The 11th Commandment: Amos Oz Reveals His True Faith

In a speech given two years before his death last Friday, Israeli writer Amos Oz spoke of what was holy to him

עמוס עוז, 1972. צילום: צוות יפפ"א, ארכיון דן הדני בספרייה הלאומית

Amos Oz, 1972. IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection at the National Library

On November 29th, 2016, two years before his death, Amoz Oz gave a speech as part of a panel discussion dedicated to “Jerusalem and the Overlappings of the Sacred” during the “Global Forum of the National Library“. In his speech (which was given in English) Oz spoke of Jerusalem, the city in which he was born. He also revealed the things which he held sacred and the moral imperative which guided him. Here are a few selections from the speech:


On holy places

To me, one place in Jerusalem has been sacred since I was a little boy: The library. I am a son of a librarian. I happen to be also the son-in-law of a librarian, the husband of an archivist, the brother-in-law of another librarian and the father of three writers. What else could I be? Which other place could be more sacred to my heart than libraries?



On religion

My late grandmother Shlomit, who died almost exactly 60 years ago, long before the Six-Day-War, long before the disputes about the holy places in Jerusalem – she might have had the answer to the problem of the future of the disputed holy places in Jerusalem. When I was a little boy, maybe four, maybe five, grandma Shlomit explained to me in simple words the difference between Jew and Christian…

“You see, my boy” she said, “the Christians, they believe that the Messiah (has) been here once and he will come again one day. We Jews, we happen to believe that the Messiah (has) not been here and he is still to come. Over this dispute,” said grandma Shlomit, “you cannot imagine, my boy, how much bloodshed, hatred, persecution, cruelty…Why?” she said, “Why can’t everybody simply wait and see? If the Messiah comes saying: ‘Hello! It’s nice to see you again!’  – The Jews will have to convert or at least to apologize to the Christians. If, on the other hand, the Messiah comes saying: ‘How do you do? Very nice meeting you!’ – The entire Christian world will have to convert or at least to apologize to the Jews.” She knew one or two things about open-ended situations and open-ended solutions.


What was sacred to him?

Human solidarity, justice, sharing, rule of law, family values, the family table, stories, a sense of humor – all these are components of Jewish heritage.

I will add to that: human life, human suffering… There is pain enough to go round. There may not be love enough to go round but there is pain enough to go round without ourselves adding pain upon pain.

Pain is a great human equalizer. Sometimes I say tongue-in-cheeck that pain is almost a socialist – it doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor, Jew and Christian and Muslim…Pain is pain. Pain is a great unifier.


Amoz Oz and Jesus

I disagree with Jesus Christ. I love him, he is close to my heart, but I disagree with him on a few things. I never agreed with Jesus Christ on the idea of universal love – everybody loving everyone else. This is very sweet but very childish. I disagree with Jesus when he says ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’…Oh yes, we know. We are not moral idiots…When we inflict pain on others we know exactly what we are doing…We know very well. Even a little child pulling the cat’s tail – he knows or she knows that they are inflicting pain.


Oz’s faith and moral imperative, “in a nutshell”

Paraphrasing Kant of course – no one can invent anything new – I would say: Thou shalt not inflict pain, or to be more modest: Thou shalt try to inflict as little pain as you possibly can… This is not relative. This is not dependent on varying narratives and varying traditions. We know.


A cure for fanaticism:

I have never seen a fanatic with a sense of humor… especially a self-targeted sense of humor…this is a powerful immunity to fanaticism. If I could only condense the sense of humor into capsules and persuade entire populations to swallow my humor capsules, thus immuning them to fanaticism, I would qualify for the Nobel Prize, not in Literature but in Medicine…A sacred curiosity, a sacred sense of humor…And may every one of us fight as much as we can, against the internal fanatic inside each and every one of us


Amos Oz 1939-2018

May his memory be a blessing

How Eli Cohen, Israel’s Man in Damascus, Was Captured

Noam Nachman-Tepper seeks to dispute the accepted narrative surrounding the capture of Eli Cohen.

