It was the only incident of the era in North Africa and the Middle East where a Jewish community was attacked by an organized armed group, but the Jews were ready and fought back.
For 25 minutes on May 12, 1956, there was an all-out battle in Constantine, Algeria.
With the help of Mossad agent/advisers like Ibrahim Barzilai – a legend who was at the forefront of bringing around 80,000 Jews to Israel from foreign lands over a nearly 60-year career in intelligence – the Jews not only avoided a massacre, but won.
Speaking to the Magazine recently at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (IICC), Barzilai went into detail regarding that battle and multiple incidents in which he and the Mossad smuggled to Israel not merely individual Jews but whole Jewish communities that were in danger.
The conversation with Barzilai took place against the backdrop of the IICC kicking into high gear to build a major 250-square-meter exhibition dedicated to telling the stories of Israeli intelligence operatives saving Jews.
The central theme of the exhibition, which is being shepherded forward by Yochi Erlich – who runs many IICC projects and is a retired major from IDF Intelligence – will be “See you in Jerusalem.”
It will emphasize that the Jewish state is the only place “in the world to give the intelligence community the job of bringing large groups” of a specific population sector to another country to save them from persecution.
Erlich said the exhibition will describe how the special mission “to reach Jews as a group and not to help just one person” dates back to David Ben-Gurion. It will feature ex-Mossad agents as tour guides, and interactive and updated hi-tech features and work stations to better tell the stories of the Jews and the various countries they came from.
Outlining the exhibit further, Erlich said the stories will address questions such as, “What was causing the communities distress and problems? Why were extreme actions needed? What were the dangers? And it will generally be a window into those communities” at the time.
Erlich added that “saving Jews” being oppressed in foreign countries “isn’t just the past, unfortunately; it is still happening.”
According to Barzilai, the Mossad’s saving of Jews in foreign lands – from North Africa to Iraq to Syria to Ethiopia, after the founding of the state (there were Jews saved pre-state as well) – escalated with then-prime minister Moshe Sharett in the early to mid 1950s.
The issue started as nationalistic movements took hold in a number of countries in the rise of civilizational clashes with what was viewed as the colonial West.
What would happen, Sharett wondered, when these nationalist movements once again took note of the Jewish communities in their midst with reduced protection from the colonial powers?
He asked then-Mossad chief Isser Harel to review the issue.
Harel chose Shlomo Havilio (who served as commander of Israeli forces in Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence, and died two years ago) to serve as the Mossad’s point man.
Barzilai said that Havilio’s orders were to go “to North Africa to three countries and get answers to three questions: 1) Do the local Jews feel they are in danger? 2) Do they want help from Israel? 3) Are there sufficient Jewish human resources to establish an operation to transfer the Jews?
For three months in 1954, Havilio toured the countries, until he had answered “yes” to all three questions.
This was when Barzilai entered into the picture.
He was one of around 20 Mossad agents brought on at the end of 1955 and the start of 1956 to train and organize local Jewish communities in each country into fine-tuned machines for getting large numbers of them to Israel.
Barzilai said that all of the Mossad agents were married and sent as couples to live in the communities of Constantine, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Tangier, Algiers, Oran and Tunis.
As he described his Mossad compatriots, he alternated between closing his eyes and looking down at the ground, as he appeared to be reliving moments with them from earlier days.
Though 93 years old today, Barzilai has an astounding memory for detail.
He still seems like an indomitable force of nature, at one point during the meeting encountering a physical challenge but pressing forward with his characteristic charm and a self-deprecating joke.
Clearly, he also revels in narrating the incredible historical period that he lived through and helped shape.
In 2016, he was awarded the Mossad’s lifetime achievement prize by Mossad director Yossi Cohen and President Reuven Rivlin.
Even as he officially retired in 1995, he never quite hung up his bootstraps.
Since retiring, he has continued to perform volunteer work for the Mossad in various capacities, more recently instructing young recruits and sharing his wisdom and experience with them.
Returning to the story in Constantine, Barzilai said the victorious resistance by the Jews came only after prior pogroms, including a two-day massacre of 40 Jews. The attackers also stole 12 million francs from the Jewish community during the pogrom.
In this atmosphere, Barzilai walked around at all times with a knife under his sleeve and a gun under his armpit, while his wife concealed a grenade which she had been trained by the Mossad to use in a crisis situation, even though she was not a formal agent.
