New bio reveals triumphs, trials of Mossad’s most famous female agent
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In espionage, 'what a man can do, a woman can also do — sometimes even better'

New bio reveals triumphs, trials of Mossad’s most famous female agent

Former colleague pens action-packed thriller about Sylvia Rafael, who paid a high price for her clandestine service

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Sylvia in her identity as Canadian news photographer Patricia Roxburgh. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)
Sylvia in her identity as Canadian news photographer Patricia Roxburgh. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)

Moti Kfir, former director of the Mossad’s School for Special Operations, said he had a hunch the first time he met Sylvia Rafael that she was exceptional and that she had the personal attributes that would make her an outstanding agent.

What Kfir did not know at that first encounter was that Rafael, who served time in a Norwegian prison after having been arrested and tried following the Lillehammer Affair, a botched 1973 assassination attempt targeting Palestinian terrorist leader Ali Hassan Salameh, would become a Mossad legend.

Even less obvious from the start was that half a century later he would pay tribute to his pupil and operative by writing her biography.

“Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy,” co-written by Kfir and popular Israeli writer Ram Oren, was recently published in English. It is a gripping spy thriller, and it is also a revealing portrait of a woman who made painful personal sacrifices in order to serve Zionism and her adopted country of Israel.

By jogging Kfir’s own memory, interviewing Rafael’s widower Annæus Schjødt, Jr. (who was her defense lawyer during the Lillehammer Affair, and who passed away this month), and combing through personal and military archives, the authors were able to construct a compelling, action-packed narrative allowing readers to understand what made this unusual woman tick.

Sylvia Rafael. At lower left is her signature in Hebrew. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)
Sylvia Rafael. At lower left is her signature in Hebrew. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)

Rafael, who died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 67, her ashes buried at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, was born and raised in rural South Africa in a family headed by a Jewish father and Christian mother. She was deeply affected when she was a girl by the arrival of her father’s sole relative to survive the Holocaust. In her teenage years, she became increasingly identified with Judaism and Zionism. As a young woman, she made aliyah to Israel and worked as an English teacher in Tel Aviv after an initial stint on a kibbutz.

Rafael became known to Kfir when a fellow agent, whose girlfriend happened to be Rafael’s flatmate, suggested that she might be suitable for Mossad work.

“I don’t make judgments from a first meeting, whether it be in business, spying, or even love,” Kfir, who left the Mossad in 1975, told The Times of Israel in an interview in his Tel Aviv home.

“But from my first meeting with Sylvia, I saw that she had potential. I was impressed,” he conceded about the woman who would become an integral part of Wrath of God, a covert Mossad operation to assassinate members of the Palestinian terror group Black September suspected of having been involved in the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

‘She was in a way a phenomenon. She was different from everything that I had known to that point,’ says her handler

“She was in a way a phenomenon. She was different from everything that I had known to that point.”

Kfir recruited and trained Rafael to be a clandestine combatant, an Israeli who operates undercover in other countries using foreign passports (as opposed to a spy, who is a foreign agent recruited for spying operations). Rafael lived in Canada and France under the assumed identity of a Canadian photojournalist named Patricia Roxburgh. Talented with a camera, she did not have to fake that aspect of her cover story.

Moti Kfir, head of the School for Special Operations.(Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)
Moti Kfir, head of the School for Special Operations.(Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)

Some have labeled Rafael an assassin, but from what Kfir has written and what was vetted by the IDF censor and a ministerial committee, it does not seem as though Rafael herself ever pulled the trigger on a firearm or pushed the button that detonated a bomb that killed a target.

“She never had to actually assassinate anyone, and I won’t speculate on whether she would have killed,” Kfir said.

According to Kfir, it was Rafael’s internal contradictions and her ability to balance them that made her such a successful clandestine operative.

In a presentation he gave this past October to the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, he praised Rafael for having been courageous and reckless, open and guarded, extroverted and secretive, persistent and flexible.

As effusive as Kfir is about Rafael, he refused to say that she was a better agent than others. He admitted that had the Lillehammer Affair not happened, she could have simply retired from the Mossad without anyone having ever known who she was and what she had done.

“It’s a paradox,” said Kfir. “As a result of a mistake and its exposure, she became a legend and she met the love of her life and built a life for herself.”

‘As a result of a mistake and its exposure, she became a legend and she met the love of her life and built a life for herself’

Yiftach Reicher-Atir, who worked in IDF intelligence and wrote a novel titled “The English Teacher” about female Mossad agents, agreed that although Rafael was a talented agent, it was the circumstances of her capture that earned her notoriety.

“To be caught in a operational act, to be tried and jailed…I’m very glad that this is a very, very rare occurrence for Mossad agents, but at the same time you can’t deny the story,” he said.

“She got married to her lawyer. It was a true love story. If you made a movie like that, people wouldn’t believe you.”

Sylvia and her husband, Annæus Schjǿdt, on a cruise a few months before her death. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)
Sylvia and her husband, Annæus Schjǿdt, on a cruise a few months before her death. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing)

Though happily married, Rafael never had children. Her concern about her ticking biological clock comes through in Kfir’s book, and Kfir confirms that she had personally confided in him her desire to settle down and have children.

“I worked closely with her for ten years, first as the head of the School for Special Operations and then as head of the operations unit in Europe,” said Kfir. “We had level of trust and she would tell me about her desire for love.”

‘At her funeral, he whispered to me that he hoped that one day someone would write about her’

Aside from Rafael’s notoriety, the fact that she was a female Mossad operative will likely generate interest in her story, which Kfir believes demonstrates that what a man can do, a woman can also do — sometimes even better.

He pointed out that it is often what he calls the “prosaic things,” like getting a visa issued, that a woman, who generally raises less suspicion, can do better than a man.

Moti Kfir. Tel Aviv, October 2014 (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)
Moti Kfir. Tel Aviv, October 2014 (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

Reicher-Atir agreed that Rafael serves as an example of how well a woman can serve in the Mossad, but warned that the job can be more dangerous for a woman because she is more exposed to sexual harassment and attack.

He also believes that Rafael’s expressed worries about the effect of her job on her ability to find a life partner and have children are not to be taken lightly.

“No woman with young kids will operate as a combatant undercover in a foreign country,” he said.

Kfir views his writing his biography of Rafael as a fulfillment of her husband’s wish that her story be told.

“At her funeral, he whispered to me that he hoped that one day someone would write about her,” Kfir said.

Rafael also served as inspiration for Reicher-Atir’s novel about female Mossad operatives. She may not be specifically named in the fictional narrative, but her spirit of Zionism and dedication to Israel are embedded in it.

“It’s good for people to know what other people are doing for them,” said the author.

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