The certificate of recognition presented to Shulamit Kishik-Cohen hints at the secret life she lived. It called her “a secret soldier who risked her life and gave her all in undercover activity on behalf of the State of Israel.”
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A statement in recognition of her exploits from the office of Israel’s president made reference to her “work saving Jews in Arab countries.” Elsewhere, she was called “a legend of heroism.” But one of her grandchildren simply called her “Grandma James Bond.”
Kishik-Cohen, who spied for the State of Israel from the establishment of the state in 1948 until 1961, died this week at 100. Born in Argentina to the Kishik family in 1917, the future spy’s father was from Damascus and made a living in the textile industry.
In the 1920s, Kishik-Cohen’s family moved from South America to Jerusalem, where Shulamit studied at the prestigious Evelina de Rothschild School. Her father divided his time between Jerusalem and Buenos Aires, but her family’s economic situation deteriorated over time due to a financial crisis in Argentina. And then, before she turned 17, her life changed completely.
Her mother took Shulamit – who had acquired the nickname Shula over the years – to a seamstress to have a dress made from expensive material. Important guests would be coming from Lebanon, she was told. It turns out her parents had found her a wealthy husband from Beirut who was twice her age. “I cried all night,” she recalled, years later.
The groom, Joseph Cohen, was a well-to-do Jewish merchant. Beirut in the mid-1930s was referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Kishik-Cohen, who had been forced to move there from Jerusalem, wrote in her book “Shulamit’s Song: The Story of the Zionist Spy” that it felt as if she had “fallen off the roof of the world,” referring to Jerusalem as “the closest place to heaven.”
Her life in Beirut was like something out of a novel or film. Her home was near a synagogue and close to the clubhouse of the Maccabi Zionist youth movement, where she heard the local Jewish youth attempting to sing songs from British Mandatory Palestine, just to the south. One day, she approached the counselors from the youth movement and offered to help teach songs in preparation for the Jewish holy days. She quickly learned that the educational and cultural activities there were just a cover for efforts to set up a Jewish defense force.
Due to her prominence in the local Jewish community, Shulamit managed to develop good relations with the Lebanese authorities and to gain the confidence of key people in the country’s leadership. Without ever planning to take such a path, she found she had access to valuable intelligence information. Then, just prior to the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, she began to hear talk of the “extinction of the Jews of the Land of Israel,” and knew immediately that it related to military preparations for war against the Jews of Mandatory Palestine.
“My body was on the verge of collapse. My heart was beating at a pace that I had never experienced. My blood was boiling. My hands and feet were shaking and I was dizzy,” she wrote. “My sight became blurry. Only my ears still functioned. My ears continued to clearly hear these horrible things – more and more places that would be destroyed and the lives of Jews extinguished,” she recalled.
What she would hear forced her to act. She contacted officials in the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine and offered her services as a spy. In the book, she described the roundabout way in which she sent her first message to members of the Haganah (the underground, pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews). She wrote a concealed message, using a method she had learned in the girl scouts, in a seemingly innocent-looking letter that on the surface appeared to be asking about how a sick relative was faring. Merchants who worked in the market in Beirut with her husband saw to it that it was passed along, and ultimately it reached its destination in Mandatory Palestine.
The message was understood loud and clear, and a short while later she received her first assignment in her new “profession.”
From then until 1961, she operated a spy network that supplied Israel with intelligence information and engaged in smuggling Jews from Arab countries over the Lebanese border into Israel.
“Shula Cohen began providing important intelligence information to the young country – which was fighting for its existence – in everything related to the military activities of the Lebanese,” the website of Israel’s Intelligence Heritage Center recounts. “In her intelligence activity to save Jews, Shula Cohen was directed by Unit 504 of the Intelligence Corps, responsible for directing agents over the country’s borders.”
Following Israel’s establishment, she also provided a great deal of intelligence not only from Lebanon but also Syria. She also became a central figure in efforts to smuggle Jews from Lebanon and other Arab countries to Israel.
Some of the messages from her handlers in Israel were sent to her via a Beirut pharmacy. “They will be calling you to tell you the medicine you ordered is ready, and you will need to go there and pick it up,” she was advised. “The message will be on the back of the label of the medicine vial. It will be written in ink.” She recalled years later that “it would become more dangerous” each time.
Kishik-Cohen described one of the smuggling operations she organized, and which brought dozens of Jewish children to Israel, in her book.
“I arranged for a bus to take 70 children south and I took precautions,” she wrote. But just before the bus was due to depart, she learned that Lebanese detectives were conducting reconnaissance on the children. Shulamit swung into action. She bought 70 candles at a grocery store and passed them out among the children. She asked them to pretend they were getting ready for a Hanukkah march. “We need another Hanukkah miracle. We will walk slowly in the street and will all sing some of the Hanukkah songs that we learned,” she told them.
The bored detectives left, allowing the bus to head toward the Israeli border. “We were witness to a Hanukkah miracle in Beirut,” she would later write.
In their book (available in English), “Shula: Code Name the Pearl,” authors Aviezer Golan and Danny Pinkas wrote that Kishik-Cohen went by the code name The Pearl (“hapnina” in Hebrew), all the while posing as a housewife raising her seven children. One of those children, Itzhak Levanon, ultimately became Israel’s ambassador to Cairo from 2009 to 2011.
Act of betrayal
In 1961, though, Kishik-Cohen was arrested by the Lebanese authorities after being betrayed. “They asked me every question you could ask a spy: ‘Where is the transmitter? What is the code to the hidden text? Where are the documents?’ I just stared at them in silence and said that I don’t even know what a spy is and that they were just harassing a simple housewife,” she later recounted.
Her trial attracted a lot of interest in the Arab world and made headlines in Israel, as well as elsewhere, with articles describing “the Israeli spy network.” She later admitted to finding all the media attention pleasing. “I had been working for 14 years as if in the dark, not knowing what my importance was and what value there was to the material I was collecting; not knowing what kind of an agent I was – whether great and serious, or just a weakling,” she said, adding, “Now, suddenly, they are calling me ‘Mata Hari,’” referring to the Dutch dancer who was executed in France in 1917 after allegations that she was spying for Germany during World War I.
In detention, Kishik-Cohen was severely tortured and later sentenced to death. The indictment accused her of attempting a coup, spying for the enemy and smuggling Jews across the border.
In the Arab world, the headlines proclaimed “Death to the female spy!” and “Death to Shula Cohen,” she recounted. Much later, the Israeli Maariv daily reported that the prosecutor in her case had accused her of “rocking the cradle with one hand and turning the world upside down with the other.”
On appeal, her sentence was reduced to seven years in prison. She later said that her fear had been she would meet the same fate as Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy in Syria, who was publicly hanged in Damascus. Kishik-Cohen said she was told: “If Eli Cohen was left hanging for three days, we will hang Shula Cohen for a week.”
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Kishik-Cohen was released in a prisoner exchange, in return for hundreds of Lebanese. She returned to Jerusalem with her family, and had managed to have three of her seven children move to Israel prior to that.
In Israel, she worked as a sales clerk at a store that sold antiquities and jewelry. She would ultimately be recognized by the Jerusalem Municipality, with its Yakir Yerushayaim citizenship award, and received the intelligence community’s Yakir Seter award.
She was also given the honor of being one of the torch lighters for Israel’s Independence Day.
Her husband died in 1994. She is survived by seven children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.