From a spy’s son to ambassador to Egypt: Itzhak Levanon’s story

Kicked along with his family from Cairo as a boy, Levanon was dispatched 42 years later to serve as Israel’s ambassador. His story is revealed in a new book.

 ITZHAK LEVANON: Tears at the sight of the Israeli flag.  (photo credit: Courtesy Itzhak Levanon)
ITZHAK LEVANON: Tears at the sight of the Israeli flag.
(photo credit: Courtesy Itzhak Levanon)

If ever a comment with the potential to psychologically cripple a child was made, this is it.

The date was March 19, 1963. The setting was a military court in Beirut where the verdict was being read in the trial of Shulamit Cohen-Kishik for spying, treason and smuggling Jews to Israel. The verdict for her husband, Jozef, accused of assisting in the smuggling and not informing the authorities of his wife’s activities, was also being read in the courtroom.

The trial, which generated huge headlines both in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, began in November 1962, more than a year after Shulamit’s arrest and torture. The verdict was delivered in a packed courtroom. Among those in attendance was one of her seven children, Isaac, who had not yet turned 18. For weeks he had done everything he could, left no stone unturned, to get the sentence of his parents commuted.

“Because of the severity of the crime, the court ruled that the accused, Shulamit Cohen, should get the maximum sentence: Death,” the son, Itzhak Levanon, wrote of the verdict in a recently published book.

The judge then turned to Jozef, and sentenced him to 10 years, reduced to two years in prison because of his age and his need to support his family. Then the judge turned back to Shulamit and said that while she deserved to die, she would instead be sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for betraying the country she lived in for so many years.

 IN BEIRUT with one of his younger brothers. (credit: Courtesy Itzhak Levanon) IN BEIRUT with one of his younger brothers. (credit: Courtesy Itzhak Levanon)

“Two soldiers approach my father, Jozef, handcuff him and take him out of the hall,” Levanon wrote. “Two others approach mother, lift her from the bench and drag her from there. She is barely walking. I stand. Mother passes by me. One or two meters apart. So close, but yet so far. Mother does not bow her head. Her legs barely move, but her head is erect. She throws a piercing glance at me that transmits anger and dissatisfaction. ‘That’s all you can do, Isaac?’ she whispers to me.

“Her look rips my heart to pieces: That is what you are able to do, Isaac? What happened to all the promises, all the hopes? Why did we waste all the money? So that I sit in prison for 20 years?”

Those words, wrote the 77-year-old Levanon, who in 2011 retired from the Foreign Ministry after a career of some 40 years, echo in his mind to this day, some 60 years later.

But rather than cripple Levanon, those words motivated him and spurred him on to look after the rest of the family while his parents were in prison, and to continue working for his parents’ release.

The son of a spy

KISHIK WAS born in Argentina but moved with her parents to Israel when she was a young child. At the age of 16, a match was made between her and a wealthy Lebanese businessman who took his young bride back to Beirut to live. The couple settled, had seven children, became leading members of the Lebanese Jewish community, and developed close ties with Lebanese officials.

On the eve of the War of Independence, Shula made contact with intelligence officers of the Jewish state in the making and began passing on information. She was given a code name: “The Pearl.”

After the war Cohen-Kishik was instrumental in smuggling thousands of Jews out of Syria and Lebanon and into Israel, until it all came crashing down one horrible August day in 1961, when she was arrested and accused of treason.

Levanon chronicles his mother’s tale in his new book, In the Eye of the Storm, Clandestine Diplomacy (Hebrew). But the book does not stop with his mother’s story or how the family left Lebanon and came to Israel after she was released in an Israel-Lebanon prisoner exchange following the Six Day War.

Rather, the book then follows Levanon’s career from Arab affairs adviser to legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, whom he calls his mentor, to the Foreign Ministry’s cadets corps, to postings in New York, Venezuela, Paris, Montreal, Boston, Geneva and – the cherry on his diplomatic career – as ambassador to Egypt from 2009 to 2011.

