10 min read
Renowned Israeli spy Isaac Shoshan infiltrated Arab communities for years.
Fans of the blockbuster Israeli TV series Fauda have followed the adventures of Israeli spies who pretend to be Arab, infiltrating terror cells, gathering intelligence and stopping attacks. These fictional tales are incredibly nerve-wracking, yet they can’t compare to the real-life exploits of Israeli spies who successfully do manage to infiltrate Arab terror cells and society, at enormous risk to their lives.
Isaac Shoshan, one of the first and greatest Israeli spies to ever penetrate Arab cells and gather intelligence for Israel, has recently died at the age of 96.
Shoshan spent years disguised as “Abdul Karim,” a bloodthirsty would-be terrorist who wanted to kill Jews, and the story of his real-world exploits seems even more incredible than Fauda and other shows.
Isaac Shoshan was born into an impoverished Jewish family in Aleppo, Syria, in 1924. At the time, Aleppo was home to a thriving Jewish community 10,000 strong. Though Jews lived in the city for over 2,000 years, anti-Semitism was never far away. With the return of Jews to the Land of Israel, anti-Jewish hatred rose, both in Aleppo and in the wider Arab world. (When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, rioters in Aleppo – urged on by the government – burned sores of Jewish shops, synagogues, Jewish schools and private homes.)
Isaac Shoshan, left, at 13. Aleppo, Syria, 1937
Shoshan’s family scraped by in poverty; Isaac’s father worked as a janitor in a school. Isaac attended Aleppo's Alliance Israelite school and joined Zionist youth groups. One day, a new teacher named Monsieur Pedro arrived in his school. M. Pedro had lived in Israel and described the new Jewish communities that were developing there to his students. “We understood that what we read about in the Bible really existed,” Isaac later recalled. “It wasn’t in heaven.” Isaac and his friends decided that they too would join the exodus of Jews from around the world travelling to the Land of Israel and working to build a Jewish state.
In 1942, Isaac and a friend packed their meagre possessions and made their way to a suburb of Damascus, where they joined over two dozen other Syrian Jews who were staying in a local synagogue, waiting for smugglers to take them over the border. It was a diverse group: men and women, young and old, all were yearning to leave the dangers Jews felt in Syria and find freedom and opportunity in the Jewish homeland.
Finally, one night a smuggler told them to disguise themselves in Islamic garb and to hide anything that might identify them as Jews. He would lead them over a path into Israel. At one point during the night, an old rabbi dropped one of the precious Hebrew books that he was trying to bring with him. Though the smuggler was irate, the rabbi insisted on retrieving his book, one of the few possessions he owned. Isaac crawled around the ground in the dark until he located the book and the group could proceed.
Finally, after hours of walking, the group of Syrian Jews arrived at a kibbutz. They were amazed to hear fellow Jews speaking Hebrew, and offered them tea, bread and jam. Years later, Isaac remembers being “shocked” to meet Jews working to build a Jewish state.
Isaac settled in a kibbutz, working on the collective farm. One day, some men arrived at the kibbutz looking for Arabic speakers. They were from the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah, which was the underground army that Jews in the land of Israel formed in the years of British control of the land, and which later formed the foundation for the Israel Defense Force. Isaac volunteered to be part of the Palmach, and soon was one of a small group of Arabic-speaking Jews who formed a top secret elite unit, dedicated to collecting intelligence, sabotage and other actions in Arabic-speaking communities.
The group became known as the Arab Platoon. Made up of Jews who’d grown up in Arab-speaking environments, its members learned about Arab customs. Historian Matti Friedman notes: “The recruits were from the Islamic world, but at home they had known little of the majority religion beyond the dangers it posed to people like them. Now they learned laws, scripture, superstitions, and figures of speech.” (Quoted in Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman: 2019.)
If any of these Jews’ true identities were discovered, they'd face certain death. The Jews living in present-day Israel were ruled by Britain before 1948, and were barred from raising their own army. The Palmach was an underground organization. As Matti Friedman notes: “They (the fighters of the Palmach’s Arab Platoon) had no country – in early 1948, Israel was a wish, not a fact. If they disappeared, they’d be gone. No one might find them. No one might even look. The future was blank. And still they set out into those treacherous times, alone.”
If their true identities were discovered, they'd face certain death.
Isaac was soon ready to work as a spy. His first missions were within the land of Israel. In one operation, he disguised himself as an Arab Muslim and attended services in the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he heard a sermon calling for local Arabs to rise up and wage a war against Jews.
In Spring 1948, Isaac was given his most dangerous order yet. Arabs were streaming out of Haifa, heading north into Lebanon ahead of an anticipated declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel. Isaac was to pretend to be one of them. Adopting the name Abdul Karim, he caught a bus from Haifa going to Lebanon, alongside another Arabic speaking Jewish spy, Havakuk Cohen.