Besides Constantine, there were around 600,000 Jews in North Africa, but 300,000 in Morocco alone as the largest Jewish community in the Arab world.
Unsurprisingly, Barzilai was deeply involved in the struggle to get Jews out of Morocco.
The issue became more pressing in 1957, when Morocco formally closed off legal aliyah to Israel with 12,000 Jews already waiting and expecting to leave, and far more being potential immigrants to Israel.
At that point, Harel met with Shlomo Zalman Shragai of the Jewish Agency, and the two decided that working on increasing aliyah from Morocco would shift completely to the Mossad.
Suddenly, Barzilai became animated. Aliyah from Morocco was “one of the wondrous things that happened,” he said, laughing with pride at the sheer numbers of Jews brought to Israel.
He said that the Mossad ran two full-time laboratories for cranking out a massive number of forged passports.
Describing the Mossad’s initial beachhead, he said it exploited an area of Morocco that included two cities that had officially remained part of a nearby country.
Once they got the Moroccan Jews into the area, they would legally be in the other country and could make aliyah to Israel.
Jews were also smuggled into France via Algeria, which was still officially French at the time.
He said that a big part of the success was thanks to a relationship that a religious Zionist woman named Yehudit formed with the French consul.
Born in Holland, Yehudit spoke four languages and discovered that the consul was an avid fan of the philosophical writings of Martin Buber.
“Eight hundred to 1,000 Jews got out of Morocco because of their philosophy talks about Buber!” exclaimed Barzilai.
He explained that he and those working with him would travel to Ouarzazate province in south-central Morocco, an area in the middle of a bare plateau south of the Atlas Mountains that was isolated from much of the rest of the more developed country.
So isolated was this area, Barzilai remarked, that neither the Romans nor any other empire had ever conquered it, and thus the unique centuries-old architecture was intact.
On the border of the Sahara Desert, the lifestyle in Ouarzazate was a throwback to a forgotten age, caring for donkeys and other livestock, he said.
Still, they were able to reach those areas with buses to get the Jews out of the country, after preparing them for challenges they might encounter at the border.
Some of the time, the Mossad succeeded in sneaking Jews past Moroccan border guards, but often they bribed border officials who could tell which passports and travel documents were forged.
Not every mission was a success.
Barzilai told of an agent named Rafael who was caught, tortured and killed despite efforts to spring him.
A major turning point was in 1961, when the ship Egoz, which was smuggling Jews out of Morocco, sank with agent Hayim Tzarfati.
Stopping suddenly, Barzilai said darkly that 14 times the ship had smuggled Jews out successfully, but that the one time it sank changed the playing field.
“There were [indignant] cries from everywhere that Jews need to sink to get away from Morocco?!”
He said the incident caused international pressure which culminated in Morocco agreeing to let Jews leave the country openly, if Israel paid for them.
According to reports, on November 27, 1961, after Israel had paid $500,000 via the Mossad, the Moroccan head of national security signed the first “collective passport” allowing Jews to leave the country legally.
It was the beginning of Operation Yachin. The figures vary, but between $50 and $200 per head were transferred to Swiss bank accounts of Morocco’s rulers, with some estimating the total cost as high as hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the end, between 1962 and 1964, the Mossad was able to bring some 100,000 Moroccan Jews to Israel.
THERE ARE other Mossad and Israeli intelligence heroes who helped Jews get to Israel, some of whom will be featured in the new exhibit, and some of whom are involved in providing the narratives for the exhibit.
N (name withheld), 73, is one of those former agents. She is less famous than Barzilai, and prefers it that way, being unwilling to talk about most of her own Mossad adventures, since she would do so only if her entire team would come forward.
However, she was also in the Mossad for decades and also has a rather exceptional perspective on the Mossad and saving Jews, as she is the daughter of a Mossad/pre-Mossad Israeli intelligence agent – her father, NI (name withheld).
She is more comfortable telling her father’s stories than her own – some of which tie into the new exhibition’s theme, while others relate to other kinds of intelligence operations.
She told a story about how her father was imprisoned in Syria three times. One time it was after the Syrians found out that he had a brother who went to live in a kibbutz in Israel.
That time, she recalled, he got released by using connections he had with France to get the French to send him an important lawyer who helped get him out.
But the third time, in 1948, had a very distinct story because it also involved well-known Israeli intelligence agent Akiva Feinstein.
