“Today, when I look back, I have no regrets,” says Chief Warrant Officer A., 46, who serves in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite 8200 intelligence unit with his brother, Warrant Officer M., 42, and his son.
NCOs A. and M., with A.’s son (center.) – Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon
“People who hear for the first time that we all serve in the same place is surprised, but for us, it’s the most natural thing to do. We made aliyah to Israel out of Zionism, and we serve our homeland out of love. We try to inculcate these values in the younger generation,” A. says.
The family members are considered a strategic asset, key figures in the unit, and many successes can be chalked up to them. They have been responsible for delivering sensitive intelligence that contributed to the security of the state. But the path they took before reaching Israel in the 1980s is a story of heroism and danger that veered between hope and desperation, and had a happy end thanks in part to good luck.
“We grew up in a simple, warm home. My father had a shop and we lived in what was once the Jewish quarter of Damascus,” A. reminisces. He talks about the Jewish holidays, the synagogue, the aromas of Shabbat and the sounds of prayer.
“At Hebrew school, we learned Bible and the prayers. We knew how to read Hebrew but didn’t understand the meaning. We were a traditional family, and the entire community of 5,000 people was united like a big kibbutz. Everyone knew everyone,” he says.
Despite the wars with the nascent Jewish state, the powers in Syria treated the Jewish community well and kept them from persecution, A. says, noting that “in terms of security and finances, the Jews lived better than the locals. There were police officers [stationed] at the entrance to the Jewish quarter and the synagogues, but we were also constantly under tabs, lest we collaborate with the enemy or, worst of all, go to Israel.”
However, A. remembers the Yom Kippur War as an exception to that rule. “There was great fear. The Jews hid in their homes. Other than comments here and there, nobody did anything bad to us, but we always felt that we were living in an Arab country, and the threat was in the air. We didn’t feel [Syria] was our home. We were raised with the dream of making aliyah to Israel, a place where we would belong. Zionism was in our blood. Sometimes, we would get Israeli broadcasts on TV — that was cause to celebrate. If we saw pictures of [Israeli] soldiers, we’d jump for joy, it was a taste of the longing you’d grown up with.”
Despite the regime’s eagle eye, a year after the war, A.’s two sisters made it to Israel. After undergoing medical treatment in France, they continued to Israel and never went back.
“They were sort of pioneers for us, and served as an inspiration,” A. remembers.
“From time to time, we’d hear about people who managed to reach Israel, but plenty of them were caught, imprisoned for long sentences or [just] vanished, and no one ever knew what happened to them.”
The family missed the two girls, and in 1982 A. and M.’s father decided he had to see them.
“He flew to a European country, pretending to be a tourist. Syrian intelligence warned him not to contact Israelis. He had to show proof of the hotels where he had stayed, and if they had suspected him, he could have been put in prison, or worse. It was a dangerous move,” A. says.
In that country, their father entered the Israeli embassy and was given travel documents, with which he arrived in Israel for the first time.
M. says that looking back, he realizes how brave his father was. “His family, his children, his business, everything was left in Syria and he had a lot to lose.”
In Israel, the father met with people from the Jewish Agency and asked them to bring the rest of his family to Israel and be reunited with his daughters. The Jewish Agency representatives asked him to stay in Israel and let them take care of bringing his family to the country, but he refused and insisted that he would meet the same fate as his children.
“If we make aliyah, we’ll all make aliyah together, and if we get caught, that will be [when we are] together, too,” he said.
A coin and a banknote
Jewish Agency representatives equipped the father will all the documents he would be required to show to Syrian intelligence officials about his European vacation and sent him back with the guarantee that a few days later, an agent would come to his house and smuggle him and his family into Israel. As a way of identifying the agent, the Jewish Agency people took a Syrian coin, which had three holes, and tore a banknote in two, half of which they gave the father, and the other half of which they stuck into one of the holes in the coin.
The family in Syria, before making aliyah – Photo credit: Family Courtesy
“When he returned home, he didn’t tell anyone about his plans. There were plenty of Jews at the synagogue who informed to the regime in exchange for protection of one kind or another, so only his two other brothers, who wanted to make aliyah, were privy to the secret,” M. says.
But a few weeks after their father returned to Syria, the First Lebanon War broke Out, and the plan was shelved. The agent never arrived, and the father put his dream aside and went on with his life. But three years later, a man entered his shop and asked the father for a glass of water. When he received it, he presented the coin with the half-banknote in it to the astonished father.
“He asked the agent, ‘When?’ and he answered ‘Tomorrow morning.’ In the meantime, one of the brothers had gotten engaged, and they had both opened a successful business together, so he asked [the agent] for a few hours to talk to his brothers, and they agreed to meet again that evening,” A. says.
Running around crazed, the father asked his brothers if the plan was still on. “They didn’t hesitate for a second and told him this was their only chance. You have to understand that it was a very dangerous scheme, with an unknown outcome, and that other than the dream, no one really knew what awaited them in Israel. He didn’t want them to blame him if something went wrong. ‘It’s their choice,’ he said, but they insisted it was what they wanted.”
