Spies in History & Literature ~
The Eli Cohen Files
By Wes Britton
With research by Helene Fragman Abramson
Dr. Wes Britton, Maurice Cohen, and Impossible Spy
producer Harvey Chertok.
Eli Cohen was no James Bond, yet his swift intelligence, retentive
mind, language ability, and other special attributes enabled him to
penetrate the highest Echelons of the Syrian government in the
mid-1960’s as an agent of Israel’s Mossad.
Establishing himself as an expatriate from Argentina, Cohen
(alias Kamal Amin Taabet) succeeded in rapidly winning friends in
high places, and during his nearly four years as a spy managed to
send a steady flow of information back to Israel. All in all this is a
story of real life espionage more fascinating than any fictional counter
part – Maurice Cohen
On October 8 and 9, 2006, a group of friends gathered at the
home of Helene Fragman Abramson in Princeton, New Jersey. The
group included Maurice Cohen and his wife of two years, Belle,
Harvey and Bobbi Chertok, Helene, and Dr. Wesley Britton.
Maurice had called this meeting to assemble a team to help him
write his memoirs about himself, his family, and especially his
famous brother, Eli Cohen.
I learned much about Maurice Cohen that weekend. For one
matter, he was an excellent cook. He had taken over Helene’s
kitchen and devoted hours to preparing a feast for the 7 of us.
Harvey Chertok recalled “that the Jewish Holiday at the
time was Succoth – a fall harvest festival. The main dish that
Maurice made was cholent – a many-ingredient stew that
orthodox Jews who are not allowed to cook on the Sabbath put on
a stove with lots of fuel on Friday afternoon, and the pot cooks by
itself until sundown Saturday.”
That weekend, Maurice conducted a celebratory ritual and read
passages from Hebrew scripture under a tent in Helene’s
backyard. It was a time for new friendships to blossom and old ones
The main order of business, of course, was Maurice’s
memoirs, and by Sunday afternoon, he assigned three writers to
help him shape his book – Carla Stockton, Helene, and
myself. Then, while Belle Cohen was in Israel gathering documents,
suddenly, with no warning, Maurice Cohen passed away in
Helene’s home on December 1, 2006, while taping
interviews for the project.
In the months that followed, we all mourned the loss of our
friend – and each of us wrestled with what we wanted
to do with Maurice’s vision.
Left to right – Bobbi Chertok, Belle Cohen, Wes Britton,
and Maurice Cohen
After both Carla and Helene chose not to continue with the work,
it was left to me to complete the project, as best I could with the
After reviewing the many notes of research material in my files,
I didn’t feel there was enough to warrant a full book, but
there was indeed considerable information not presented elsewhere.
Then, after the original publication of these articles in 2008, another
Cohen brother, Avraham, began contributing new information and
vital suggestions and corrections.
So this series of articles evolved into this current presentation.
I’ve devoted these past years to this work-in-progress
as I felt a strong commitment to Maurice. In addition, I felt a strong
need to tell this story. After all, there were few in-depth studies on
the life and work of Eli Cohen in English.
In 1968, Eli Ben-Hanin’s Our Man in Damascus
was published, the short book that later inspired Harvey
Chertok’s 1987 TV movie, The Impossible Spy
long before anyone was wondering how to increase Youtube views.
Admittedly, Zwy Aldouby and Jerrold Ballinger’s 1971
The Shattered Silence: The Eli Cohen Affair was less
dramatic and far more authoritative, and remains the best book-length
biography of Eli Cohen in print. Still, so much hadn’t been
told, especially regarding the Cohens’ time in Egypt. And,
of course, much has come to light in the years since.
One of the important matters I had to work with was the amount
of material Maurice had left. Over the years, he’d told and
retold some of his stories in various incarnations with sometimes
For example, at his Friends of Eli Cohen website, he’d
posted “A Brother’s Story”, which Carla
Stockton had smoothed into “Am I My Brother’s
Keeper?”, which was first published in Moments
magazine and then at this website.
Then there were the many unpublished notes, the longest of
which being “Maurice Cohen’s Reminiscences on
his brother Eliahu Cohen, Most Famous Spy.” These 40
some pages were in a very rough form, and it was often impossible
to tell where Maurice’s words began and ended. It seemed
apparent he had cut-and-pasted pages of material he’d
found elsewhere. In addition, he’d left a number of mini-tapes,
often difficult to understand due to Maurice’s very thick
accent and the poor quality of the recordings.
But the project was never intended to be simply an account of
one brother revealing his own intelligence work nor his insights
about his famous sibling – hence his bringing in outside
researchers to explore historical contexts and unearth information
not previously known.
For example, Maurice had little first-hand knowledge about
Eli’s work in Egypt in the 1950s and Syria during the 1960s.
Like many who suffered the tragic death of a family member, his
Perceptions were far from objective. It was apparent Maurice had
many beliefs that could not be substantiated. For but one example,
during one interview, he probed an exile from the Syrian Jewish
community, hoping for confirmation that his brother had done many
acts of kindness for that community. It wasn’t so. As it
turned out, this was but one of countless rumors, myths, and
legends that have sprung up over the years, clouding the life and
legacy of Eli Cohen.
