was a Mossad agent. “it should be easy you to get a line.” I told him I now had a phone and gave the number of his apartment in Damascus, which I had received in a message just before he’d come home. He began writing the number but stopped abruptly and, looking flushed and flustered, mumbled under his breath about needing to run out to the supermarket before it closed. I had gotten under his cover.

Soon after, my commanding officers summoned me to my base and informed me that Eli had spoken to them about the phone number incident. They warned me not to discuss the issue with Eli anymore and to share his secret with no one. And so the truth remained trapped within me.

If I shared the secret with my family, even if they could keep it, I would cause them unspeakable worry and pain. If I breached security and told anyone else, I would place my country in a vulnerable position. One word from me, and Eli’s mission could be aborted, his life endangered. My brother had bravely chosen to put himself in danger to protect his country. I chose to honor his commitment, leaving his fate in God’s hands.

Eli returned to Israel in 1964 to be present at the birth of his third child, his son Shaul. This time, Nadia begged him to stay. He promised her this would be his last trip abroad before returning for good.

And so Our Man in Damascus returned to Syria for one last bout of espionage. He ascended to new heights of power in the Ba’ath Party. With friends in high places who escorted him to high security areas throughout Syria, he managed to photograph strategic strongholds on the Golan Heights. The clandestine information he sent back later aided Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.


With the help of Soviet tracking, the Syrian government was able to identify the spy who was transmitting its secrets to Israel. In a pre-dawn raid on his home, Kamel Amin Sa’bet was arrested and imprisoned. He was tortured and tried without counsel. At the time of his arrest, Kamel Amin Sa’bet AKA Eliahu Cohen was third in the line of succession to become president of Syria.
the Execution
Five months after his arrest, on May 18, 1965, Eli was hanged before a crowd of more than 10,000 vengeful Syrians who jeered him as he died. The hanging was televised and we — his family in Israel — watched helplessly as our beloved son, husband, brother and father was executed.


I indict myself anew on a daily basis. What else might I have done? How might I have saved my brother from such unfathomable suffering? Could I have protected my mother and my sister-in-law, my nieces and nephew, my brothers and sisters, from such pain? As my own judge and jury, I find myself both guilty and innocent. The verdict tortures me.

But in the end, it was Eli alone who could have broken the chain events that took his life. He chose on his own, without the luxury of discussion with his wife or friends or family, to give himself to his work. He heeded a higher power; a greater good.

When God commanded Moses to send spies into Israel to chart the land and study the people who were living there, He wrote Eli’s fate. Each day of my life, I remind myself that nothing I could have said or done had the power to change that.


Maurice Cohen vowed to his mother, as she lay dying, that he would make it his life’s quest to ensure that the bones of his brother Eliahu returned to their rightful resting place in Israel. But to this day, Eli’s remains are still in Syria and have not received a proper Jewish burial.

Eli’s family, including his wife Nadia and daughter Sophie Ben-Dor, continue to fight for the return of Eli’s body.

Sophie recently told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Frankly, I don’t believe that this will take place. The problem has been dormant for 40 years; it could easily lie there for another 40 years.”

To offer support to the family’s efforts, or simply to learn more about the Cohen brothers, visit: http://www.elicohen.org.
Maurice Cohen died in 2006.