The First Line of Defense
Once a year an Orthodox community in Israel assembles to honor the boys from fatherless families who are ready for bar mitzvah. The fathers of these boys all lost their lives in service to their country. On one such occasion twenty-three years ago, a young boy nicknamed Shai was chosen to deliver the special address to this assembly. Shai (meaning “gift”) is the name his mother lovingly called him because she felt he was an extra special gift to her. Shai never knew his father because he had died in Syria just a few weeks before Shai’s birth.
In his speech, Shai said he would have liked to have been like other children because then, he said, “I would have had a father whom I knew and who lived with us like other fathers.” Shai then spoke not to the guests, but directly to his father when he said, “I promise you, Father, that in my life I will never fail you. I will do my duty with all my strength and my devotion to the nation of Israel.”1 There was not a dry eye in the synagogue.
Such courage and devotion help explain Israel’s survival and testify to the tenacity of her people and the faithfulness of her God. Hostile nations so dwarf the country that it is even difficult to locate the Jewish nation on a world map. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provides a startling statistic in his book, A Place Among the Nations (Bantam). Beneath a chart of four facsimiles of recognizable land masses, he lists the number of square miles each area encompasses:
Population differential is also striking. Currently, the total population of Israel just breaches six million people, of which about five million are Jewish. The neighboring Middle Eastern communities number about 150 million people, most of them Muslims. If the Middle East were a place of serenity and peace, size and population differences would be insignificant. But many years of turbulent Israeli history prove that Israel’s enemies would like nothing more than to drive the Jewish homeland into the Mediterranean Sea.
Throughout its fifty-two years of existence, Israel has relied more on its knowledge of enemy activities than on its artillery, jets, and missiles. Espionage—the gathering of accurate and reliable knowledge—is regarded as a first line of defense.
Espionage is not new to Israel’s history. Thousands of years ago, God directed Moses to send out twelve undercover agents to foreign soil for a fact-finding mission. “Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel” (Num. 13:2). They were to “see the land, what it is; and the people who dwell therein, whether they are strong or weak, few or many” (Num. 13:18). The only difference from then until now is that now, twelve men are simply not enough.
Included in this first line of defense is an organization called The Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks, comprised of an estimated fifteen hundred people. Better known as Mossad, it was birthed in its present form by the late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the time Israel became a nation. Its responsibilities include human intelligence, covert action, and counterterrorism. To be successful, the work must be accomplished unnoticed. Yet there have been times when Mossad’s success has been so amazing that secrecy was impossible.
One of the Mossad’s most brilliant coups involved the capture of Adolf Eichmann, whose name even today sends shivers down the spines of most Jewish people. As chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo and prime architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Eichmann was responsible for engineering the deaths of millions of Jewish people. While many Nazi criminals were brought to trial after World War II, Eichmann managed to hide his identity and elude capture. In 1959, fourteen years after the war had ended, the elusive Eichmann was finally found. Although a painstakingly difficult
and intricate case, Mossad was able to accumulate the information necessary to pinpoint his exact location, a house on Garibaldi Street in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
To capture and extricate him from the country required precision down to the minutest detail. It was necessary that Eichmann appear to be leaving Argentina voluntarily. Thus the plan required a partially drugged Eichmann to walk through the airport and board an El Al plane destined for Israel.
Commenting on his capture and kidnapping, Eichmann himself stated, “My capture was carried out in a sporting fashion and was outstanding for its organization and exemplary planning.”3
In May of 1960, David Ben-Gurion made an emotional announcement to the Knesset. “I have to announce that . . . one of the greatest of Nazi criminals was found by Israeli secret service: Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible, together with the Nazi leaders, for what they called the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.’”4 His capture, trial, conviction, and execution were an integral step toward healing a people scarred by the Holocaust.
Espionage is dangerous, daunting, and difficult because it requires pilfering information while in enemy territory. Nevertheless, Israel has managed many successful and even amazing thefts of enemy hardware in enemy country. The Russians, for example, had been supplying Israel’s enemies with top-secret Mig planes, which were superior to anything in the Israeli Air Force. Israel needed to capture one for defense purposes. In an operation carried out in 1966, the unbelievable became believable when a female Mossad agent convinced an Iraqi pilot to fly a topsecret, Russian Mig directly to Israel. The complex operation required smuggling the pilot’s family out of Iraq to safety in Israel, planning the timing and execution of the theft, and secluding the pilot after completion of the mission. That theft provided military intelligence with valuable information that later helped Israel win the Six-Day War. Israel also shared the knowledge gained from the seizure with her best friend—the United States.
Of all the stories told about Israel’s Mossad, the account of the work of Eliahu (Eli) Cohen is among the most well-known. To this day, the book Our Man in Damascus, the story of Eli Cohen, is a must-read for any tourist to Israel.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish home in Alexandria, Egypt, on December 16, 1924, Eli seemed destined for the rabbinate. He became a star pupil in the Hebrew school run by the chief rabbi. His keen mind also helped him in secular school, earning him a scholarship to the French high school in Alexandria where he excelled in mathematics and engineering. His gift of memorization enabled him to become fluent in several languages.