Eli Cohen, undercover as Kamel Amin Thaabet, in the cockpit of a Syrian aircraft.

For many years, Israel believed that Eli Cohen was captured due to the fact that Syrian intelligence managed to intercept his correspondence with Mossad headquarters in Israel. However, testimony which appears in my book, “Eli Cohen – Open Case” shows that there is actually very little chance that the Syrians succeeded in locating the signal of Cohen’s communication device.

Documents and testimony from the head of Syrian intelligence and the testimony of an intelligence officer who broke into Cohen’s apartment indicate that the Syrians carried out constant physical surveillance of Cohen. How, then, was Israel’s man in Damascus really captured?

Eli Cohen’s last letter to his wife, Nadia, written in Arabic an hour before his execution.


The decision to recruit and train an agent to be stationed in a target country (Egypt, Jordan or Syria) was made in 1958, not long after military intelligence failed to identify the Egyptian army’s infiltration into the Sinai Peninsula. Indeed, the head of Military Intelligence was dismissed as a result. This failure stemmed from a decision made by one of the officers in the IDF listening unit to not pass along information regarding Egyptian armored units crossing the Suez Canal. Military Intelligence decided there was a need to significantly improve its ability to identify states of high alert and the movement of forces in unfriendly Arab countries. To this end, it was decided to plant a number of agents in Arab countries who would report on military movements and preparations. As part of this directive, an operative was recruited to be stationed in Damascus.

The recruitment of Eli Cohen to Unit 188, a military intelligence unit dedicated top operations beyond Israel’s borders, happened by coincidence. In September 1959, Cohen sent a Rosh Hashana greeting to Shlomo Millett, the interviewer who had previously disqualified him from serving as a spy. As a result of this greeting card, the question of Cohen’s candidacy was raised again. This time, as there was an immediate demand, Cohen was allowed to begin the recruitment process with two other candidates.

Finally, Cohen was chosen and he began learning his craft at Israel’s “School of Espionage”, which at the time consisted of only two instructors, Motti Kfir and Nathan Salomon. Salomon began to teach Eli Cohen the most basic skills needed by any spy – how to follow and how to avoid being followed, how to write in secret ink, and other methods of avoiding detection. Among other things, Salomon noticed that his student had an exceptional memory.


Eli and Nadia Cohen under the chuppah. August, 1959.


Cohen underwent nine months of basic training, which also included photography and film development and instruction in the use of encryption and a Morse code transmitter. Finally, Cohen’s instructors decided that the time had come to craft him a cover story. Cohen became Kamel Amin Thaabet, a businessman whose parents were of Syrian origin, but had immigrated to Lebanon. According to the story, his parents had died one after the other and he was summoned to work with his uncle, a businessman in Argentina.

Cohen landed in the Argentine capital in February 1961 and immediately began learning Spanish with a private teacher. The goal was to be able to speak at such a level as to convince Syrians that he had been living in Argentina for the last 16 years.


Behind Enemy Lines

Upon his return from Argentina, Eli Cohen underwent further training in an operational unit. On January 10, 1962, “Kamel Amin Thaabet” boarded a tourist ship that set out from the city of Genoa, Italy, anchored in Alexandria and, eventually, reached the port of Beirut.

On the ship, Eli Cohen met Majeed Sheikh al-Ard – a figure who would accompany him during his three years in Damascus. Al-Ard was a man of the world; he spoke many languages ​​and was fluent in German. The two met on the deck of the ship and struck up a conversation, during which Cohen told him his cover story. As a rich businessman, looking to invest inherited capital, Cohen expressed his desire to examine the possibility of doing business in his native Syria. Majeed Sheikh al-Ard suggested that after landing in Beirut, Cohen should join him on a journey from Beirut to Damascus. Al-Arad invited Cohen to make the journey with him in his new car and, after a day of rest in Beirut, the pair made their way to the border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.

