Long before Russia’s femme fatale Anna Chapman fueled countless blog posts and male fantasies, Israel had a female spy whose success in her profession’s dark arts made her one of history’s most notorious honey-traps. Back in 1986, Cheryl Ben-Tov, the former Mossad operative known as Cindy, used her blonde, buxom and very American sexuality to ensnare an idealistic young fugitive named Mordechai Vanunu, condemning him to a fate from which he’s still trying to escape.
Vanunu, who served 18 years in prison for treason after he scandalously revealed Israel’s nuclear secrets to the London Sunday Times, is again making headlines, having expressed his desire to renounce his Israeli citizenship and emigrate. A public relations headache, no doubt, for Israeli government officials, who banned Vanunu from giving interviews, having contact with foreigners and leaving the country. Still, I doubt they’ll be losing that much sleep or hair over it, given the vastly more pressing national issues of the Hamas-Fatah unity government and Dana International back in the Eurovision Song Contest. Ben-Tov, on the other hand, has good reason to worry. Last anyone checked, she was a realtor in Orlando—poetic justice, perhaps, but I wouldn’t blame Vanunu, who spent much of his jail time in solitary confinement, has twice been re-imprisoned for minor parole violations since his 2004 release and who has likely never endured a visit to Disney World, if he didn’t see it as sufficient punishment.
The drama began when Vanunu was a young technician at Dimona, Israel’s nuclear research center. To his shock he discovered that, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, thermonuclear weapons of considerable destructive power were being developed. Eventually, armed with covertly acquired photographic evidence, including pictures of spherical silver bombs with plutonium cores, he went to London and finalized the details on a front-page Sunday Times article that would sensationally blow the whistle on the tremendous nuclear capability behind Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity.
Meanwhile, the Mossad had decided that Vanunu—who has always maintained that his only motivation was to avert a nuclear war—was disillusioned, foolhardy and a dangerous loose cannon. Tracking his movements, in London they carefully plotted how to get him into their custody. In his definitive book on the Vanunu affair, The Woman from Mossad, Peter Hounam points out that this was not a Nazi murderer being hunted, i.e., someone whom the Mossad might feel comfortable violently abducting off the street, but an Israeli citizen likely to attract public sympathy. So they opted for the subtle but oh-so-effective method of sending Cindy, a twenty-something bat leveyha, meaning female assistant agent, after him.
Florida native Cindy—real name Cheryl—moved to Israel as a teenager, married a government intelligence analyst at nineteen, and was identified as a suitable spy by Mossad recruiters soon after her wedding. Two years of intensive training followed: she was taught how to lie, steal, kill, and, most importantly, how to use sex, and the especially the promise of sex, as a powerful weapon. Gordon Thomas, in his book Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, reveals that, for example, Cindy’s tutors would pull her out of bed in the middle of the night, send her on a mission to pick up a tourist at a nightclub then disengage from him outside his hotel, observing her all the while. The lesson: how to sexually entrap a man without him having a clue as to what was going on.
Poor Vanunu certainly didn’t. How could he, when he was the one who approached Cindy on the street near his Covent Garden hotel? Sexy Cindy, who happily agreed to go for coffee and to meet up again the following day, was obviously just an American tourist looking for some fun. In reality, she’d hooked her prey: the only hitch was a directive from then-Prime Minister (now President), Shimon Peres, that the actual kidnap not take place on British soil, so as to avoid breaking any British laws and causing awkwardness with his good pal Margaret Thatcher.
For a girl of Cindy’s skill, this was easy-peasy. She had a sister in Rome, she told Vanunu—why, they should visit her, because only away from the stresses of London, and the Times people constantly breathing down his neck, could their relationship properly flourish, wink wink. Of course, what awaited Vanunu at the Rome apartment was not the consummation of a beautiful romance, but three Mossad agents who jumped him, injected him with a paralytic, and bundled him into an ambulance bound for the coast, where he was put on a speedboat, then a ship to Haifa.
In Gideon’s Spies, former Mossad director Meir Amit says: “The history of modern intelligence is filled with accounts of women who have used their sex for the good of their country.” In this instance Cindy, supposedly, didn’t do more than flirt and kiss—although people who knew her have expressed skepticism about that—but presumably she’d have gone all the way had she deemed it necessary; all women working as Mossad spies must promise they’ll do anything for the sake of a mission. Well, almost anything. Peter Z. Malkin, one of the Israeli agents who captured Hitler’s chief executioner, Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina, recalls his team’s deeply pious bat leveyha, Rosa, vowing that she wouldn’t eat pork even if an assignment required it, but that no Jew “was ever burned at the stake” for sleeping with a strange man.
Actually, God is totally down with sexpionage, at least according to the Zomet Institute, an organization dedicated to interpreting Jewish law for modern living. In promoting the kosher-ness of shtupping the enemy, they point to Biblical examples like Yael, wife of Hever, who invited a Canaanite general into her bed, then smashed his brains in with a tent peg, Basic Instinct-style. “Our Sages of Blessed Memory,” says Rabbi Ari Shvat, reassuringly, “elevate such acts of dedication to the top of the Halacha’s mitzvahs pyramid.” (One tiny drawback: becoming a “Valentine Operative” means you’ll never marry a Kohen (a Jewish priest), but frankly, if you’re the kind of slut who’ll have sex on the job, such a man wouldn’t touch you anyway, or as Rabbi Shvat puts it, “these missions may naturally be tasked to women who are already promiscuous.” Win-win!)
So, for Mossad lady spies who do sex for the cause, it’s all fun, games and rabbinical blessings—duly noted. Unless, that is, you’re Monica Lewinsky, and your simple little assignment to procure some Bill Clinton blackmail fodder spirals so unpredictably out of control that you’re ignominiously pensioned off to make handbags and shill for Jenny Craig. Hang on, have I said too much?
For the shiksas who work for the CIA, it’s a different and more prudish story. The Agency’s female operatives are forbidden from having sex with contacts, regardless of the circumstances, and over the years there have been various dismissals for such transgressions, as well as sex discrimination lawsuits from women faced with one rule for them, another for male operatives. Valerie Plame, whose forthcoming series of spy novels will, she promises, explode the bimbo stereotype of female CIA officers, has fiercely denied ever sleeping with a source to obtain intelligence. But it’s probably safe to assume that Plame is contractually obligated to equip her fictional alter-ego with a more flexible set of sexual ethics. And, hopefully, a really cute purse pistol.
As for Mordechai Vanunu, if he succeeds in his wish to finally make his home in a new country—he’s said in the past that he’d like to live in America or Europe—Cheryl Ben-Tov should probably dust off her old purse pistol and disguises. But Cheryl, if it’s any consolation, there will be one place you can go this summer and not feel obliged to keep looking over your shoulder: in the audience of Helen Mirren’s new movie, The Debt, in which Mirren plays a venerated Mossad spy. It’s had stellar early reviews, but something tells me Vanunu won’t be dying to go see it.
Emma Garman’s natural cautiousness and poor people skills would make her a terrible spy. She is on Tumblr, though.
Vanunu photo by Ronald H. Miller, via Wikimedia Commons.