What Are Sayanim?

How an esoteric Mossad term spawned a web of antisemitic conspiracy theories, from France to the United States.
Two red rectangles on a beige background with the word "Sayanim"

This story is part of Moment’s ongoing Deep Dive series, which looks at antisemitic incidents reported in the media and in Moment’s Antisemitism Monitor in order to provide context and explore their long-term consequences. The incident that sparked this investigation was reported in Moment’s Antisemitism Monitor on May 22, 2022: “In France, Eighty-Nine-year-old Jewish man allegedly pushed to his death from an apartment block, but police have ruled out antisemitism.”

The most dangerous conspiracy theories spread from a germ of truth that can make them difficult to identify and condemn. One such genre of antisemitic conspiracy theories involves the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and those who assist them outside of Israel. Sometimes called sayanim—Hebrew for “helpers,” or “assistants,” from the root samech-yod-ayin—these individuals reportedly assist Mossad agents with logistical aspects of missions. Examples of this include local Jews who helped with the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and with Operation Magic Carpet, which brought most of Yemen’s Jews to Israel in 1949 and 1950.

A more sinister, expansive and false view of the sayanim has begun to spread in France, the United States and elsewhere. In this distorted form, sayanim are seen as Israel’s fifth column in global politics, the minions of a so-called “trans-generational criminal syndicate” manipulating world events from behind the scenes in favor of the financial elite. Some versions consider all Jews to be sayanim, and for years the word has been used by conspiracy purveyors to recast acts of terrorism as false-flag operations and to prop up Holocaust denial. This year, the sayanim conspiracy theory may have caused its first death.

In May 2022, 89-year-old René Hadjaj, a retired tailor living in Lyon, France, was thrown out the window of his 17th-story public housing unit by a neighbor. At first the police announced that his death had nothing to do with his Jewish identity and attributed it to a simple disagreement.

But after the French Jewish newspaper Tribune Juive discovered “obsessive tweets” by the alleged killer, 54-year-old Rachid Kheniche, in which he accused several prominent French politicians and lawyers of being “sayanim,” Lyon prosecutor Nicolet Jacquet broadened the investigation to include a possible antisemitic motivation.

What makes sayanim conspiracy theories particularly difficult to combat is that the Mossad, like many national spy agencies, does have agents and assets throughout the world, although they are not necessarily Jewish and the scale is much smaller than conspiracists claim. “A lot of the most successful conspiracy theories, and lies in general, have a kernel of truth,” says Rebecca Federman, an antisemitism analyst at the Anti-Defamation Leaque (ADL). “There are people who help Israeli intelligence assets around the world. When it gets to be antisemitic is when it falls into the context of these greater tropes that we see percolating across time of this secret Jewish cabal that is controlling the world and sending out its agents to meddle in world affairs.”

 

In his tweets accusing prominent French politicians and writers of being sayanim, Rachid Kheniche sometimes referenced the work of Jacob Cohen, a 78-year-old Moroccan-French writer who is Jewish, a “militant anti-Zionist,” according to his Twitter bio, and a leading proponent of sayanim conspiracies, with influence in both French North African Muslim communities and far-left circles.

Much of Cohen’s online presence smacks of antisemitism and Holocaust denial. In 2010, he published a polemical novel, Le Printemps des Sayanim (“Spring of the Sayanim”). The book imagines Jewish-French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, Jewish former French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay and others devising ways to propagandize the 1961 sinking of the ship Egoz, which carried Moroccan Jews illegally fleeing to Israel, as a “mini-Holocaust.” In 2012, he released Dieu ne repasse pas à Bethléem (God won’t return to Bethlehem), a book that claimed that the Mossad manipulates ordinary Jews in France and recruits them as undercover agents. In 2019, Cohen participated in a forum titled “Holocaust and the Zionist Agenda,” sponsored by a Moroccan NGO called the National Working Group for Palestine in Rabat, at which he questioned whether gas chambers were really used during the Holocaust.

