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.

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