The boy from the Jewish quarter in Beirut, unceremoniously kicked out of the country of his birth with the rest of his family in 1967, was dispatched 42 years later to Cairo to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the most important Arab state. Levanon wrote that the first time he saw the Israeli flag was at the Israeli Embassy in Cyprus where he flew from Lebanon on the way to be reunited with his mother following the prisoner exchange in 1967. He cried at the sight of the flag.

He said the other time he cried when seeing the flag was when he presented his credentials to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, as “Hatikvah” was being played.

But the postscript?

He was hurried out of Egypt in 2011 following the overthrow of Mubarak and the attack and ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

“Forty-four years passed between the evacuation from Egypt in 2011 and the other evacuation from Beirut in 1967,” he wrote. “Two countries to which my fate was linked and from which I knew despair. Disappointment from the country where I was born that threw me out of its borders, and from the other country [Egypt] that I thought lived in true peace with my country, Israel, I was forced to leave in a hurry.”

Levanon, in an interview, spoke of that day in the Lebanese military court almost 60 years ago.

“I can see it to this day,” he said. “My mother had expectations of me [getting her released], but she forgot that I was not even 18.”

Levanon said his mother’s words were painful, “but I did not take them as an insult; rather, they motivated me to continue to work for her release, which I did.”

After her release from prison and exile from Lebanon, Cohen-Kishik lived another 50 years in Jerusalem, until 2017, just two months shy of her 100th birthday.

Levanon said he never spoke of that incident in the courtroom with his mother, saying that life intervened with its own dynamic, and that this was not something he wanted to dwell on. But he acknowledged that it is something that he has carried with him ever since. How could it not be? Indeed, this is the story with which he opens his book.

He closes the book, however, with this line: “Throughout [my] journey I experienced hopes and disappointments, pride and deep despair, but one wish, a kind of prayer, always accompanied me: I will not disappoint my loved ones.”

The roots of that wish were obviously planted in that Beirut courtroom in 1963 when his mother expressed her disappointment as she was being led to prison.

THROUGHOUT THE book, Levanon referenced his Beirut beginnings at different stages of his life, such as when he went to work as an adviser on east Jerusalem affairs for Kollek, or when he passed the Foreign Ministry’s tests and was accepted into its highly competitive cadet course. Like so many immigrants, on several occasions when he achieved something notable he noted how far he had come in his newly adopted country.

But Levanon said this sense of accomplishment he felt as an immigrant was not the same, for instance, as the sense of accomplishment an immigrant from a Western country may have after making aliyah.

“This is not the story of a new immigrant, from, say, the US,” he said. “Lebanon is hostile to Israel. I was a Beirut kid from the Jewish neighborhood. It was enemy territory. There was fear. I was afraid as a Jew living in Lebanon.

“When they arrested my mother, I was afraid. My good friends left me. I was, in my mind, weak and begging people to help my mother. I was in an inferior position vis-à-vis other people. I did not feel like a proud Lebanese. I was afraid.

“In Cairo [as ambassador] I realized Isaac is not the little frightened boy from Lebanon anymore; Isaac doesn’t go begging for help. Isaac represents a sovereign independent state, just the way that his mother wanted. I am standing in Mubarak’s palace, ‘Hatikvah’ is playing, and I am standing there not as a frightened little boy, but as a proud man representing a sovereign and independent Jewish state. That is the difference between heaven and earth. That is the change that came over me.”

Itzhak Levanon

“Israel changed that for me,” he wrote. “In Cairo [as ambassador] I realized Isaac is not the little frightened boy from Lebanon anymore; Isaac doesn’t go begging for help. Isaac represents a sovereign independent state, just the way that his mother wanted. I am standing in Mubarak’s palace, ‘Hatikvah’ is playing, and I am standing there not as a frightened little boy, but as a proud man representing a sovereign and independent Jewish state. That is the difference between heaven and earth. That is the change that came over me.”

Levanon’s tale is that of an astounding transformation undergone by one individual. It is also representative of a similar transformation that an entire people has undergone since the creation of the state.