The two men had only one gun for defense. Once they crossed into Lebanon, a group of Arab military officers stopped the bus. Seeing two able-bodied young men, the Arab officers demanded to know why they weren’t fighting Jews. “We leave our homes, our wives, our kids, to help you fight the Jew, and you are running away?” they asked. Isaac reacted quickly. He showed the soldiers his gun. “We’re not escaping,” he told them in Arabic, “If this gun had a mouth, it would tell you how many Jews it killed.” Isaac’s local dialect and accent in Arabic was perfect. The officers never suspected they were speaking with a Syrian-born Jew, not a locally raised Arab man, and let Isaac and Havakuk go.
Isaac Shoshan (foreground) and Havakuk Cohen in Lebanon, around 1949
In Lebanon, Isaac and Havakuk observed the Arab Legion’s military convoys. Another Jewish spy brought them a wireless radio transmitter hidden inside an ordinary radio, and Isaac set up a makeshift intelligence center inside the small apartment he’d rented in Beirut. He began describing the military technology that Jewish fighters would soon be facing – and he heard a wondrous piece of news. Israel had declared itself a Jewish state. It was the first time he’d heard of the existence of his new country. He also learned that six Arab states had immediately declared war on Israel, and the new nation was desperately fighting for its very life.
Soon, Isaac and Havakuk were told that a car bomb was being assembled in a garage in Beirut and were tasked to stop it. The men asked a garage worker if they could come in to use the restroom. In the few minutes they were able to be inside the garage, they set a bomb, which destroyed the building, as well as some surrounding structures. Five people died in the bombing, and although he’d been acting to save Jewish lives in the course of Israel’s War of Independence, Isaac was profoundly shaken by the loss of life. Later on, still in disguise, Isaac met a man who’d lost both of his sons in the explosion. He often spoke about the experience and began to advocate for Israel to use less deadly means of spying and sabotage.
“Although we were sent to gather intelligence,” Isaac Shoshan later recalled, “we also saw ourselves as soldiers, and we looked for opportunities to act.” He and Havakuk set up a small snack kiosk in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, which they used as a cover for their spying activities. Isaac also drove a taxi part-time.
In 1948, Isaac and Havakuk were sent a coded message from Israel: a ship had docked in Beirut's harbor and Israeli sources indicated it might be there in order to be fitted with a cannon and used to attack the port of the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Isaac and Havakuk had to find the boat’s location.
This wasn’t any ordinary ship. Called the Aviso Grille, it had formerly been Adolf Hitler’s personal property. He and other senior Nazis enjoyed sailing in it, and Hitler planned to use it to travel to London in the event that he managed to defeat the British military. After the war, a wealthy Lebanese Christian bought the ship and sailed it to Beirut. Isaac managed to locate its whereabouts, and one dark night, he and Havakuk welcomed another Syrian-born Israeli Jew, Eliyahu Rika, who was dropped off along the Lebanese coast and swam to shore carrying two mines. With Isaac’s help, Rika swam to the ship and placed the mines on its hull. The resulting explosion – days later – rendered the boat inoperable.
The Aviso Grille, 1935 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1950 Isaac Shoshan, along with Havakuk Cohen, was relieved by yet more undercover Israeli Arabic-speakers. Isaac returned to Israel and helped other Jews infiltrate terror cells disguised as Arabs. Isaac helped create the cover for Eli Cohen, one of Israel’s most famous spies, who infiltrated the upper echelons of Syrian society in the 1960s – and who was discovered, tortured and executed in Syria in 1965.
“Generations of warriors learned their trade at his feet,” explained Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister and a former elite spy. “Me too,” he added, upon learning of Isaac Shoshan’s death.
Isaac continued to go on missions well into old age. He found that the persona of a helpless old man was a useful one for a spy. He also worked with Arab spies who cooperated with Israel. “He turned out to be blessed with a talent for this job too,” explained Rafi Sutton, a fellow intelligence officer with whom Isaac Shoshan wrote Men of Secrets, Men of Mystery (1990). “Agents are a problematic lot, and you have to know when they are lying to you or telling the truth, and how not to allow them to extort you and take control of the relationship between you, without damaging their readiness to work with you,” Rafi Sutton explained. Isaac was able to cut through the lies and recruit high quality spies, and support their work.
Most of the world will never know how many missions Isaac Shoshan went on, nor how many lives his decades of heroism saved. After his death at the age of 96 was announced on December 28, 2020, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak recalled that Isaac had “risked his life again and again” for the Jewish state.
Isaac Shoshan leaves behind a legacy of helping build and defend our homeland against seemingly insurmountable odds.