• Gedaliah Borvick

Israel’s Mystery Men


Eli Cohen in Damascus in 1963 (Public domain)

Very few streets in Israel are named for people who have served as spies, and for good reason: the goal of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, is to keep its clandestine activities and the identification of its agents confidential.


The biggest exception to this rule is Eli Cohen, the most famous Israeli spy of all time. Streets in over two dozen cities, plus countless schools, community centers, synagogues, libraries and parks across the country have been named for this hero who sacrificed his life to protect his nation.


Eli Cohen infiltrated the highest ranks of the Syrian government, under the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet, and won the confidence of top politicians, military officials, public figures, and diplomats. From 1962 until 1965, when he was arrested and subsequently killed, Cohen collected intelligence which protected Israel in various ways. Two famous stories include how his military reports (1) enabled Israel to protect its water supply that Syria planned to divert, and (2) helped Israel during the 1967 Six Day War to capture the Golan Heights in only two days.


Another renowned Israeli master spy, who thankfully experienced a better ending than Eli Cohen, was Rafael Eitan, who passed away in March 2019 having lived to the ripe old age of 92. A mere three years after his death, Rafi Eitan already has a street named after him in Ramat Gan, and more streets named in his memory are in the works.


Israel’s most celebrated spy, Rafi Eitan was the anti-James Bond: bespectacled, short and heavy, Eitan was far less debonair and far more cunning than 007. Eitan rose to fame when he led the Mossad operation to capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1960. Eichmann was subsequently tried and executed in Israel.


In addition, Eitan was involved in many operations that were critical to Israel’s national interests, such as (1) enhancing Israel’s nuclear capabilities, (2) establishing successful counterespionage activities against Soviet diplomats and spies, and (3) nurturing positive, albeit clandestine, relations with moderate Arab countries.


Rafi Eitan’s mentor was the legendary spymaster Isser Harel, who served as chief of both the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service. Isser Harel was truly larger than life, and streets in Netanya and Petach Tikvah have been named in his memory.


Isser Harel was born in the Russian Empire and received rabbinic ordination from the Volozhin Yeshiva. He then immigrated to pre-state Palestine and became a member of the Haganah defense forces, and headed its intelligence unit. After the establishment of the State of Israel, Harel founded and became the first director of the Shin Bet (akin to the US’s FBI) and then took over the Mossad in 1951, and ran both organizations until 1963. He developed a close relationship with the CIA, and worked in tandem with the United States to collect information about the Soviet Union.


After leaving the spy business, Harel served as a Knesset member and became a prolific writer. The most famous of his ten books was The House on Garibaldi Street, which later became a movie. The thrilling spy novel vividly described the Mossad’s capture of Eichmann, which took place under his supervision. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion encouraged Harel to break with the Mossad’s long-standing practice of silence and write the book, to both commemorate Israel’s daring operation to bring Eichmann to justice and to put the enemies of the Jewish people on notice.


When thinking about Israel’s heroes who have put their lives on the line to defend our nation, many courageous people come to mind. However, the spies who toil anonymously, without fanfare and usually without even the knowledge and support of their own families, tops that list. May the Almighty protect all the courageous guardians of our nation.

 

Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at gborvick@gmail.com. Please visit his blog at www.myisraelhome.com.

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