According to documents from US intelligence, Majeed Sheikh al-Ard was no innocent bystander. Al-Ard was a paid informant for the Americans from 1951 to 1959. Majeed Sheikh al-Ard explained to Cohen that he had a number of friends who could arrange a smooth crossing of the border for a few hundred Syrian pounds. Majeed Sheikh al-Ard called his friend, a Syrian security man waiting for them at the border crossing, while loaning a sum of 400 Syrian pounds from Cohen, a loan that would never be returned.  Another friend of al-Ard’s was in charge of customs at the border crossing. Kamel Amin Thaabet (Eli Cohen) sat, drinking coffee at the border crossing as Majeed Sheikh al-Ard’s friends took care of the paperwork and transferred the bags containing the spy equipment that Cohen had brought with him from Israel. When the junior customs officers tried to open the suitcases, their boss scolded them loudly, “They’ve already been checked!” lied the supervisor. This was how Eli Cohen arrived in Damascus without so much as a search of his personal effects.

Damascus: Point A marks Eli Cohen's apartment, point B marks Air Force Headquarters. (Google Maps).
Damascus: Point A marks Eli Cohen’s apartment, point B marks Air Force Headquarters (Google Maps). Click to enlarge.

Five days after arriving in Damascus, and having already managed to rent an apartment, Eli Cohen transmitted his first message back to headquarters in Israel – I have arrived safely.


The Arrest

Eli Cohen served in Syria from January, 1962 until his arrest on January 18, 1965.

According to the head of Syrian intelligence, the Syrians began suspecting Cohen when they learned of his interactions with “a man of suspicious ties.” The officer went on to explain that following Cohen’s arrest, a Syrian citizen who had helped him cross the Lebanese border and enter Damascus was also arrested. The source was referring to Majeed Sheikh al-Ard – the very same person who accompanied Cohen throughout his three years in Syria.

Eli Cohen left and re-entered Syria multiple times. The fifth instance was on November 26, 1964. Not long before this, the Syrians had captured two American spies operating out the CIA branch in Damascus. One of the spies, Farhan Atassi, knew Eli Cohen. The Syrians, now acutely aware that they were the target of active clandestine operations, monitored the comings and goings of anyone connected to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

On December 1st, Cohen met with his friend Majeed Sheikh al-Ard for lunch. During the meal al-Ard told him that a few days earlier he had met with a man named “Rosolio.” He let slip to Cohen that Rosolio was actually the Nazi war criminal, Franz Rademacher, hiding in Damascus.


Franz Rademacher at the time of his trial, 1968. Photograph: Karl Schnoerrer, EPA.


Eli Cohen’s ears perked up. He feigned disbelief and told his friend that it was not possible that he knew where Rademacher was hiding. In response, Majeed Sheikh al-Ard telephoned Rademacher. Just forty minutes later, Eli Cohen and Majeed Sheikh al-Ard sat in the Nazi war criminal’s safe house. The apartment was only a ten minute walk from where Eli Cohen lived.

The day after the chance meeting, Eli Cohen happily reported to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv that he had located a Nazi war criminal. Cohen provided descriptions of Rademacher’s appearance, his exact address and details of surroundings of the safe house. He awaited further orders, but did not receive positive reinforcement from Mossad headquarters. Instead, he was directed to “stop pursuing the Rademacher lead and focus on the mission.”

Mossad headquarters were obviously not aware of the clear and present danger caused by the tripartite meeting. Otherwise, they would have directed Eli Cohen to drop everything and take the first train to Beirut.

US intelligence documents indicate that Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, who once served as an informant for the Americans, tried to continue to be of use to them. He continued to transmit reports to them, enthusiastically reporting the intelligence he gathered from his meetings with the Nazi, Franz Rademacher.

The theory that I have formulated, and which is supported by the documents and testimonials which appear in my book, is that Syrian intelligence was aware of the tripartite meeting that involved Eli Cohen and Rademacher – either in real time or via information they received shortly after the meeting took place.

At this point, it is worth examining how the Syrians would have perceived this meeting.