The agent was actually a local collaborator who knew the smuggling routes to the border with Israel and life out in the open. Three days after the meeting in the shop, on Tisha B’Av 1985, A. and M., their father and mother, their uncles, and the uncle’s fiancée set out for a bordering country, from which they would continue on to Israel. The family told their relatives that they were headed for the resort town of Latakia. So as not to arouse suspicion, each brother left from a different point in the city.
“Since it was a total secret, [our father] didn’t tell us and his brothers didn’t tell the fiancée,” A. says.
“One word out of place, and it would have put all our lives in danger. But I — a 15-year-old — knew. I felt the excitement in the air. I saw my father talking with my mother and even though I didn’t hear what they were saying, I saw my mother packing food and when I left school, I knew that it was for the last time. I was euphoric, like the moment I’d been waiting for my whole life was finally here. When we left, my father bid his employees goodbye and said he would see them a few days later. That’s how careful he had to be. Suddenly, out of the blue, you leave everything behind. Your business, your property, your house, your friends, and your family. Everything you built in your life, and go out to build a new life,” A. remembers.
M. will never forget the journey to Aleppo, in the north of Syria. “When we got to Aleppo, we met the agent along with another smuggler and we took two taxis to a village near the border. We told the driver that we were on our way to a family wedding, but at the entrance to the village, after we got out of the taxis, we started walking toward the border.”
Only then did M., who was 11, start to realize that something wasn’t right.
“The ground was marshy and it was getting dark. I was tired and hungry and didn’t understand why we hadn’t gotten to the hotel yet. There, in an open field, when I started to complain, my mother grabbed my hand and said, ‘Be quiet, we’re going to your sisters,'” he remembers.
From that moment on, M. found himself full of energy and walked at the head of the line, wanting to reach Israel. The closer the family got to the border, the more dangerous it became.
“The smuggler explained that if something happened along the way, it was every man for himself. He didn’t know us, and we didn’t know him,” A. explains.
“It was slow going all the way. One smuggler stayed with us in the hiding place under some bush or hill and the other would clear a path a few dozen meters [yards] ahead. In total, it was a walk of a few kilometers, but it took the whole night. The smugglers were experienced, they knew when the Syrian army patrols came through, where to wait, and how to continue. I remember how one of them showed me a light in the distance and said, ‘That’s where we need to get to.’ But that light, no matter how far we walked, seemed to stay where it was,” M. recalls.
His brother remembers hearing dogs barking. “We saw an army patrol and dropped to the ground. For us, it was a game. We looked at it as an adventure, but for the adults, it was very serious,” A. says.
Between hope and despair
At dawn, the family and the smugglers reached the border fence and used special scissors to cut a hole in it so they could pass through.
“They left on a hill and said that our paths diverged there, that someone would come pick us up,” M. says.
“I remember that we ate sunflowers that were in the field next to us because we were starving, and just fell asleep,” he adds.
A few hours passed. The sun climbed and the worried parents saw some farmers who had come to work the fields. But this time, local representatives of Israel arrived, took them to a nearby town, where they ate breakfast at a local restaurant. They then got on a bus for a 12-hour journey.
“The representative went with us, but kept his distance and asked us not to talk to him unless there was a problem,” M. says.
And a problem indeed arose when passport control checked the bus. “They approached us, but we didn’t understand the local language, and we had no documents. Just before things started to go wrong, the representative talked to them. I don’t know what he said, but they left us alone, and we continued our journey,” M. says.
When the bus reached its destination, still other representatives met them and took them to a government office, where they introduced the family as Jewish refugees who wanted to make aliyah.
“They told us it wouldn’t take more than a month, but we were there three months,” A. recalls. “They housed us in some abandoned school and brought us money so we could buy food, but we couldn’t be outside too much, so as not to attract attention. I remember that we would talk with our sisters via the representative, but it was a hard time. Each week that went by, we thought the moment had arrived, and again there was a delay.”
By then, it was the High Holidays and for the first time, they found themselves missing their home in Syria, their friends, and the life they had known. The father fell into occasional bouts of despair and sometimes lost his temper with the envoys that visited them.
“He was afraid that the Syrians would get to us and send us back. However, despite the difficulty, we weren’t sorry, because we knew where we were going,” A. says.
“One day, the representative showed up at the abandoned school like any other day and said, ‘Here, you have a permit [for aliyah.]’ We started dancing. Finally, we could start our lives anew. The uncertainty and the fears that came with it vanished,” A. remembers.
A few days later, the representatives met with them one last time to accompany them to the airport. A. says that his sisters were already waiting for them in Israel. “A few hours, and the whole family would be together again,” he says.
M. says he remembers the moment they got off the plane. “We all dropped down to the ground and kissed it. We said the Shehecheyanu blessing and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
The sisters, who hadn’t seen A. and M. since they were babies, ran to hug them. “After such a long separation, they didn’t want to leave us for months. I was like their own son. Everywhere I went, they went with me,” M. says.
