Yolande Harmor: Israel’s glamorous spy from Alex

During the 1940s, Alexandria-born Yolande Gabbai de Botton — also known as Yolande Harmor  – provided intelligence to the political and military leaders of
mandate-era Palestine, often at great personal risk. Now, several
decades later,  her extraordinary clandestine
life is revealed in a  documentary
film, “Yolande: An unsung heroine.” The film was made by Yolande’s grand-daughter Miel, sister to the philosopher Alain de Botton and daughter of businessman Gilbert de Botton. Read Anne Joseph’s account of Yolande’s life in the Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily):

Written and directed by veteran, independent
Israeli filmmaker, Dan Wolman, the film received its UK premiere this
month during SERET, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival. The
film uses a combination of remarkable footage, photographs and
interviews with Harmor’s colleagues including key players in the Haganah
— some of which had been conducted for an earlier version of the film
made by her son, Gilbert de Botton.

“We hadn’t known what she’d done,” says Miel
de Botton, Harmor’s granddaughter and the film’s producer. “[All] we
knew was that — under the cover of a journalist — she basically helped
to form the State of Israel. We weren’t given any details.”

Born in Alexandria in 1913, Harmor was
educated in St Germain-en-Laye in France. At 17, she returned to Egypt
to marry businessman Jacques de Botton but divorced him when their only
son, Gilbert, was three or four years old.

The mysterious Yolande Gabbai de Botton -- also known as Yolande Harmor -- is the subject of a new documentary, 'Yolande: An Unsung Hero.' (courtesy)

The
mysterious Yolande Gabbai de Botton — also known as Yolande Harmor

Gilbert, founder of the financial firm Global
Asset Management, and father to Miel and philosopher and writer, Alain
de Botton, rarely spoke to his children about his mother, or his own
past.

But his contribution in the film is perhaps
the most affecting of all the interviewees. Having spent his early years
with his grandparents in Alexandria, he barely knew his mother until he
went to Jerusalem with her in 1942, in the wake of Rommel’s advance. He
describes life with a single parent, a woman who was often absent
because of the demands of her espionage work, and admits to having felt
fear and concern that something would happen to her.

Yet he never criticized her for her actions, says his daughter. He only ever referred to her in idealized terms.

After Gilbert’s death in 2000, the family
discovered trunks of diaries and photographs — information that had,
until then, remained a secret.

Glamorous, charming and intelligent,Harmor
first became drawn to Zionism in the early 1940s when she attended a
lecture in Cairo given by Italian Zionist Enzo Sereni. He subsequently
introduced her to Yishuv activists such as Moshe Sharett and Elias
Sasson.

By 1945, she was recruited as an Israeli
secret agent. Her cover as a journalist, writing articles about
important Egyptian politicians, gave her easy access and acceptance into
the upper echelons of Egyptian society, which included establishing a
strong connection with the Egyptian royal court.

According to Ora Schweitzer, her assistant at
the Jewish Telegraphic Society in Cairo, Harmor was unique. Not only was
she very bright, she knew how to hide her intelligence by playing the
dumb blonde. But although men may have fallen for her charms but the
oft-used comparison with double agent and exotic dancer, Mata Hari, is
an inaccurate one.

“My father hated that label,” explains Miel.
“My grandmother was a sophisticated person and not a double agent. She
had good relations with both sides,” she says.

The film evokes the exoticism and excitement
of 1940s Cairo. It was a bewitching time and place. One Haganah activist
describes the terrace of the Hotel Grand Continental where the
representatives and agents of the intelligence and underground movements
would each watch the other.

In 1945, Harmor was operating a network of
agents that included members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Teddy Kollek,
who at the time was Head of Intelligence at the Jewish Agency,
emphasized that the dangers of her work were not to be minimized.

Following World War II, head of the Haganah
David Ben-Gurion visited her in Cairo — Gilbert recalls picking him up
at the airport with her — and in January 1948 she flew to Lydda in
Palestine to pass him secret plans by Syria and Egypt to invade the
newly established State. The papers had been sewn into her shoulder
pads.

After this, it was felt that Harmor should not
return to Cairo as it was deemed too dangerous. But she disagreed: her
mother and son were still in Egypt.

She returned, but in 1948, she was outed by
the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outraged that an Israeli spy was
permitted to move freely. She was arrested and put in jail, where she
became very unwell – it later transpired that she had stomach cancer.

She was released after a few months and in
September 1948 she and Gilbert moved to Paris where she was active in
the Israeli delegation to the UN. But it was here that she fell gravely
ill and spent five months in a clinic. Having made some semblance of a
recovery, she insisted on returning to Cairo where she continued to be
engaged in espionage work.

According to Gilbert, by 1951 it was clear
that Harmor’s role in Egypt had come to an end. She and Gilbert moved to
Israel, into a small apartment in Jerusalem. Yet, she was not nostalgic
for the life she could have had in Egypt or Paris, he said, “She was
not that type of person.”

But once in Jerusalem it became obvious that
she had become marginal and was placed to work in an inconsequential
desk job within Protocol, in the Foreign Office.

A combination of her illness and a prevailing
shift of opinion in Israel meant that there was no longer sympathy or
need for the old world that she had represented.

“She was dovish and her best days were obviously over,” says Gilbert in the film.

She was European educated and “elegant in a
country where elegance was a sign of decadence. She was refined and
gentle in a place where people were hard and pioneers,” describes
diplomat Dan Avni Segre.

Read article in full

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