Sylvia Raphael: A tribute to a Mossad heroine

Remembering Sylvia: South African expats visit her grave on Ramat Hakovesh (photo credit: DAVID KAPLAN)
Remembering Sylvia: South African expats visit her grave on Ramat Hakovesh
(photo credit: DAVID KAPLAN)
TELFED, THE South African Zionist Federation in Israel, shares its 70th birthday with the State of Israel, having opened an office in 1948 to provide support to the 803 South Africans who volunteered to fight alongside their Israeli brethren in the War of Independence. Many sons and daughters of South Africa have rendered invaluable service to the State of Israel, one of them a non-Jewish woman by the name of Sylvia Raphael, whose memory will be honored at a special 70th birthday event to be held by Telfed at Protea Village near Tel Mond on July 12, 2018.
The event includes a screening of a documentary directed by South African director, Saxon Logan, “Sylvia: Tracing Blood,” which examines the life of Sylvia Raphael.
The documentary had its world in premiere in Ra’anana in 2016, after which it was shown in Cannes and subsequently viewed by audiences around the world.
The amazing saga of Sylvia Raphael, starting with her birth on April 1, 1937 to her death on February 9, 2005, has no parallel in Israeli history. Her life’s journey, which saw her travel from her home in the dusty and arid town of Graaff-Reinet in rural South Africa, to her final resting place on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh in central Israel, seems more like fantastic fiction than a truelife journey.
Sylvia began her life in the remote semi desert town of Graaff Reinet, situated in the arid semi-desert Karoo region of the Eastern Cape, the daughter of an agnostic Jewish father and a Afrikaner Calvinist Christian mother. This complex start to her life, together with being reared in her mother's religion, was further complicated when Sylvia later learnt that the Holocaust had claimed the lives of several close Jewish family members, making her very much aware of her Jewish background and drawing her towards Judaism. War-time Graaff Reinet in the 1940s was not without its Nazi sympathizers, and the memory of seeing young boys pushing a young Jewish girl in wheelbarrow while chanting,”were going to take you to Hitler” distressed her to such a degree that she had to be sent away to a private school.
Her flirtation with Judaism and Israel became a reality in 1963, when, together with many others of her generation, she sought adventure by volunteering to work on an Israeli kibbutz, finding herself on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, near the coastal city of Hadera. Choosing to remain in Israel after her stint on the kibbutz, she found employment as a teacher in Tel Aviv, but her attractive looks, alluring personality and intelligence were soon noticed by Mossad recruiters who wasted little time in meeting her and shortly thereafter, recruiting her to their cause. Sylvia believed passionately in Israel’s right to exist, becoming an enthusiastic Mossad recruit. She soon commenced training, learning how to wire explosives, hide her identity, infiltrate buildings and follow targets unseen as well as many other skills of the clandestine combatant. Once her basic training was over she was sent to Canada as the first step in creating a new identity.
Sylvia, the girl from a farming community in rural South Africa, became cosmopolitan Canadian photojournalist, Patricia Roxborough. Sylvia was a great artist with an interest in photography and acting, making her a natural in her new identity as a self-taught photographer. A move to Paris followed and this resulted in her becoming employed by a photo agency as a roving photographer. Her work took her to French Somaliland where she became acquainted with a Jordanian bureaucrat who took on a tour of Jordan, totally ignorant of her true identity as a Mossad spy. “Patricia Roxborough,” never shy to reveal antisemitic views, was soon accepted in Jordanian society, to the extent of acting as a babysitter for the young Prince Abdullah, who is now the King of Jordan.
Her travels through numerous Arab capitals made it easy for her to be accepted in European centers, where she was able to clandestinely carry out her Mossad assignments against Israel’s enemies.
The exposure and execution in Syria of Israeli super spy, Eli Cohen, on 18 May 1965, meant that a new agent had to be put in place in that country, and who better to replace him than Sylvia Raphael, alias Patricia Roxborough. She immediately fitted in with society in Damascus with no one ever suspecting that this beautiful photo journalist was a highly trained and effective Mossad agent and spy. Sylvia travelled all over the Muslim world, becoming one of the first Israeli agents to penetrate the inner circles of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon and Jordan. As David E. Kaplan wrote in an article in The Jerusalem Post in 2016, her brother, “Bunty” Raphael says in the movie, “One day she was in Cairo, the next in Damascus and a week later in Mogadishu. Who had even heard of Mogadishu in those days? We all thought she was covering stories for her publisher. Now we know she was leading a complete double life.”
THE 1967 Six Day War found Sylvia on a hotel balcony in Cairo watching as Israeli Mirage aircraft flew over on a bombing mission. Following the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, in which Palestinian Black September terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympic team members, as well as a German police officer, Israel was bent on seeking retribution for the cold-blooded killing. Operation Wrath of God was carried out by the Mossad on the instructions of prime minister Golda Meir, with the express purpose of hunting and eliminating the perpetrators of the Munich Massacre.
While the exact figures are not known, the Israelis believed that between 20 and 35 Black September and PLO terrorists were involved in the massacre. A large team was assembled with Sylvia Raphael one of the leading members of the team tasked with carrying out Operation Wrath of God.
There is no precise information as to how many terrorists were eventually assassinated or where the assassinations took place, as many of them were conducted in such a way that there was no obvious connection to Israel. Ali Hassan Salameh, nicknamed the Red Prince and the leader of Force 17, a PLO terrorist group under the direct control of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, was believed to be the mastermind behind the Munich Massacre. Israeli authorities received reports that Salameh had been seen in Lillehammer, Norway, where he was said to be working as a waiter. A team including Sylvia Raphael was assembled and sent to observe the suspect and, if positively identified, assassinate him.
Ram Oren, an Israeli author, and Moti Kfir, a former chief of the Mossad Department for Special Operations, write in their book, “Sylvia Raphael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy,” that Sylvia expressed great reservations about the operation for a number of reasons. Amongst these was that one of the team members was inexperienced, that they did not have a proper escape plan and that the cover stories of the different team members did not match in the event of interrogation. Following observation of the target, she believed that they had the wrong man, as he did not behave like someone on the run from the Mossad, but was rather a person of habit who took none of the precautions she believed a man like the target, Salameh, would take to conceal his identity.
Despite her doubts, the rest of the team were sure they had the right man and carried out the assassination on 21 July 1973, killing a Moroccan-born waiter, Ahmed Bouchikhi, as he walked home from a cinema with his wife.
The botched operation with badly prepared escape channels, resulted in Sylvia and several other agents being arrested and charged with the murder of Ahmed Bouchikhi by the Norwegian judicial authorities.
Sylvia was found guilty and sentenced to five years and six months imprisonment for her part in Bouchihi’s murder. Sylvia’s brother, David “Bunty” Raphael, had, like her, decided to volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel and found himself on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, near Kfar Saba, where the kibbutz members eventually discovered that Sylvia was his sister. Sylvia was released from prison after serving 15 months of her sentence and deported, returning to Israel and a welcome party at Ramat Hakovesh which had decided to “adopt” her after discovering her relationship to her kibbutz volunteer brother.
During her trial Sylvia had fallen in love with her defense lawyer, Annæus Schjødt, whom she married after her release from prison. She returned to Norway, but was again deported, and although she was granted a residence permit in 1977, went back to South Africa with her husband in 1992 and settled in the city of Pretoria. She tragically became a victim of leukemia, dying in 2005 in Pretoria, where she was cremated. But her travels were not over, as her ashes were transported at her request to Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, where she found her final resting place among friends in the small communal graveyard.