The family was placed in an immigrant absorption center in Kfar Chabad, south of Tel Aviv, and the children were assigned schools.
“We learned Hebrew, and our parents [studied Hebrew] in ulpan [intensive Hebrew-language immersion], but while acclimating was easy for us, it wasn’t at all for our parents. My father needed to find work. After he’d had a profitable business and a respectable position he found himself without any money or property, [dealing] with a different mentality and working odd jobs. Eventually, he got work on the production line at the Electra factory, where he worked until he retired.”
Q: How did you maintain contact with your family in Syria all these years?
“Through family in the U.S. When we reached our destination, our parents called them and told them we were in the U.S. and didn’t plan to return. They understood. The next day, Syrian intelligence took everyone who was left in for interrogation, but happily, everyone came through it safely.”
Q: When you see [images of] Latakia, Aleppo, and Damascus today, the landscapes of your childhood reduced to ruins, how does it make you feel?
“It’s painful,” A. says. “I had a dream of going back and seeing the house I grew up in. All the beautiful places we saw as children have been destroyed. Everything is in ruins. But I don’t feel any special pity or hatred for the Syrians.”
“It would pain anyone to see the terrible war there. It has nothing to do with whether you grew up there or not. I don’t have any special feeling for the Syrian people, either. I would like to go back there to visit, but not because of the people,” M. adds.
Prior to enlisting in the IDF, A. and M. had never heard of the Intelligence Corps or the 8200 Unit. But the fact that they were native speakers of Syrian Arabic made them an asset for the security forces.
“We spoke Arabic at home, like in Syria. For us and [members of] a few other families who came to Israel [from Syria], they opened the unit’s first course for speakers of Syrian Arabic. There was a lot of excitement in the unit, because they really wanted native Arabic speakers. I remember that the head of Military Intelligence visited [us in] the course, which included only six people,” A. says.
Missing the community in Syria
A.’s role requires him to function not only as an interpreter, but also as someone who can read between the lines.
“You need to get into the head of someone you don’t see and explain what his intentions are. It’s tremendously satisfying, the realization that you and only you can do this important work better than anyone. Sometimes you thwart something, smuggling or a terrorist attack, or get some information that reaches the highest echelons in the country. Sometimes you read about your work in the paper, and you know you’re part of it, but often it’s unseen work that no news report, not even years from now, will show. But there is feedback from the unit commanders, from top security officials, and even from the prime minister,” A. says.
M. enlisted in the same unit four years after his older brother, and since then they have served together.
“It was obvious to me that I would serve there. We grew up on stories about our brother and he was a role model for me,” says M., who completed his training course with a number of childhood friends.
“I knew most of the people. Two of them even grew up with me, from the time we were babies. We still work together today. It’s one big family,” M. says.
Years passed, and eventually A.’s son B. enlisted in 8200 and now serves alongside his father and uncle.
“At first, I wanted to do combat service, mostly because of my friends. Even though the army didn’t really ask [me], the need for the language and culture I grew up with decided things,” B. says.
Q: What’s it like serving on the same base as your father?
“At first, I was a little worried they would judge me because I was his son. In the end, I found that there are mainly advantages to it. They know you, the job is interesting, and I don’t regret it. I really love the work. The disadvantages are that he doesn’t miss me enough,” B. says.
A. smiles: “Anything the commander wants to give [B.], he asks himself if other soldiers will say he got it because of his father.”
The language isn’t the only thing the family brought with them. They cook and serve genuine Syrian food.
“What we ate there, we eat here,” the family says. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of togetherness is lacking for them in Israel.
“During Sukkot we’d leave the synagogue and make a round of visits to all the families. It was one big family, and you feel that less [in Israel.]”
Q: Is life in Israel what you dreamed it would be?
A: “The truth is that the reality is completely different. When I was a child, I imagined a small state, where everyone knew each other, loved and helped each other, and suddenly you learn that its dog eat dog. I dreamt of paradise and it isn’t exactly what we thought. I miss the respect for others, and mainly toward adults. I try to maintain respect at home as much as possible. For example, at the end of the Kiddush prayer we kiss the hand of the father of the family. I miss the atmosphere of togetherness in the community, but it’s a community that doesn’t exist anymore.”
A. and M. still take care to continue what they started in 8200, seeking out other immigrants from Syria. Their roles call for them to visit Israelis of Syrian descent and identify army conscripts who are a good fit for the work.
“It’s not enough to pass the highest level of Arabic matriculation. You need to have the customs and mentality from home,” they both agree.
“It’s a great privilege to grow and serve here [in 8200.] We feel like we are emissaries. We made aliyah to Israel out of Zionism, great love, and a desire to give. We sacrificed a lot to come here, and there were people who gave their lives. Being here, let alone the important role we do and the contribution to the country, isn’t something to take for granted. The truth is that we don’t only love what we do, we try to inculcate the values we were raised on, love for the homeland and the Zionist dream, in the younger generation.”