Of course, as in all families, different members have very
different memories and responses to events that occurred 50 years or
so ago. I was able to explore this in depth when Avraham Cohen
graciously agreed to provide a series of interviews, e-mail answers
to my questions, and send copies of recently de-classified Mossad
documents. Being much younger than either Eli or Maurice, his
recollections vary considerably from that of Maurice.
In addition, he’d done his own explorations into what
his brother had done and was extremely helpful when we probed
the mysterious years when Eli Cohen was doing his first undercover
work in Egypt.
Wes Britton and Maurice Cohen
But these articles are far from a collection of intimate recollections
of a masterspy from the Cohen point of view.
I looked into numerous primary and secondary sources to flesh
out both the contexts and particulars of a most extraordinary life.
Many years have passed since 1965, so many accounts are now
filtered through fading memories. Many sources vary dramatically
as to events, motives, and virtually every aspect of the life of Eli
Cohen. Without question, many sources have vested interests, as
in family members wanting to preserve the image of a somewhat
idealized figure. The State of Israel itself has made Eli Cohen a
national hero, and rightly so. Telling the story of a man, even
when showing his foibles and flaws, I feel, diminishes nothing.
To this day Eli Cohen remains an important figure in espionage
history with implications that should influence contemporary thinking
in the Twenty-First Century.
Equally important, Israeli intelligence is famous for keeping
its “Family Jewels” locked away in hidden corridors.
Old missions are normally de-classified after 40 years – in
the case of Eli Cohen, they re-classified their files for another 40.
For this project, I’ve tried to confirm what I can, analyze
what is less plausible, and offer the many different accounts to
be as balanced and objective as possible.
Again, I must give Aldouby and Ballinger’s Shattered
Silence credit for being the fullest account of Eli Cohen’s
biography to date. As it is still available for serious readers, I
didn’t try to repeat the exhaustive details told in that
volume. In the main, I’ve cited sources that came out
after 1971. So these files can serve, in a sense, as a supplement
or update to that fine tome.
I should add that, due to the number of documents and tapes
with and by Maurice Cohen, inserting numerous citations
acknowledging each and every source compiled in so many
paragraphs would have made those sections cumbersome for
general readers. So I created a code indicating the principal
document – M1, M2, and so on – identified in
the “Works Cited.”
I’ve done the same for the interviews with Avraham
Cohen – A1, A2, etc. I hope these brief insertions will help
future researchers and not distract general readers exploring the
life and times of two brothers and their shadowy worlds.
So I hereby dedicate these articles to Maurice and hope they
will fulfill at least part of his desires. I also must express deep
gratitude to Helene Fragman Abramson, who invested many hours
in investigating so many trails of the saga. I also thank Harvey Chertok
for his contributions in supporting this project and for his own efforts
at keeping the story of Eli Cohen alive at the ongoing showings of his
docu-drama, The Impossible Spy.
Aug. 24, 2009
Table of Contents
Each of the four articles is presented here as a PDF file. To view a
PDF file, click on the titles below.
PDF files require the Acrobat Reader program, which is available
for free on-line. To download the Acrobat Reader,
Part I –
The Roots of Spies
Traces the circumstances of the Cohen family from their flight
from Syria to Egypt after World War I to their eventual migration to
Israel in various stages. Describes the contexts of Jews in Egypt
from relative tolerance in the early years of the 20th Century through
increasingly hostile persecution and expulsion. Focusing on the
stories of brothers Eli and Maurice Cohen, the rise of Zionism is
explored with analysis of Eli Cohen’s possible involvement
in clandestine activities, notably in the “Lavon Affair.”
Includes transcripts of Eli Cohen’s CV and
“Testimony” given to the Mossad describing his
years in Egypt. Part 1 concludes with Eli Cohen’s expulsion
from Egypt in 1956.
Part II –
The Making of a Masterspy
Describes Eli Cohen’s years in Israel from 1956
through his recruitment into the Aman. Provides an overview of
his training, time in Argentina, and his insertion into Syria. Analyzes
his contributions and achievements and explores myths about
these accomplishments. Concludes in the final months of 1964
before Eli Cohen’s capture.
Part III –
Capture, Trial, and Execution
Examines and analyzes the circumstances leading up to Eli
Cohen’s capture in Damascus, including the possible
failures and motives of Cohen. Summarizes the events surrounding
his trial, international appeals on his behalf, and execution.
Part IV –
Aftermath, Legacy, and Appendices
Describes the after-effects of the Cohen affair in Israeli
intelligence and within Syria. Explores the ongoing quest by Israel
and the Cohen family to have Eli Cohen’s body returned.
Describes the later years of the Cohen family and the place of Eli
Cohen in film, literature, and especially his role in espionage history.
Includes three appendices –
- Appendix 1 – Maurice Cohen’s petition to the
Syrian government for the release of his brother’s body
- Appendix 2 – The text of a letter sent by Maurice Cohen
to Syrian President Hafez Assad on September 11, 1998
- Appendix 3 – Letter from Avraham Cohen to
Pope Benedict XVI, March 2009.