Brought together by a love for music, it was love for country that would tragically separate them
By David E. Kaplan
I saw the article, then stared wide-eyed at the photograph.
I was reading a Ynet report and then, when I read the line that “Few Israelis have likely heard of the man named Meir Max Bineth”, I exclaimed:
“I’m not one of them.”
Being the Jewish festival of Tu B’Shevat (“The new year of the trees”) on the 5 February, the focus of the article was on this man from British Mandate Palestine whose passion for Jewish holidays pushed him to teach about the subjects to local Jewish communities abroad.1942 found him in Iran teaching about Tu B’Shevat – hence the article.
What would follow next in his life is what I would write about in 2004, when his South African-born widow, Jane Bineth (née Davidow), passed away aged 83 in Savyon, Israel.
As a young woman out from Johannesburg in the late 1940s, Jane was trying to find her feet in Tel Aviv. Interested in classical music, she responded to a notice in the newspaper inviting music lovers to meet at a café in Shenkin, already a street ‘paving’ the way to what it is today, packed with cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
There she met Hungarian-born Meir, a cultured European who played a variety of musical instruments and who spoke six languages. They would marry, and in the few years that they would share together, they would dwell in the furtive world of deep undercover intelligence gathering.
Prior to his marriage to Jane, Meir had been a secrete agent operating in Arab countries throughout the Middle East. It all started for him went he went to the UK in 1946 to study radio and electronics, believing these were the subjects of the future.
He used to use the bayit (club house) of Habonim – a Jewish youth movement – to train after hours. One of the members of the movement recalled that “he would pick up Morse broadcasts in English from Moscow and decode them at a speed of 60 words per minute and identify the different broadcasters.” It is no surprise that his skills attracted the attention of agents working for Aliyah Bet – the code name for illegal immigration to British Mandate Palestine – and in 1947 he was recruited. He operated as a communication technician building vital communication equipment for the voyages bringing the illegal immigrants as well as procurement of arms for the fledgling Jewish state as well as thwarting efforts of enemy Arab countries to acquire specialized military equipment. Max was a very busy man.
With the establishment of the State of Israel, Binet moved on to more dangerous missions. He joined the intelligence corps of the young IDF and in August 1949, he arrived in Iraq. Even though the decades have passed since then, there is no permission even today to reveal the details of his clandestine activities on Iraqi soil. However, one fact of history remains undisputed:
“The Iraqi government condemned him to death in absentia for his actions in its territory during this period.”
His final mission – now married with a child – was to Egypt, where he posed as a businessman representing various German firms, primarily ‘von Laufenberg’, a company manufacturing artificial limbs for the disabled.
“How ironic,” his daughter Michelle Bineth-Dagan told me during the 2004 interview for Telfed Magazine. “Here was my father spying against Egypt and my mother had a 1953 photograph of my dad with the Prime Minister of Egypt, General Mohammed Naguib, who was honouring him for his contribution in rehabilitating Egyptian soldiers wounded in the war against Israel in 1948.”
Jane and her daughter Michelle, who was a child of two at the time of his posting to Cairo in 1951, joined Max and were part of the cover. Recalling conversations with her mother, Michelle described their life:
“as being very comfortable. My parents had a very hectic social life. They were part of the cocktail circuit, attending parties, where they mixed with foreigners in the diplomatic and business communities and of course Egyptians in government and the military. One of the primary tasks was to get close to the many former Nazis, who had found refuge in Egypt. Some of them were scientists, who were helping Egypt develop missiles that could threaten Israel.”
Max was passing on vital information to his Israeli contacts:
“until things went terribly wrong and set into motion a chain of event that ended tragically, leading to my mother’s bitterness to her dying day.”
The secrete lives of the Bineths came crashing down in what became referred to as the “Lavon Affair”, after Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon, who was forced to resign.
Conducted in Egypt in the summer of 1954, the Lavon affair was a ‘false flag’ operation, whereby Israeli military intelligence had setup a spy ring of young local Egyptians in the Jewish community with the purpose of blowing up US and British owned civilian targets – like cinemas and libraries – all timed to detonate several hours after closing time so there would be no casualties. The attacks were to be blamed on local nationalists with the aim of creating a climate of instability to induce the British government to retain its troops in Egypt’s Suez Canal zone. While the operation caused no casualties among the population, it did lead to the deaths of four of the Jewish operatives, one of whom was Max. It also led to a scandal that dominated Israeli politics for well over a decade.
