The real story behind The Spy

Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen in The Spy. Photo: Screenshot

FOR Borat, his 2006 film, Sacha Baron Cohen went undercover as a made-up Kazakh journalist who travels America and gets unwitting targets to share his boorish and sometimes bigoted opinions.

In Who Is America?, he creates a variety of characters who manage to get prominent Americans to say shockingly offensive things.

In The Spy, he again goes undercover, but in a very different way.

The Jewish actor and filmmaker portrays the real-life Eli Cohen, a daring Israeli agent who embedded himself in the upper echelons of Syrian society in the 1960s and provided intelligence to the Jewish State. 

After Cohen moved to Damascus in 1962, he quickly infiltrated the highest levels of Syrian society, and sent intelligence back to Israel using a hidden radio transmitter.

In 1965, Syria found out about Cohen by tracing his intelligence transmissions to Israel. He was convicted in a trial without a defence and sentenced to death.

Cohen’s remains have yet to be returned, despite pleas from his family. Reports earlier this year said a Russian delegation had removed his remains from Syria in an attempt to bring them to Israel.

Information provided by Cohen is thought to have been crucial to Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.

On a trip to the Golan Heights, Cohen suggested to an army officer that he should plant trees to provide shade for troops. Those trees helped Israel identify where Syrian troops were located.

Levi Eshkol, the late Israeli prime minister, credited Cohen’s intelligence with saving countless Israeli lives and “having a great deal to do” with Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

Cohen wasn’t the only Israeli who went on such a mission, though he’s perhaps the most well known.

Israel “took a lot of ideas from the Soviet-style of playing the spy game”, in sending out citizens on long-term spy missions where they had to adopt false identities, said Dan Raviv, a correspondent for i24News and the author of Spies Against Armageddon, a history of Israeli intelligence. “The Israelis were softer about this than the Soviets were because the Israelis generally allowed their long duration agents to come home on family visits,” Raviv told JTA.

One thing that helped Israel with such missions was that its citizens came from many countries and spoke those languages fluently.

In the case of Cohen, the mission was even more ambitious, Raviv said. “To set him up as really rich man who flamboyantly and visibly would climb up the ladder of influence in Syria, it was a very bold mission but the Israeli intelligence chiefs thought Eli Cohen was up to it.”