Shelach & Eli Cohen


 This weeks Torah portion Shelach , relates the story of Moshe sending 12  spies on a reconnaissance trip to the promised land. A trip which had catastrophic consequences for the Jewish people. My mind always recalls the story of Eli Cohen Israel’s greatest spy. He is best known for his espionage work in 1961–65 in Syria, where he developed close relationships with the Syrian political and military hierarchy, and became the chief adviser to the Minister of Defense. Syrian counterintelligence eventually uncovered the spy conspiracy and convicted Eli   under pre-war martial law, sentencing him to death and hanging him publicly in 1965.

Syria refused to return Cohen’s body to his family in Israel, and his wife Nadia sent a letter to Amin al-Hafiz in November 1965 asking his forgiveness for Cohen’s actions and requesting his remains. In February 2007, the Turkish government offered to act as a mediator for their return.

Monthir Maosily was al-Assad’s bureau chief, and he said in August 2008 that the Syrians had buried him three times to stop the remains from being brought back to Israel via a special operation. Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied family requests for the remains.

In 2016 a Syrian group calling itself “Syrian art treasures” posted a video on Facebook showing Cohen’s body after his execution. No film or video was previously known to exist of the execution. The press announced on 5 July 2018 that Cohen’s wristwatch had been retrieved from Syria. His widow mentioned that the watch was up for sale months earlier, and the Mossad managed to capture it.[27] Mossad director Yossi Cohen presented it to Cohen’s family in a ceremony, and it is currently on display at Mossad headquarters.

I recall in 1993 whilst studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion being requested if I would be prepared with other students to meet a Mr and Mrs Baumal. These were the parents of Zachary Baumal a former student of our  Yeshiva. Tank commander Zachary Baumel,  went missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub against the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He was considered one of Israel’s “missing in action” soldiers”.Over the course of nearly 37 years, Israeli intelligence officers searched for the remains of fallen tank commander Zachary Baumel, who went missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub against the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Nearly four decades later, Sgt. First-Class Baumel’s body was returned to Israel and was brought to a Jewish burial at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery.

In Israel, at the time the bittersweet news was greeted with a sense of awe and pride at the lengths the military was prepared to go for its fallen soldiers. Baumel’s father, Yona, died in 2009 without learning of Zachary’s fate, but the rest of his family, including his mother Miriam, who is in her 80s, now had some form of closure. I recall Yona Baumel, sharing with us the pain and sorry the family were enduring. All they yearned for was some form of closure. The opportunity to be able to have the remains returned to them so they could have him buried in Israel and recite kaddish for their son.

Eli Cohen, has still not been returned, though his watch has made its way back to Israel. Let us hope and pray for the sake of his wife Nadia and family that  Israel’s greatest spy’s whose contribution and self sacrifice were legendary   will be  able to have the same burial accorded to Baumel  in the land and with the people whom he loved and owe him so much.

Veshavu Banim Ligvulam

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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