They noticed Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, who was an informer for the Americans, coming and going through the gates of the U.S. Embassy. The Syrians also knew full and well that “Rosolio” was a Nazi war criminal, up to his neck in espionage.


From right to left: Majeed Sheikh el-Ard, George Saif and Eli Cohen.
From right to left: Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, George Saif and Eli Cohen.

At this point you must put yourself in the position of the Syrians and ask yourself – what you would do if you witnessed this meeting between a Syrian businessman and two spies? Would you suspect the businessman as well, and put a tail on him? Well, this is exactly what the Syrians did.

The testimonies of Ahmed Sweidani, Head of Syrian Intelligence, and of the officer who broke into Cohen’s apartment indicate that the Syrians had begun to monitor Eli Cohen. Not long after, they decided to break into his apartment and discovered his spy equipment, including his transmitters and receivers.

The story of the break-in and the analysis of the testimonies indicate that Syrian intelligence had no idea that Eli Cohen was a Zionist spy.

Ma’ariv reports the execution of Eli Cohen, May 18, 1965. Click on the picture to see the full article.

The analysis and the various testimonies and documents can be further examined in the book “Eli Cohen – Open File“.


The Bullet Retrieved from a Famous Jewish Playwright in the Krakow Ghetto

The bullet was fired by a Gestapo officer during the liquidation of the Ghetto and is now kept in the National Library of Israel.

The projectile fired at Dr. Michael Weichart. Photo: Hadar Ben Yehuda of The National Library

The Krakow Ghetto, May 31, 1942 – the day before the roundup

The Jewish police force was ordered to round up all residents who had not received an official stamp from the SS to remain in the Ghetto. This stamp ultimately determined who lived and who died. Anyone unfortunate enough not to receive one simply awaited his fate. The police knocked on the doors of each house and arrested anyone who could not produce a stamp.

The next morning, people gathered in the main square. It was filled with men and women, young and old, all laden with packages. The sun was beating down, scorching and oppressive. Two cars of Gestapo officers entered the gates of the square. One of the cars drove up to the headquarters of the Jewish police while the other stopped in the square. The Gestapo men carried their revolvers. The streets around the square quickly emptied.

“One of the Gestapo men aimed his gun down Jozefinska Street. Jewish policemen called back and forth to one another. Suddenly, a bullet was fired …one …two…three. The first to be hit was Dr. Michael Weichart, the chairman of the ‘Jewish Self-Help Organization.’ The shooter was Sturmsharfuhrer Wilhelm Kunde, the spokesman for the SS and Gestapo on Jewish affairs. He held the title of Kriminal-Sekretär in the criminal police department (the Kripo). His bullet struck one of Dr. Weichart’s limbs.”

This is how Tadeusz Pankiewicz describes the events that preceded the shooting of Dr. Weichert, who was also a playwright and director, in his book, The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy.

Weichert was wounded by the Gestapo officer’s bullet, but he was not killed. He later removed the bullet from his limb and kept it for his entire life. For him, it served as a memory of that day in the Ghetto when his life was spared.

Back in the square, the Jews were requested to board trolley carts. They did so with the belief that the carts were taking them away from the Ghetto but it was only a charade. It turned out that they were asked to board the carts only for the purpose of being photographed in them. Once the photos were taken, the Jews were forced to depart the Ghetto on foot, leaving the majority of their heavy baggage behind. The group began walking along the railroad tracks to Plaszow.

That night the Gestapo raided each residence in the Ghetto, inspecting papers and catching Jews in the street. Apparently, not enough people reported for the roundup. Throughout the next day, those without a stamp who decided to remain in the Ghetto were forcibly rounded up. This roundup was far more aggressive and cruel.

Who was Michael Weichert?

Michael Weichert (1890-1967) was born in the town of Podhajce in Eastern Galicia. He headed the JSS (Juedische Soziale Selbsthilfe), the Jewish Self-Help Organization that was established in Warsaw in September 1939 to help Jews in the Ghettos. The organization operated throughout the Generalgouvernement (the term for German-occupied Poland during the war).

