'He reminded me of my father sometimes'

Eli Cohen’s daughter lukewarm on ‘The Spy,’ but likes Sacha Baron Cohen’s acting

Sophie Ben-Dor laments ‘the distance from the truth’ and says ‘it hurt’ to watch the Netflix series on her legendary agent father, but understands and respects the show

Sophie Ben-Dor (Screen capture: Channel 12 News)
Sophie Ben-Dor (Screen capture: Channel 12 News)

The daughter of legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen said Sunday “it hurt” to watch the new Netflix series about her father’s life and execution in Syria, lamenting some historical inaccuracies in the adaptation but praising Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance. She also said she understood and respected the show.

“The Spy,” which was released Friday, tells the story of Cohen, who spied for Israel in Syria during the 1960s, providing valuable intelligence that was said to have greatly assisted the Israeli military in the 1967 Six Day War.

Cohen was caught and eventually executed by Syrian authorities in 1965. Israel has for decades worked to retrieve his remains.

“It hurt. It was hard to see the distance from the truth” in some parts of the series, Sophie Ben-Dor said in an interview with Channel 12 news.

This undated photo shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen in Syria wearing a wristwatch recovered by the Mossad in 2018. (PMO)

Asked to pinpoint what she found not to be reflective of her family’s experience, Ben-Dor cited “the ethnic gap,” noting her mother was never a maid as was portrayed in the series.

“This was unnecessary,” she said.

Still Ben-Dor, who was four years old when her father was killed, said she was pleasantly surprised by actor Cohen’s portrayal.

“I was more worried,” Ben-Dor said of hearing that Cohen, who is known for playing comedic figures such as Borat, would star in the series.

“He reminded me of my father sometimes,” she added.

Ben-Dor was pessimistic that Israel would soon be able to retrieve her father’s body from Syria.

“I think as long as Bashar Assad is in power I don’t see the word ‘progress,'” she said, referring to Syria’s dictator.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Israeli spy Eli Cohen in ‘The Spy’ (YouTube screenshot)

Despite her criticism of the series, Ben-Dor said she understood why the show’s creators took artistic license with her father’s story.

“It’s unfamiliar to me, this form of expression in a global television series. It doesn’t fit our story but I understand the situation. I understand and respect [it],” she said in a separate interview earlier Sunday with the network.

Cohen was born and raised in Egypt and was expelled to Israel in 1956.

In 1960, he was recruited to join the Mossad for a special mission in which he was to pretend to be a Syrian businessman returning to the country after having lived in Argentina. The goal was to gather intelligence from high-ranking Syrian politicians and military officials.

Ahead of the mission, Cohen had to learn to speak Arabic in a Syrian accent rather than his native Egyptian. He took on the name Kamel Amin Thaabet and went to live in Argentina for some time to build a name for himself in the Syrian expat community. While there, he gained the trust of Amin al-Hafez, who would later become Syria’s president.

In February 1962, Cohen moved to Damascus. He was quickly able to infiltrate the highest levels of Syrian society. He would entertain high-ranking politicians and military officials at extravagant parties where there would be many women and lots of booze. The drunk guests would often end up blabbing about their work to Cohen, who was sober but would pretend to be intoxicated. He made friends with many of the guests and ended up receiving classified military briefings and visiting Syrian military sites.

Cohen would then send intelligence back to Israel using a hidden radio transmitter.

Mossad spy Eli Cohen, executed in Syria in 1965. (Israel GPO)

Cohen wasn’t allowed tell anyone of the plans and told his wife that he was working abroad for Israel’s Defense Ministry.

He returned home to his family only a few times during his mission. On his last visit, in 1964, he told intelligence officers he wanted to come in from the cold because he was concerned a new Syrian intelligence commander did not like him. But the intelligence officers convinced him to go back one last time.

The following year, Syria found out about Cohen by tracing his intelligence transmissions to Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin and Nadia Cohen, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Mossad super spy Eli Cohen, May 18, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)

He was convicted in a trial without a defense and sentenced to death. Israel desperately tried to have his sentence commuted, and despite requests from world leaders and Pope Paul VI for clemency, Cohen was hanged publicly in May of that year.

His 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. Last year, Israel was able to retrieve Cohen’s wristwatch from Syria and return it to his family.

JTA contributed to this report.

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