Maurice Cohen, a Mossad communications officer, did not know what to make of the odd message he was sent in the early 1960s: “Ask Nadia if she received the Singer sewing machine.” He couldn’t figure out what either Nadia or Singer meant, and neither could his superiors. He didn’t that “our man in Damascus” was his older brother, Eli. As far as he knew, Eli, a buyer for the defense ministry, was off on a shopping tour of Europe.
His family did not know that Eli Cohen was a spy, much less Israel’s most daring undercover operator, until soon before he was caught.
But now, as the 40th anniversary of his execution approaches, his family is intensifying its efforts to convince Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, to release Cohen’s body for reburial.
“I have no doubt that if Assad released the body, it would greatly improve his image in Israel and abroad,” Sophie Ben-Dor, Eli Cohen’s daughter, told JTA. “Making such a humane gesture could help convince the Israelis that he is serious when he talks about peace with Israel.”
Ben-Dor and her mother recently sent a letter and a videocassette to Assad via unnamed intermediaries. In the cassette, they appeal to Assad directly, telling him that if he would release the body he would “honor the dead and the values of Islam.”
“We pleaded with him to let go of the past, and promised him that his initiative would be widely respected by the Israelis,” Ben-Dor added.
But Assad is playing his cards close to the vest.
“Our contacts said that he promised to release the body in due course, or that it should be part of the peace negotiations,” Ben-Dor said. “We are not saying that the issue should be separated from negotiations, but it has already been 40 years, and we don’t want to wait another 40 years.”
Using the alias Kamal Amin Ta’abet, Cohen worked undercover in Damascus as a Mossad agent from 1962 until he was arrested in 1965. Using his vast network of contacts there, he managed to pass invaluable intelligence to Israel.
His information contributed directly to Israel’s victory — and its capture of the Golan Heights — in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Cohen was hanged on May 18, 1965.
Soon afterward, Maurice Cohen founded the American Friends of Eli Cohen Memorial, and he has devoted this life to trying to get his brother’s remains home. So far, Syria has rejected all pleas to release the remains of the Israeli master spy.
“I had great hopes that Bashar would be more liberal than his father, but he is just as stubborn,” Cohen told JTA this week. “Young Bashar is weaker than his father, and he does whatever the old guard tells him to.”
The association recently began an online petition directed at Assad, demanding that he order the return the remains of Eli Cohen to his family in Israel for proper burial. “This would be a humanitarian gesture of good will, understanding, and another step towards world peace on behalf of Syria,” reads the petition.
The association also is planning the “Eli Cohen memorial tour of Israel,” scheduled for May 9-19. About 200 Americans are expected to join the tour, which will include a meeting with President Moshe Katsav, a briefing by a Mossad officer, a meeting with Cohen’s family and a visit to his hometown and his synagogue.
“I believe the delegation is important, because the guests could exert pressure on Congress and encourage public opinion to press Bashar to release the remains of my brother,” Maurice Cohen said.
The family had hoped that the release would become part of last year’s prisoner exchange, in which Israel received a businessman and the remains of three soldiers for Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of Hezbollah fighters. “But they told us, Do not make too much fuss,” Cohen said.
“The world is indifferent even to the plight of living people, so how can we expect them to be sensitive to the fate of a dead person?” Ben-Dor said. Nevertheless, Eli Cohen’s daughter said she is not bitter.
“I am not sure that there were sufficient efforts to secure the return of my father’s body, but I do believe the state has done plenty to commemorate my father,” she said.
“There is hardly a town that does not have a street named after him, and I do believe that the state has built up his heritage as a national hero.”
It is now a race against time, she said. Much must be done in the struggle against oblivion. Even Ben-Dor’s 14-year-old daughter, Shire, is not quite aware of her grandfather’s historic importance.
“The teens are a difficult age, but as she grows up, with every year she develops a different attitude,” Ben-Dor said.
Ben-Dor was 5 years old when her father was executed. She vaguely remembers his rare visits to Israel before his arrest. “I still remember him very excited as he came in October 1964 for my brother’s brit,” she said.
That was the last time she saw him. He was arrested shortly thereafter.
Cohen’s survivors also included his wife, Nadia; another daughter, Irit; and a son, Shai.
No one — except for perhaps a few Syrians — know exactly where Cohen was buried. The Syrians aren’t talking. No one knows whether his survivors will ever be able to say kaddish for him at his grave.
“I am sure that eventually they will return the bones, because this is their last card,” said Maurice Cohen.
“Frankly,” she said, “I don’t believe that this will take place. The problem has been dormant for 40 years. It could easily lie there for another 40 years.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.