Weichert, a jurist by education, was a man of extraordinary talents, high intelligence, and great organizational ability. Before the war, he was one of the prominent figures in Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. He was a man of the theater who founded and ran an experimental Yiddish theater in Warsaw. He worked with the “Vilna Troupe,” which put on “The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky even before the Moscow Theater.

Dr. Michael Weichert

Despite the fame he garnered in the world of theater, Weichert was unable to make a living from his art and worked concurrently as a lawyer. He advised several Jewish charities and cultural organizations supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and helped them navigate the laws and restrictions imposed by the Polish regime in the years preceding the war.

Through these connections, Weichert came to head the Jewish Self-Help Organization during the war. As part of his work in the organization, he organized food, medicine and clothing donations for Jews through organizations like the Joint and the Red Cross. He arranged for the distribution of these vital necessities and often interacted with the authorities, intervening on behalf of those who had no other voice.

“No one knew how to speak to the Germans like him. Almost no one understood their mentality and way of thinking,” says Pankiewicz in his book.

Indeed, Weichert often helped Ghetto residents obtain life-saving documents and mediated between them and Polish trustees who agreed to hold money or belongings that were temporarily entrusted to them for safekeeping by the Ghetto residents. These actions were strictly prohibited and to be involved in this meant nothing short of endangering one’s life.

His ties with Poles and Germans during the war, and the very fact that he headed a welfare organization that operated under the authority of the Nazis led to post-war accusations against Weichert.

Weichert claimed that he had not collaborated with the Germans and that all he had done was strive to ease the situation of the Jewish population. Two separate courts dealing with the matter reached opposite conclusions.


“The bullet that wounded me which was removed from my body by Professor Geltzel in surgery.” The caption in Yiddish on the tablet in Weichert’s handwriting. Photo: Hadar Ben Yehuda of the National Library of Israel.

There were those who argued that the reason that Weichert was shot in the Ghetto prior to the roundup was to divert suspicion that he had collaborated with the Nazi authorities. In Weichert’s eyes, however, it is possible that the bullet he kept all these years was not only a reminder of the day his life was miraculously saved, but also conclusive proof that he was not a collaborator.

After the verdict, Weichert never returned to public service in the Jewish community in Poland. The man who worked in the Jewish theater before the war and contributed greatly to cultural life in the Ghettos, returned to the field he loved best and dedicated his life to researching and documenting Yiddish theater.

Weichert immigrated to Israel in 1958. He donated his archive, a collection of documentation and material of immeasurable value on the history of theater, folklore and Jewish theater during the Nazi occupation, to the National Library of Israel. Included in this collection was the bullet retrieved from Weichert’s body on that fateful day in May of 1942. Weichert passed away in 1967.

Thank you to Dr. Gil Weissblei of the Archive Department for his assistance in the research for this article.


Maria Sibylla Merian: The Scientist and Painter Who Refuted Aristotle’s Theory

Merian was a scientist, researcher and naturalist who documented the world of insects, followed their lifespans, and revealed the truth of how insects come to be in the world.

Picture of Maria Syblla Merian from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), is best known today for her paintings of nature. In truth, she was an important German scientist and researcher of nature. Her works dealt with zoology and botany, and her beautiful paintings, which brought her observations to life, actually served as a method of documenting her research.

Maria was born to a well-known family of map printers and publishers in Frankfurt, Germany, then a center of art and the silk trade. Her father died when she was very young and Maria was raised by her mother and her mother’s second husband, a Flemish painter named Yakov Marl. Marl, who specialized in still life paintings of tulips, recognized Maria’s talent and nurtured it from an early age. He was the one who initially endowed in her the love of painting flowers. Maria studied drawing, engraving, painting in color, and the art of print from an early age – she made her first copper print at the age of eleven.