The incident had been euphemistically referred to in Israel as the “Unfortunate Affair” or “The Mishap”(In Hebrew: HaEsek HaBish).
Israel publicly denied any involvement in the incident until 2005, when the surviving agents were awarded certificates of appreciation by Israel’s State President.
“My father,” said Michelle, “was not part of this spy network but was ordered by his senior officer in Israel to pass on money to them. He had met Marcelle Ninio, a young member of the group on a few occasions. She was the last to be captured and under torture, gave a description of my dad’s car, which led to his arrest.”
Michelle and Jane were in Europe at the time visiting family and so escaped the physical horrors that were to follow. “The psychological scars never left my mother until her last breath.”
After a few months of interrogation and torture, on December 24, 1954, “my dad slit his wrists in his prison cell on the day before his trial. He realised there was no way out for him and did not want to give the Egyptians the pleasure of hanging him,” the fate of two others, Dr. Moshe Marzouk of Cairo and Shmuel Azar of Alexandria.
Failure has no father and for many years this bizarre and embarrassing affair was shrouded in secrecy. Strict censorship ensured that the Israeli public was fed little or no accurate information and key protagonists were routinely referred to as “X” and “The Third Man”, a reference to the 1949 Orson Wells’ movie of the same name. To this day, the truth as to who gave the orders in the Lavon Affair remain a mystery.
In 1959, President Nasser agreed to transfer the body of Max (Meir) Bineth to Israel on condition that the arrangement would not be publicised. Max was secretly buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in the presence of a few members of the family. “My mother was only told about the burial at the last moment.” The reburial only became public knowledge following the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979.
Jane, who passed away in 2004, never remarried. From his cell, he wrote to Jane before he ended his life. These were a few of the lines:
“My dear – there is no other way out. I came to this conclusion out of caution and consideration. It is becoming impossible to bear this… I am also thinking of you. …..Jane, you must remarry, Michelle needs a father, and I hope you live as planned. You and Michelle can plant a tree in our garden on my birthday. I love you, I love you… Of all the contributions I wanted to make for a better future for everyone – now Michelle is my only contribution. I wrap my arms around you and Michelle. May God bless you and grant you peace and happiness. Jane my dear, hold me tight….”
While Jane did fulfill what she believed was her dear husband’s dying request to bring up their daughter in the Land of Israel, she did not fulfill the part where he called on her to marry again. “ She had many suitors,” said Michelle her daughter, “but she never married again. Father was the only knight for her.”
According to Michelle, her mother resented that the honour bestowed on other Israeli agents – such as Eli Cohen, (“Our man in Damascus”) – had been denied to her husband. Israeli Minister of Defense, Yitzhak Rabin tried to correct this injustice. Some thirty years later in September 1987, when Rabin, handed Jane, her husband’s Lieutenant Colonel rank, he said:
“It was an unusual, remarkable, high-risk mission that Max Bineth was running. Unfortunately, and to our great regret, he fell on duty, while on his watch. In the course of time, certain affairs got mixed and Meir was linked, by mistake, to another affair (referring to “The Lavon Affair), one he had nothing whatsoever to do with. Meir went on a separate security-intelligence assignment, which had nothing to do with the other events that took place that year. He fell while serving the State of Israel and for the State of Israel. Meir’s service improved Israel’s security capabilities greatly and they have become far, far better than they would have been, had Meir not performed so well on his mission.”
Later, a street in Kiryat Shaul in Tel Aviv was named Rechov Meir Bineth. Do people walking this street know who Max Bineth was or the contributions to Israel’s security he made and of his ultimate sacrifice?
Israeli journalist, author and military commentator Gad Shimron rightly asks:
“”How did it happen that a man who deserves to stand in the first row of the Israeli pantheon of heroism was forgotten on the fringes of the public consciousness of the country he served and for which he gave his life?”
It was thus heartwarming, that all these tumultuous years later in 2023 that Max is being remembered on Tu B’shvet. When Max was teaching in Iran in 1942 to the Jewish community about the ‘New Year of the Trees’ festival, the mass slaughter of six million Jews across Europe was taking place and a Jewish state was still a dream to be hard fought for.
Today, a region that was mostly arid desert has over 200 million trees and Jews have a secure and vibrant homeland – ISRAEL.
Like the trees he so loved, the legacy of Max Bineth is ‘rooted’ to this land.
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