Spies in History & Literature ~
“Am I My Brother’s
By Maurice Cohen
As told to Carla Stockton
Maurice Cohen was a retired Mossad agent who specialized in
cryptology. Born in Egypt of Jewish-Syrian parentage, he fled to
Israel after the 1948 War of Independence. He passed away in the
United States on December 1, 2006, while arranging for the
publication of his memoirs. He lived in Ramat-Gan, Israel.
Editor’s Note ~
Elsewhere at this website is the article,
’The Story of Israel’s Most
Famous Secret Agent: Behind the Scenes of The Impossible
Spy“. It tells how the story of Eli Cohen was
dramatized into a 1987 independent film, now re-released on DVD.
But there’s much more to add to the history of one of
the most incredible true espionage sagas of the 20th Century. The
article below is by Maurice Cohen, who was not only Eli’s
brother, but a fellow Mossad agent with a special and unique
connection to the Impossible Spy’s important missions.
Here’s his story in his own words.
I have spent the better part of my life keeping secrets. State
secrets, family secrets, emotional secrets. I have guarded them,
held them close to my heart, locked them in my mind. Each
secret has given me moments of pride, of joy, of pain. But there
is one that has been breaking my heart since 1962. It may have
saved my country, but it has most certainly cost me a piece of
my soul. This is the secret of Eliahu Cohen, Israel’s
most famous spy.
Eli has been dead for 40 years now, and though I did not kill
him, I am fully aware that my failure to disclose what I knew may
have sealed is fate. Like Eli, I was a member of Israeli Intelligence,
a Mossad agent, now retired. It was the intersection of our lives
in that agency that led to my personal hell. I will tell you this story,
but let me start closer to the beginning.
A Family of Refugees
In 1914, our father, Shaul, then 12, and his parents left their
home in Aleppo, Syria and immigrated to Alexandria, Egypt.
Thousands of Jews fled Aleppo that year, and our mother, Sophie,
seven at the time, was among them as well. Egypt was the land
where our parents met and where Eli and I were born – he
in 1924 and I three years later. We were the second and third of
eight children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
As Jews, we were double outcasts. Egyptian Muslims were
growing increasingly hostile toward Jews, and the British, who
ruled Egypt until 1954, did nothing to temper the discrimination.
From our earliest childhood, we knew that we were interlopers in
Egypt and longed to create a place where we could truly belong.
By the time I was ten, the Zionist movement had gained
considerable momentum among young Jews like myself. I joined
the Halutzim, the Pioneers, a kind of boy scouts for Zionist youth,
and by the age of 14, I was a troop leader. We scouts were all-out
nationalists for a country that did not yet exist, and our mission
was to use our knowledge of Jewish history and culture to inspire
younger Jews to join us. Though not yet adults, we sought to
hasten the creation of the Jewish State, a land where we could
celebrate our heritage without fear or shame.
Eli, already too old to be a scout, was active in the Zionist
underground. Egyptian law required all males, including Jews, to
serve in the army, but he was rejected on the grounds of
questionable loyalty. Instead, Eli enrolled at the University of Cairo
to pursue a degree in electronic engineering. At the University,
Eli and other Jewish students were persecuted by the Muslim
Brotherhood, so he withdrew to continue his studies at home, which
I later learned had given him more freedom to work on behalf of
the Zionist cause. We, his family, were blissfully ignorant of the fact
that Eli was already on shaky ground with the Egyptian authorities.
This was the first of Eli’s many secrets.
When I was old enough for the army, my father arranged for
an exemption and pulled strings to get me appointed to the
King’s Guard. In 1946, I went to work as a file clerk for
the British Army at the Royal Army Service Corp headquarters in
Ismailia. At night, I studied accounting at La Societé de
Compabilité de France and architecture at the British
Institute of Engineering Technology.
But conditions for Jews in Egypt were worsening. One evening,
I was arrested and, having no legal identification in my possession,
incarcerated. In the absence of a proper jail, my captors kept me in
an outhouse for the night before taking me to Ismailia for arraignment.
Sitting in the car along the way, I became gripped by fear when I
realized that I had nationalistic Israeli songs written in Hebrew in my
pocket. Cautiously, I ripped the papers into tiny pieces, chewed
them to a pulp and threw them out the window. When we reached
the police station, a small piece of the paper remained in my pocket.
I needed an efficient way to rid myself of the songs. A janitor
cleaning the floors became my only opportunity to divest myself of
the last scrap. I wrapped it in a one-pound note and dropped it to
the floor. The custodian saw the bill and quickly put his foot over
it to claim it for himself. The paper landed in the garbage, courtesy
of the cleaning man who had eyes only for the money. It was my
first act of espionage.