During World War II, Egypt’s loyalties were divided between the Allies and the Nazis. Due to increasing anti-Semitism, many Jews tried to immigrate to Palestine. Eli helped the Haganah, the military of the pre-state of Israel, to smuggle many Egyptian Jews into their national homeland. He always considered himself a loyal Egyptian; and in 1947, just one year before Israel was forced to fight for her independence, Eli enlisted in the Egyptian army. But the military declared him ineligible due to “mixed loyalties,” undoubtedly alleged because he was Jewish.
The anti-Semitic atmosphere in Egypt did not prevent the brilliant Eli from earning an engineering degree in 1950. By then he was convinced that being Jewish and Egyptian were not compatible. So when Israeli intelligence approached him to work for them, he accepted. His command of languages made him extremely effective. Eli remained in Egypt through the Sinai campaign of 1956. When he was discovered working for the Jewish state, he had to flee for his life into Israel.
There he applied for a job with Mossad but was rejected, not realizing that Mossad never hires unless it initiates the contact. Eli was disappointed. His knowledge of the business world, however, enabled him to get a job as an accountant. For the next three years, Mossad watched as Eli settled into Israeli life and into his marriage in 1959. His work in Egypt was noticed and appreciated, but Mossad needed to watch him as he adjusted to life in Israel.
Evidently Mossad was satisfied, for in 1960 Eli Cohen was hired, this time on Mossad’s initiative. After six months of extensive training, Eli Cohen was sent to Syria. In 1961, Egypt and Syria were Israel’s foremost enemies. Eli was a perfect fit for this assignment because he spoke perfect Arabic and had excellent knowledge of the customs of the Arab people. His assignment was to infiltrate the Syrian military. He was to pose as an exporter, using the name Kamil Amin Taabes. As Kamil Amin Taabes, Eli established himself in Argentina as a wealthy businessman. His cover was meticulously fabricated by the Mossad. With the success of the Eichmann kidnapping, many countries were particularly suspicious of anyone who was allowed near classified information. The Syrians carefully scrutinized Kamil’s identity while he was living in Argentina, and he passed with flying colors.
Eli managed to smuggle into Syria a radio transmitter that relayed information to Tel Aviv regularly. Kamil had become a confidant to a number of high-ranking Syrian officials and ingratiated himself to his many friends with parties and entertainment, keeping a closed mouth about their social activities.
Over a two-year span, he was often taken to high security areas, including the Golan Heights, a mountainous range on the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Militarily, this was a superior piece of real estate for Syria because it was ideally situated for bombarding Israel. The Syrians had placed thousands of land mines, bunkers, and key military installations there and were constantly terrorizing the Israeli kibbutzim down below.
Kamil was given total freedom to walk the Golan and gaze down at Israel. To demonstrate his support for Syria, Kamil encouraged its leadership to plant trees over the bunkers to provide shade and camouflage for them. His suggestions were implemented.
Thanks to his acute memory, Eli was able to radio exact information for locating enemy targets. He remained on the Syrian scene on and off for about four years. Although Mossad had felt for some time that Eli should come home, Eli felt he should stay a little longer. In January of 1965, a little longer proved too long.
A crack military team came crashing through his door while he was broadcasting information to Israel. Unknown to him, all radio messages had been temporarily halted, making it possible for Syria to trace his transmission.
Eli Cohen was tortured, then executed by hanging. He had so greatly embarrassed the Syrians that they did not permit the normal negotiations for captured spies. Even Israel’s offer of one million dollars for his body was denied.
But Eli’s contribution to his country lived on. The information he provided was invaluable for helping Israel win the Golan Heights in 1967. Israeli jet pilots received instructions to bomb the trees. They were the eucalyptus trees planted at Eli’s suggestion. They clearly identified every Syrian bunker, thus providing Israel with a high percentage of direct hits on enemy targets. Eli Cohen was a national hero. But he was also one of many soldiers whose wives became widows and whose children became fatherless.
That is why the words spoken at the bar mitzvah in the Orthodox community were particularly moving. The young man nicknamed Shai, who spoke so eloquently to the father he never knew, pledging to him his devotion to Israel, was Shaul Cohen, the son of Eli Cohen, born just weeks before his father’s death.
It was a difficult speech to give because he knew the pain of even mentioning his father in the presence of his mother. In the audience that day was Menachem Begin, the prime minister of Israel, who was moved to tears. Mossad continues even now to provide Israel’s first line of defense.
But there will come a day when Israel will have everlasting peace with God’s sanctuary in its midst forever (Ezek. 37:26). One day, when Messiah comes, Israel will no longer need a Mossad. That will be a blessed day!