By the time I reached the age of Bar Mitzvah I had lived through the final years of the war in Vietnam and the controversy that followed, I had seen the president of the United States resign and my father, the man I looked up to most, was dying.
During that same period I celebrated Israel’s miraculous victory during the Six Day War and the glory that followed. During the Yom Kippur War I watched Israel’s triumph unfold on television and in the newspapers, proudly clipping photographs of victorious Jewish soldiers with tallis and tefillian by the side of their tanks for a scrapbook I was making (which thirty years later I still have). America celebrated its bicentennial while I was overwhelmed with pride as Israeli soldiers rescued terror victims at Entebbe. I went to rallies in support of Israel and, under the slogan “We Are One,” participated in walkathons and letter writing campaigns on behalf of Refusniks who sat in Soviet prisons for the crime of wanting to live as Jews in the Jewish State.
Those heroes of the Jewish people became my heroes. Some became icons. One such person was Eli Cohen. As a child, I learned how Eli Cohen, an undercover agent of the Israeli Mossad, had the Syrians plant trees on the Golan near each of their fortifications. In that way, based on the eucalyptus trees still visible today in the Golan, Israel knew exactly where the Syrian fortifications were. With the trees in place and additional intelligence provided by Eli Cohen, the Israeli army was able to capture the Golan Heights in only two days as part of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
This tale is part of Israel’s national story. Students in Israeli public schools learn about Eli Cohen, just as Americans learn about Paul Revere. He is legendary.
When Eli Cohen’s sister-in-law contacted me a few weeks ago, I was in shock and awe.
Jerusalem isn’t a big city and in small gatherings I have had the opportunity to meet Natan Sharansky, Teddy Kollek and other national heroes who are in the spotlight. However, this time was different. I was invited to meet with Eli Cohen’s brother and sister-in- law in their home to help them regarding Eli.
On May 18, 1965, the Government of Syria hanged Eli Cohen in a public square, despite protests from world leaders and Israel. In defiance of international humanitarian law he was brutally tortured during interrogation and never allowed a defense at his trial. His body was never returned to his family. Now his brother and sister-in-law wanted my help to redesign a Web site about Eli and to publicize an on-line petition they were starting in order to pressure Syria to return Eli Cohen’s body to his family.
I drove to a modest apartment in Ramat Gan and reviewed photos and documents with Eli’s family sitting on the sofa in their living room. I was overwhelmed and cried as I silently read Eli’s last letter to his family with whom I now sat.
Even in this letter, the man who gave Israel so much intelligence useful beyond measure, who sacrificed his life for others, was thinking of others, asking his family to stay together, and telling his wife “You are free to marry another man, to give our children a father. In this matter you are completely free. I ask you not to mourn what happened, but to look to the future.”
That Shabbat I read the 140 page book Our man in Damascus: Eli Cohen by Eli Ben-Hanan cover-to-cover in one sitting. Now I had a chance to do something for him.
I am in the process of designing a Web site that will inform people about Eli Cohen. It will allow people not only to learn, but also to take action.
As Israel matures in the wake of the war in Lebanon, the Rabin assassination, and the consequences of neither annexing nor relinquishing territories captured in 1967, it is important to remember the heroes who made this country what it is today.
It will not be so long before the generations who survived the Holocaust, who founded the State of Israel and who cemented its foundations are no longer with us to tell their stories or to give us the opportunity to show them our appreciation.
Now you can visit http://elicohen.org and learn more. Sign the petition and the next time you have an occasion to honor or remember someone, plant a tree in the Jewish National Fund’s Eli Cohen Grove through the Web site. You can even help those in Eli’s Mossad unit today carry on their mission through a contribution that will directly benefit them. It was almost forty years ago that Eli Cohen was hanged in Damascus, having helped Israel’s survival beyond measure. I still feel indebted to him and I am grateful that his family is including me in their effort.
In Israel you never know what will happen or who you will meet. I wonder who will call next week.