 LEVANON REPRESENTING Israel as its ambassador to the UN offices in Geneva, mid-2000s. (credit: Courtesy Itzhak Levanon) LEVANON REPRESENTING Israel as its ambassador to the UN offices in Geneva, mid-2000s. (credit: Courtesy Itzhak Levanon)

BUT WHY take on the name Levanon? he is asked. Why, when in his new land, did he adopt the name of the country that tormented his parents, that made him feel afraid, and that spit him out, as well as the Jewish community, which at its peak numbered some 14,000 people?

“I took this name because it is a biblical one,” he said, quoting from Psalms 92:13, “k’erez ba’Levanon yisgeh” (thrive like a cedar in Lebanon). “The name alludes to the mountains of Lebanon, not only the state – it is more ancient and biblical than that.”

Levanon said that although he was angry at the state where he was born, he still felt a small connection to it, and that since the name of the state is “phonetically pleasing and biblically based,” he felt it would make a good fit.

And how did his parents feel about the name change? “My father, who was conservative, said that one does not change names, and my mother was with him. They didn’t, however, object.”

The name change, he said, was his own decision, not something forced upon him in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a requirement for government service.

Ironically, when he first came to the country, there were more questions about the first name he went by – Isaac – than his last one. He signed letters from Kollek’s office using the name Isaac, rather than Yitzhak, something that drew the attention of the director-general of the municipality at the time.

“The director-general called me in and asked why I signed my name Isaac, not Yitzhak,” Levanon recalled. “I told him that if he would call my parents’ home and ask for Yitzhak, they would say it was a mistake.” The director-general said that he should go by the name Yitzhak, “because Isaac is Ashkenazi, and Yitzhak is Sephardi.”

Levanon said that this was the first time he became aware of an Ashkenazi-Sephardi rift, a rift that was very pronounced in the country in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“He asked me if I was one of us (ehad mishelanu),” Levanon said. “I naively said that, yes, I work with the municipality.” What he really wanted to know was whether Levanon was “pure Sephardi.”

Levanon said this was a wake-up call, a somewhat rude introduction to the country. The Lebanese Jewish community was predominantly Sephardi, as was his family, but there were also Ashkenazim and an Ashkenazi minyan.

“I was never aware of the differences before I came here,” he said. “We never lived or spoke about it in Beirut; both communities took part in each other’s minyanim. Then I came here and was told there are Jews like this, and like that. I asked my father about this, and he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, saying ‘We are all Jews.’”

IN ISRAEL’S security branches and Foreign Service, Levanon represents a disappearing generation of officials who were born and raised in Arab states, moved to Israel, and brought with them an innate understanding of the language, culture, mentality and mores of their home countries – something that enormously benefited Israel.

Levanon said that his ability to interact with Egyptian officials, including Mubarak, in unaccented Arabic, with a knowledge of all the cultural cues, helped him a great deal when he served there, an advantage that other ambassadors who were not born and raised in an Arab country did not enjoy.

“Something has happened in our state that was to be expected, but nobody took it into account,” he said. “From the establishment of the state until the 1980s, immigrants came from the Arab countries, and we used them in all different areas – in the Mossad, in the diplomatic service. We took good advantage of their knowledge of the language, the culture, the jokes, the mores – and all of that was very helpful.

“That generation is dying off,” he continued, “and we did not succeed in building up a new generation. You could have developed it. You teach certain candidates, you send them to live a year or two in an Arab country, and you take them to the Arab villages here. You train them. I don’t think we have done enough of this.”

Levanon is among that passing generation. It is unlikely there will ever be another Lebanese-born Israeli diplomat serving as ambassador to a powerful Arab country, and bringing an innate knowledge of the Arabic language and culture and mentality to that post. The days when Israel could use the expertise of Jews who grew up in Arab countries to help it understand and deal with the Arab world are coming to an end. The ability to tap into and rely on that level of expertise is something the country may, sadly, come to truly appreciate only once it’s gone. ■