Shortly thereafter, I was discharged from Royal Army headquarters
and it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to find another
job in Egypt. It was 1948; Israel had declared statehood and the
situation for Jews in Arab lands was becoming ever more dangerous.
Consequently, my family decided that my sister Odette, my brother
Ezra and I would make aliyah.
In time, after much trouble, Ezra, Odette and I received our exit
papers and departed for Brindisi, Italy, where we obtained the
necessary documents to enter Israel. Ezra was 19, the perfect age
to join the now official Israel Defense Forces. I was 21 and took a
job at the post office.
Eli remained in Egypt with the rest of our family. But from 1950
on, a new wave of persecution was unleashed against Egyptian
Jews. Like thousands of other Jewish families, my parents and
younger siblings left everything behind and immigrated to Israel.
Eli stayed. He was now a member of the Israeli intelligence unit
that was attempting to sabotage Egypt’s relationships with
the United States, Britain and other Western powers. Unbeknownst
to us, training and planning were underway for what would later
be called the Lavon Affair, after Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas
Lavon. This spy network, code named “Susannah,”
was designed to penetrate, attack and disrupt civil and military
installations within Egypt.
In 1952, the Free Officers Movement, revolutionary group
backed by the British and led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (who would
become President of Egypt), toppled King Farouk. That same
year, Eli was arrested, along with many others, on suspicion of
engaging in Zionist activities. Eli was questioned extensively by the
Egyptian Muchabarat [intelligence agency], but no concrete connection
to any subversive movement could be established.
Around this time, my brother was sent to an espionage course
in Israel. It had been years since we’d seen our Eli, so you
can only imagine our excitement when he telephoned Odette to
divulge that he was in the country. She immediately told me the
name of his hotel in Tel Aviv, and I jumped in my car to see him.
But I missed my chance. His superiors discovered that he had
contacted us and spirited him away before I arrived. He was sent
back to Egypt.
In 1953, the Egyptian authorities uncovered the Lavon Affair
and took 11 Jews into custody, Eli among them. Once again, he
was released for lack of evidence. Eli’s comrades were
not so fortunate. Two were hanged, the others imprisoned. The
incident sparked official attacks on Jewish homes, and over the
next three years Egyptian Jews were arrested in droves.
In December 1956, Eli was expelled from Egypt for good.
With the help of a Jewish agency in Cairo, he crossed the
Mediterranean and made aliyah by way of Naples;
he moved in with our parents in their apartment in Bat Yam and
petitioned for a position as a translator for Israel Intelligence
Operations. Despite his facility for languages, his extensive
intelligence training and his role in the Israeli underground, he
was turned down because he was not proficient in modern
Now a private citizen, Eli found work as an accountant and
inspector for Ha Mashbir, a chain of retail stores. For a time, it
seemed he would just assimilate into Israeli society, obscure and
anonymous. I smile to think how he must have enjoyed this brief
reprieve from espionage.
I, meanwhile, had become fluent in Hebrew and made great
strides in both my personal and professional life. In 1952, I
married Hanna Shirazi and took a job as district substitute for
all postmasters who were ill or on leave. A year later, Hanna and
I had our first son, Shaul. Not long after, I became Postmaster of
Eilat. Like all other Israeli men, I also served in the military reserves.
While on duty, I was constantly asked to join Army Intelligence, but I
was a happily married man with a growing family and had not the
slightest interest in being a hero or in leaving the happy nest I was
feathering. So I turned down all offers.
All of us Cohens, as a matter of fact were immersed in our
private lives. Even Eli was to find true love above ground. It was
I who introduced Nadia Magled to my big brother. One day, my
wife called me at work to ask me to stop in at her sister Hela’s
dressmaker’s shop to pick up two dresses she had
altered. When I arrived, Hela was fitting a very pretty young
woman for a new dress. The young woman was clearly curious
about me and asked Hela in crisp, succulent Iraqi Arabic from
where she knew this fine looking young man. “Is he
Ashkenazi? What is his parentage?” After Hela
explained that I was her brother-in-law, the young woman blushed
and remarked shyly, “If you’d been a bachelor,
I would have introduced you to my sister Nadia who lives with
our parents across the street.” I smiled and told her,
“If your sister Nadia is as pretty as you are, I will gladly
arrange for her to meet my brother.” We made all the
necessary arrangements, and when Nadia and Eli met, it was
immediately clear that they were meant to be together. At age
30. Eliyahu cut a dark, handsome figure; he was well spoken
and polite. Nadia, 25, was shapely, olive-skinned and slightly
taller than Eli.
