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Killing the Red Prince on Women’s Day

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This year, Women’s Day falls on Sunday, and by edict of South African law, the following day will be yet another day where people just don’t go to work. In a world where time has lost its meaning, where days fold into each other like egg-whites, and where we struggle to decipher the day or date or time, Women’s Day this year may well pass unnoticed.

As a country, we have done very little to promote the lives of ordinary women or tackle the scourge of gender-based violence, rape, and abuse which punctuates the lives of so many.

While it’s easy to point fingers at others, our community doesn’t shower itself in gender-equality glory. Jewish women have been remarkably successful in academia, welfare, and community work, but there are very few female members of our community that lead large corporations, head accounting firms, design mega-projects, and stand out as entrepreneurs.

That’s one of the reasons we started the Europcar Women in Leadership Award at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, together with Dawn Nathan-Jones, the former chief executive of Europcar. Dawn’s story, which she will tell during our Women of Substance webinar on Thursday evening, is nothing short of remarkable. Starting up a car rental company in Durban from scratch, night after night trawling through airport dustbins, like today’s waste pickers, to find competitor information and calling each client to win them over, is the sort of clandestine stuff of which true legends are made.

We need to tell these stories and celebrate not the ordinary, but the extraordinary.

On Saturday evening, during our SA Jewish Report lockdown webinar, we will celebrate the life of a unique woman, Sylvia Raphael, one of the Mossad’s most successful spies. People speak of Sylvia in the same breath as Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy captured and executed in Syria and made famous in the Netflix series The Spy.

She was one of the first westerners to meet Muammar Gaddafi, soon after he grabbed power in a military coup in Libya in 1969. It’s not known how Sylvia became baby-sitter to the current King of Jordan, or whether it’s true that she replaced Cohen as Israel’s lead spy in Syria. No one knows what she did in Eritrea or in Mogadishu. All those stories are still classified by the Mossad.

But Sylvia grew up in Graaff-Reinet, the daughter of a Jewish father and an Afrikaans mother. She was brought up Afrikaans, belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, and went to Catholic school, where the nuns fought with her daily over being late for class. After matric, like many of the hippie generation, Sylvia landed up volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel, and later, while teaching English, got recruited by the Mossad.

We only know about Sylvia by accident, a tragic accident.

In 1972, the Olympic Village in Munich was attacked by the Palestinian Black September terrorist organisation. Eleven Israelis were massacred. The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, secretly authorised the Mossad to track down and kill those responsible.

Mossad teams spread out throughout Europe as Operation Wrath of G-d got underway. One by one, those members of Black September responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes began to die.

Sylvia and her team arrived in Lillehammer, Norway, in hot pursuit of Ali Hassan Salameh, the head of operations for Black September, and the founder of Force 17, the special operations unit of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The operation was a trap set by the Palestinians to ensnare the Mossad. An informer had identified Salameh posing as a waiter in the Lillehammer ski resort town. Something wasn’t right. Sylvia reported back to the Mossad, something was wrong. The Mossad gave the order to kill. Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki was killed. In 1979, the Red Prince, as Salameh was known, was blown up by a car bomb in Beirut. Finally, he was dead.

Sylvia was arrested in Norway, but I suppose if you want to know how this remarkable woman, operative, photographer, spy, and assassin landed up back in Pretoria, you’ll need to tune in to the SA Jewish Report lockdown event on Saturday night at 20:00, and register on bit.ly/sajr43.

  • Howard Sackstein is chairperson of the board of the SA Jewish Report.

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