Feinstein, who spoke Arabic, was arrested and brought to the same prison cell in which her father was held, with the prison guard telling the Arab prisoners, “Here is a new Zionist for you” to beat up.
N said that a group of Arab ruffians converged on Feinstein. Feinstein said to them in perfect Arabic: “If you have any dignity, then [attack me] only one at a time.”
She recounted how they complied and that Feinstein then dispatched nearly all of them one by one, until the last one sat back down without challenging him.
N, who was born in Syria in 1946, moved with her father and family to Lebanon, sometime after her father was released.
The plan was for her family to come to Israel in shifts, but it did not work out entirely.
Though N successfully got to Israel in 1953, her older brother and sister, then aged nine and 10, respectively, tried to go by boat from Lebanon to Israel with her grandfather in 1949.
All of them died before reaching the Holy Land.
She remarked sadly that Ben-Gurion “gave the order not to publish anything about her family or Jews moving from Lebanon to Israel,” so much of her family’s story was classified for decades.
However, she said her father worked on many operations, and participated in talks led by Israeli intelligence agent Aryeh Shalev (who would rise to become a top IDF Military Intelligence official in the 1973 Yom Kippur War) with Lebanon to make exchanges of prisoners of war.
N herself had joined IDF intelligence and became an officer by 1967. As a continuation of the story of her father and Feinstein, one day in 1967 she was getting ready for duty, when there was a knock at her family’s door.
It was Feinstein again, to call on her father.
Feinstein had been appointed governor over the Golan and wanted to bring her father to carry out additional tasks.
N explained that they could not rush out the door that fast, because her father was religious and at the time was praying with tefillin, and that there was a comical scene of hand signals between the two senior intelligence agents because her father could not speak until his prayers were concluded.
N’s father was not the only other member of her family involved in Israeli intelligence. Returning to the theme of bringing Jews to Israel, she said her uncle, David, worked with the famous Eliyahu Sasson to get Israeli prisoners of war returned from Jordan after the War of Independence.
In another story, David told Sasson in March 1937 that with only 500 lira (a currency used in Syria and other countries) he could find out which Jewish villages were soon going to be targeted by various Arab forces.
N took on a mischievous tone and asked, “How could my uncle get this information?”
She explained that the key to the information was Fawzi al-Qawuqji, who would later become the Arab Liberation Army field commander.
Her father had put together an undercover cell in Syria. The French Army was still in Syria, and her father was making French uniforms, including uniforms for Qawuqji’s militia and eventually the Syrian Army.
Her father went to Qawuqji, telling him, “I will sell you uniforms at a cheap price, but without low-level messengers. I want to personally deliver them.” Qawuqji sent his high-ranking personal emissary to handle the issue.
N’s father told the personal emissary a variety of jokes and made sure they were stocked with zucchini, which he had learned the emissary particularly liked.
Her father and another brother then drove with the emissary to bring Qawuqji the uniforms.
Along the way, and with the emissary loosened up, they got the emissary to passively reveal what Qawuqji’s troop numbers were, when they would attack Jewish villages and where they would attack.
The emissary never even knew that he was leaking critical information to Israeli spies.
After sharing all of these fascinating stories, N acknowledged that being in the family of Israeli intelligence legends, with family members who died trying to get to Israel, is not always easy. She said that “she was raised differently because of the scope of the pain that her parents felt” from losing two of their children and her grandfather.
“I never bothered them with my needs. My other brother also tried to act with them as if everything was always fine,” she said.
She said that to this day, she gets more worried than average when family members travel, such as when her grandchildren were touring India or South America.
On the positive side, she said, “We became strong so we would not break.”
Also, she said that she believes the experiences improved her memory and attention to detail, as traumas can focus a person’s memory.
N is one of the ex-Mossad agent tour guides for IICC and is highly involved in Erlich’s new project for an exhibit focused on helping Jews escape from foreign countries to Israel.
She described the Maccabi movement as aiding in getting Jews out of Hungary and told a story about a French group of schoolkids organized for cover for getting them to Israel.
Further, she credited Hehalutz, the Histadrut, Keren Kayemeth and other organizations working with Jews in foreign countries with helping in the effort.
Barzilai, N and Erlich all hope that the new exhibit will bring these stories and their fellow agents’ stories to life for a new generation.
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