They were married in August 1959 in a modest ceremony at
a Sephardic shul in Tel Aviv and settled near our parents in Bat
Yam. Eli, Nadia and soon their first daughter, Sophie, comfortably
blended into the landscape of middle-class Israel.
Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence continued to try to recruit me
and, in 1960, I took a leave of absence from my job to accept
an officer’s commission. Given my knowledge of many
languages, I specialized in cryptology.
Eli, now fluent in Hebrew, was also sought after by Israeli
intelligence. He was recruited by the Agaf ha-Modi’in,
a branch of the Israel Defense Forces known by the Hebrew
acronym AMAN, meaning simply “intelligence
branch.” Enjoying the idyll of home and family, Eli initially
refused to enlist. Then, rather mysteriously, he lost his job at Ha
Mashbir and, unable to support his family, finally accepted the offer
from AMAN. Neither of us, of course, was aware of the other’s
espionage trade, and even if we had been, Eli and I could never
have discussed our work. What I am about to tell you I have mostly
learned in the years since his death.
After an intensive training period and a transfer from the IDF
to the Mossad, Eli was dispatched to Argentina. We have family
in that country, and some years later, I met our aunt, our
mother’s sister, who told me she had seen Eli there.
Eli had explained that he was merely a tourist who brought
regards from her nephews in the old country. She suspected,
but never knew for a fact, that he was her nephew. What a risk
my brother took being cordial with our family members.
Yet it was precisely our family background that made Eli so
valuable to the Mossad. Eli, like the rest of us, had spent his
childhood absorbing the Aleppo accented Arabic spoken at home
and had heard enough stories about Syria to allow him to appear
familiar with its intricate twists and turns.
The Mossad recognized this opportunity and transformed
Eli into a new man. Literally. My brother became Kamel Amin
Sa’bet, a rich Syrian émigré who had
inherited vast wealth and a thriving family business from his father.
Kamel Amin Sa’bet conspicuously spent his money (provided
by his bosses at Mossad) hosting parties for the local Syrian
community, making it clear to anyone who would listen that he
really desired was to be back in Syria, contributing to the growth
of its government and working toward the destruction of Israel.
He was a talented actor, my brother. He quickly gained the
trust of Syrian businessmen privy to the whereabouts of Adolf
Eichmann, who was living in Argentina under the assumed name
of Richard Klement. Later, while in Syria, Sa’bet was
introduced to Karl Rademacher, a senior Eichmann aide who had
been involved in the mass murder of Jews before joining the Syrian
But Eli’s target was Syria itself. In 1960 and 1961,
several military coups upended the Syrian government (and its
brief union with Egypt as the United Arab Republic), leaving the
Ba’ath Party – a secular Socialist Arab group
– in control.
With the help of the Argentian Syrians, Kamel Amin Sa’bet,
an avowed Ba’athist, traveled through Zurich, Egypt and
Beirut to Damascus, where he was introduced to some of the
most influential men in the highest echelons of Government.
Sa’bet convinced them that he was willing to give his
fortune, his hard work and his life to Syria. He settled easily into
The rest of us Cohens, of course, knew nothing of Eli’s
other life. He told us that the Israeli government had charged
him with the purchase of spare computer parts and other electronic
instruments that were off limits to Israelis, for fear they’d
be used for military purposes. This job, he added, required him
to be based in Europe but travel widely. Looking back, I see I
was naïve to believe these fairy tales. But I bought into
his lies as easily as did Nadia.
By this time I had worked my way up through the hierarchy of
the Mossad and was toiling in a high security, top secret unit
that decoded and encrypted messages. At first I knew nothing
about the messages I was decoding; they seemed like random
words with no apparent significance. Then, as I honed my skills,
it became clear that the transmissions were coming out of
Damascus, from the agent we all called “Our Man in
Our Man in Damascus was an incredibly productive spy. In
1962, he solidified the Syrians’ trust in him and was
invited to attend the Sixth National Convention of the
Ba’ath Party. As a highly respected member of the Syrian
National Council of Revolutionary Command and a volunteer for
Radio Damascus, our spy had intimate access to both open and
closed sessions of the party.
He managed to expose Syria’s plans to cut off
Israel’s water supply by diverting the headwaters of
the Jordan. He also provided the details of a plan drawn up by
the Palestinian National Liberation Movement to attack northern
Israel through guerilla warfare. Armed with this knowledge, the Israeli
government bombed Syrian positions, preventing Syrians from
destroying the Israeli settlements of Dan, Dafne and Shear Yishub.
