The Odessa-Born Jew-Turned British Secret Agent Who Might Have Inspired James Bond

Jan. 16 2023

A native of tsarist Russia, Sigmund Rosenblum left for Britain in 1890s, where he took the name Sidney Reilly and at some point began working for a precursor of MI6 (the UK equivalent of the CIA). Thus began a career of espionage and intrigue that, according to some, was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It is also the subject of Benny Morris’s Sidney Reilly: Master Spy, which tries to sift through legend and speculation to determine the facts of Reilly’s exploits. A.E. Smith writes in his review:

By the end of 1918, [Reilly] was back in Russia, this time in his hometown of Odessa, reporting back to MI6 on the progress of the Civil War in southern Russia where three armies—White, Red, and Ukrainian nationalists under Symon Petliura—were engaged in an existential struggle. Reilly was unabashedly partisan, praising White commander Anton Denikin’s “absolute honesty . . . political moderation, immense popularity, and . . . loyalty to the Allied cause” and dismissing Petliura as “ephemeral.” What he failed to mention was that the region’s Jews were helplessly caught in the middle of this war. Pogroms across Ukraine and the Donbas dwarfed those of the 19th and early-20th centuries, resulting in an estimated 50,000 casualties. Of these, more than 90 percent were carried out by Ukrainian nationalists or Denikin’s Whites and about 8.5 percent by the Red Army.

Even with their knee-jerk Edwardian anti-Semitism, Reilly’s upper-class colleagues in MI6 and the Foreign Office were horrified by what they saw. “The longer and more bitter the struggle against the Soviets,” wrote Captain George Hill in June 1919, “the more sanguinary the pogroms.” But Reilly evidently cared little for the fate of his fellow Jews, downplaying their plight in his reporting, and characterizing them as a pro-German fifth column.

Herein lies the central theme of Reilly’s life. From his name to his passport to his officer’s commission, Reilly seemed to go to great lengths to conceal, even repudiate, his Jewish identity. This is, of course, not an uncommon story. . . . Jewish history is full of shapeshifters and tricksters, and certainly Reilly seems to be one of them. In the story of his life, there is virtually nothing overtly Jewish. That, as above, seems to be the way he wanted it.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Jewish history, Odessa, Russian Jewry, Spies

Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy