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Eli Cohen: Israel’s Legendary Spy, Now on Netflix

September 10, 2019 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

A new 6-part series is testimony to the heroic and tragic tale.

The fatal mission of Israeli master-spy Eli Cohen is now the subject of The Spy, a 6-part thriller on Netflix, rated MA and starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

In 1961, Eli Cohen – son of Syrian Jews and fluent in Arabic – was commissioned by the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, with infiltrating the highest echelons of Syrian society.

Cohen assumed the identity of Kamel Amin Thabet – “charismatic, debonair, businessman and scion of a Syrian family.” He moved to Argentina to mingle with the Syrian expatriate community and hone his acting skills.

Cohen subsequently moved to Damascus, climbing the ladder of influence to become Syria’s Deputy Defense Minister, and close confidant of future Syrian President Amin al-Hafiz. Besides access to classified Syrian military briefings, Cohen hosted lavish parties as a way to pry secrets from intoxicated government and military officials.

Eli Cohen, circa 1960

Crucial Contribution

Using a hidden radio transmitter, Cohen fed vital information back to Israel – stopping a series of Syrian aggressions and serving as an indispensable factor in Israel’s incredible two-day conquest of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War:

  • Cohen supplied Israel with photographs and sketches of highly secret Syrian artillery positions in the Golan Heights.
  • While touring the Golan with Syrian defense officials, Cohen creatively suggested planting trees to keep the soldiers stationed there cool and shaded; these trees later enabled Israel to pinpoint the precise location of Syrian defenses.
  • Cohen learned of a secret Syrian plan to create three successive defense lines on the Golan Heights; the IDF was able to adjust its strategy which would otherwise have expected to encounter only a single line.

Eli Cohen in Damascus, 1963

Cohen’s Capture

Due to the great demand for secret information, Cohen was forced into frequent and dangerous communications. When a Syrian intelligence official became suspicious, Cohen wanted to end his assignment. But the Mossad pushed him to do more.

In January 1965, the Syrians (aided by Soviet experts) secretly suspended all radio transmissions as a way to expose any espionage communication. When Cohen's transmissions were detected, Syrian security services raided his home and caught him red-handed sending a radio message to Israel.

Eli Cohen, as Syria’s Deputy Defense Minister, touring the Golan Heights

One theory of Cohen’s capture involves Rifa'at al-Gamal, an Egyptian spy who for many years operated a travel agency in Tel Aviv and developed ties with leading Israeli politicians. While in Germany, al-Gamal saw a newspaper photograph of “Kamel Amin Thabet” touring fortifications on the Golan Heights with Syrian officers. al-Gamal recognized him as Eli Cohen from Egypt, and alerted Arab authorities.

Cohen was given a show trial, tortured, and publicly hanged in Damascus on May 18, 1965 (Iyar 16). Till today, the Syrian government refuses to return Cohen’s body.

Mossad Heroes

Cohen is a Jewish national hero, garnering deep respect as one who faced incredible dangers and courageously gave his life for Israel. Many streets and neighborhoods in Israel are named for Cohen, and in 1977 his son's Bar Mitzvah was attended by Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Memorial stone erected to Eli Cohen in Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery in Jerusalem

In The Spy, the role of Eli Cohen is played masterfully by Sacha Baron Cohen, who told the New York Times: “I used to be reluctant to play anyone Jewish, because I didn’t want to be typecast as the Jewish actor. There are other Jews in Hollywood besides me. But somehow, people thought of me as ‘a Jewish actor’ even after I played [the comedic role of] Borat, the most outwardly anti-Semitic character… Finally, a number of years ago, I read Gideon’s script [about Eli Cohen], and I couldn’t put it down. So I gave up this position of avoiding Jewish or Israeli roles.”

Today, the rapid growth of streaming video services – Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Disney, et al – has produced an insatiable appetite for dramatic true stories. Increasingly, filmmakers are finding spectacular accounts in the Mossad, including these recent Netflix releases:

  • Red Sea Diving Resort about the program to rescue Ethiopian Jews via Sudan.
  • The Angel, about the Israeli spy who was Nasser’s son-in-law and trusted advisor to Anwar Sadat.

As one commentator wrote on Twitter: “Netflix produces so many pro-Israel Mossad spy thrillers that it can be treated as a Zionist propaganda media company.”

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