Through a twist of fate, I was made responsible for all the codes
Mossad “activators” used to communicate with
Our Man in Damascus. He and his contacts typically sent messages
that ended with a personal tidbit. It was these postscripts that
led me to suspect that Our Man in Damascus was none other
than my brother, Eli. One day a postscript read, “Did
Nadia get the Singer sewing machine I sent her?” No
code words “Nadia” or “Singer Sewing
Machine” appeared in the code book. My superiors
informed me that I was not cleared to decode such top secret
sensitive materials. I asked my sister-in-law and learned that
she had indeed recently received a sewing machine.
This astonishing discovery was confirmed when another
message concluded with, “Mlle. Fifi a commencé
à marcher.” [Miss Fifi has begun to
walk.] I knew that my niece Sophie had been delayed in taking
her first steps and that Eli had been concerned about it. Eli was our
Now that I was certain Our Man in Damascus was my own
brother, the secret gnawed at my insides, and I was dying to reveal
it. But to whom? And to what end? I was tortured by the knowledge
of my brother’s high risk mission. I had ferreted out the
truth; now I had to swallow it and keep it deep within my belly.
Some months later, Eli visited and presented young Sophie
with a pair of velvet slippers. Embroidered with golden thread, the
shoes had sizes in Arabic numbers imprinted on the soles.
“Where did you get these slippers?” I inquired.
He bought them at a department store in Paris, he said.
“But,” I argued, “why would the sizes be
written in Arabic for French sale?” He chided me for
interrogating him and said that they were probably manufactured
in an Arab country and exported all over the world. He then
abruptly and definitively changed the subject.
I decided I had to hear the truth directly from Eli. He knew that
I had had a hard time getting telephone service in my new apartment.
“You work for the Postal Service,” he remarked
one day, unaware that I too was a Mossad agent. “It should
be easy for you to get a line.” I told him I now had a phone
and gave the number of his apartment in Damascus, which I had
received in a message just before he’d come home.
He began writing the number but stopped abruptly and, looking
flushed and flustered, mumbled under his breath about needing
to run out to the supermarket before it closed. I had gotten
under his cover.
Soon after, my commanding officers summoned me to my
base and informed me that Eli had spoken to them about the
phone number incident. They warned me not to discuss the
issue with Eli anymore and to share his secret with no one. And
so the truth remained trapped within me. If I shared the secret
with my family, even if they could keep it, I would cause them
unspeakable worry and pain.
If I breached security and told anyone else, I would place
my country in a vulnerable position. One word from me, and
Eli’s mission could be aborted, his life endangered. My
brother had bravely chosen to put himself in danger to protect his
country. I chose to honor his commitment, leaving his fate in
Eli returned to Israel in 1964 to be present at the birth of his
third child, his son Shaul. This time, Nadia begged him to stay.
He promised her this would be his last trip abroad before returning
for good. And so Our Man in Damascus returned to Syria for
one last bout of espionage. He ascended to new heights of
power in the Ba’ath Party. With friends in high places
who escorted him to high security areas throughout Syria, he
managed to photograph strategic strongholds on the Golan
Heights. The clandestine information he sent back later aided
Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
On January 24, 1965, with the help of Soviet tracking, the
Syrian government was able to identify the spy who was
transmitting its secrets to Israel. In a pre-dawn raid on his home,
Kamel Amin Sa’bet was arrested and imprisoned. He was
tortured and tried without counsel. At the time of his arrest, Kamel
Amin Sa’bet AKA Eliahu Cohen was third in the line of
succession to become president of Syria.
Five months after his arrest, on May 18, 1965, Eli was hanged
before a crowd of more than 10,000 vengeful Syrians who jeered
him as he died. The hanging was televised and we – his
family in Israel – watched helplessly as our beloved son,
husband, brother and father was executed.
I indict myself anew on a daily basis. What else might I have
done? How might I have saved my brother from such unfathomable
suffering? Could I have protected my mother and my sister-in-law,
my nieces and nephew, my brothers and sisters, from such
pain? As my own judge and jury, I find myself both guilty and innocent.
The verdict tortures me.
But in the end, it was Eli alone who could have broken the
chain of events that took his life. He chose on his own, without
the luxury of discussion with his wife or friends or family, to give
himself to his work. He heeded a higher power, a greater good.
When God commanded Moses to send spies into Israel to
chart the land and study the people who were living there, He
wrote Eli’s fate. Each day of my life, I remind myself that
nothing I could have said or done had the power to change that.
This article can be supplied free, upon request
in several languages: Hebrew, French, Portuguese, Arabic &
Russian, with or without pictures.
To learn more about the Cohen brothers, please visit the
Eli Cohen Official
Web Site. There’s a petition there we hope you will
sign urging Syria to return Eli’s body to his family.