Maria collected, observed, and captured the birth and life cycle of insects through her painting. She discovered and recorded how they transformed from egg to larva, from larva to cocoon and, finally, to adult insects. Until her research came to light, her contemporaries and those who had taught them believed that insects were spontaneously created from garbage,  since they were usually found near it. Maria’s discovery was part of a worldwide revolution in the disciplines of biology and zoology and laid the foundations for an expansive catalog of insect species. What had begun as Maria Sibylla Merian’s childhood hobby became her life’s work.

When she was eighteen, Maria married her stepfather’s pupil and moved with him to Nuremberg. Her husband, a gifted painter himself, was fascinated by Maria’s work – he supported it and published her collective works. They had two daughters together: Dorothea-Maria and Johanna-Helena. Maria taught both of them to draw and write from an early age. Following the death of her stepfather, she went to visit her mother and decided not to return to Nuremberg. At the age of 34, raising two daughters alone, she moved to Holland to live among the Labadist Protestant community. Her mother joined her and they lived there for several years among artists and scientists who all devoted themselves to a rigorous lifestyle of hard work. Maria worked there as a printer but she had little time to paint.

From Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

In 1695, she decided to leave the religious community and move with her daughters to Amsterdam, a city full of life, art and commerce. She was the sole breadwinner of the family, working as a painter, merchant, and publisher. She continued to be renowned for her paintings. Later, her daughters worked with her as well. The stories, people and souvenirs that reached Amsterdam from the overseas Dutch colonies began to arouse Maria’s curiosity and nourish her imagination. Her heart ached to travel far from Amsterdam – to explore not only the world of insects and plants near her but to wander far away and discover the world.

The fruit of the pomegranate tree and the butterflies that feed on it. From Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.


So, in 1699, she embarked upon the journey of a lifetime- an excursion to Suriname in northeastern South America. She was 52 years old at the time and was joined by her youngest daughter, Dorothea, now 21 years old.

African slaves had been brought to the Dutch colony of Suriname and were forced to grow cocoa, coffee, sugar cane, and cotton. Maria arrived there with crates filled with paints and canvas. Her intention was to explore the natural life of the place and record it with paint.

Maria’s attitude toward the locals was different from that of the other Dutch and foreigners arriving in the colony. She was horrified by the cruelty imposed upon the slaves and interested in the local indigenous people, wanting to learn as much as possible about the untamed nature they called home. She followed the slaves and natives to the hiding places they had found in the forests. There, she grew to intimately know the animals, plants, and insects of the place. The women showed her the local plants and told her about their uses. One plant, for example, could be used in certain doses to expedite labor, but in high doses, it caused miscarriage and even death.

Maria had not come to tame nature like the colonists, nor did she want to portray tamed nature in her paintings. Her paintings of Suriname captures nature in all its savagery – birds eating insects, giant spiders eating birds. Maria had become far estranged from the still life paintings of beautiful flowers on which she was raised. After two years of uninterrupted work in Suriname, Merian fell ill with malaria and was forced to return to Holland. She returned with drawings and illustrations, samples of insects and a maid. Yes, although Marian was in many ways a revolutionary woman, she was also part of a culture of exploitation and human-trafficking.

Ants and tarantulas on the branch of a guava tree, from Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Painter: Maria Sibylla Merian. The image is from the website of the Getty Institute

Her works from Suriname were compiled into a book entitled, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Published in 1705, it is considered to be her most important work. It contained 60 pages of illustrations, the result of her research and painting. The illustrations were painted by hand and were full of life and beauty.


Maria Sibylla Merian and her angel-messengers helping her sort insects. Pictured on the cover of her book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Upon her return to Amsterdam, Maria earned a living painting and selling the insects she had brought with her from Suriname. In 1715 Marianne suffered a stroke and had to be nursed by her daughter, Dorothea. She died in 1717.

Maria Sibylla Merian was exceptional among the women of the 17th century. She is one of the few women that succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling of her time and, in the process, earned a place of honor in the pages of science, art and human history.

Thanks to Chaya Meir Har of the Edelstein Collection for her help in composing this article.