Cohen, who did not respond to requests for an interview, claims without evidence that there are tens of thousands of sayanim currently in the high echelons of society in every country—for instance, that there are 5,000 sayanim working in business in New York City, 5,000 in entertainment in Los Angeles and 1,000 in London and Paris. “They receive orders from a department of the Mossad called the War Department,” Cohen said in an undated video interview uploaded to archive.org in 2021. “All these people work normally, are citizens,” he says, claiming without evidence that when the Mossad tells them to label someone as antisemitic, they do so.

Until 2012, Cohen was a member of a French leftist anti-Zionist organization of Jews and non-Jews called the Union Juive Francaise pour la Paix, but he was expelled for defending British saxophonist and writer Gilad Atzmon, considered by many to be an antisemite. Cohen subsequently became enmeshed in France’s far right as a member of Equality & Reconciliation, a political group founded by noted antisemite and fascist Alain Sorel, who has referred to Cohen as “my best Jewish friend.”

Nevertheless, Cohen’s ideas continue to circulate in the far left. During the 2014 Gaza war, Diana Johnstone, an American peace activist and journalist based in Paris, wrote a piece for the left-wing web magazine CounterPunch called “Why Israel needs antisemitism.” In it, she claimed that Israel undertakes false-flag operations in France and elsewhere in order to drive French Jews to make aliyah. “Israel needs new immigrants from countries with a Jewish population, and France is high on the list. And what is needed most to recruit new immigrants? Antisemitism.” Johnstone relied on Cohen as a source for these claims, adding: “This fear is kept alive by Israel’s many volunteer propagandists in France, the sayanim, a category described in a novel by Jacob Cohen, Le Printemps des Sayanim.” Other conspiracist theorists have gone so far as to claim that sayanim were involved in an elaborate conspiracy responsible for the horrific Charlie Hebdo murders in 2015, which were in fact carried out by radical Islamists.

 

Cohen’s ideas are relatively fringe in France, but their reach has extended to the United States. On September 2021, former U.S. Representative (D-GA) and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney retweeted an interview with Cohen with the words, “Listen as Jacob Cohen, author of ‘Springtime of the Sayanim,’ explains that the sayanim are Zionist Jews who occupy the highest levels in their respective countries AND who work for MOSSAD and receive orders from the War Department of MOSSAD [sic].”

With no explicit link to Cohen, the “sayan” label is also volleyed on Twitter against a variety of high-profile individuals. In September and October alone, a single account used it to describe comedian Bill Maher, U.S. Representative (R) Lee Zeldin, who was then running for governor of New York, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the American Jewish Committee’s Avi Mayer and several others. Some of the account’s targets, such as Senator Tom Cotton (R), are not Jewish. People don’t have to be famous to be called a sayan: The term has also been leveled online at individuals with little or no public profile.

The sayanim conspiracy theory has been present on white supremacist platforms such as Stormfront for years. In one post from 2011, sayanim are accused of engaging in activities ranging from sabotaging cars to poisoning animals to “kidnapping children for their ritual murders/sacrifices,” a direct reference to the blood libel, a notorious trope long used against Jews. Some posts claim that synagogues are “covert storage sites for their weapons and other material they are using against us.”

Some of Stormfront’s sayanim posts link to websites affiliated with the American Nazi Party or Texe Marrs, a deceased radio talk show host, fundamentalist Christian pastor and author of such books as Conspiracy of the Six Pointed Star: Eye-Opening Revelations and Forbidden Knowledge About Israel, the Jews, Zionism, and the Rothschilds and Holy Serpent of the Jews: The Rabbis’ Secret Plan for Satan to Crush Their Enemies and Vault the Jews to Global Dominion. Marrs also wrote the introduction to the 2011 edition of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, an infamous hoax fabricated by the Russian government in 1903 and a mainstay of 20th-century antisemitism that resembles the modern sayanim conspiracy theory in many respects.

“We can acknowledge these incidents and episodes without casting aspersions on the loyalty of all Jews in the diaspora.”

One man whose writing is quoted at length on Stormfront is Jeff Gates, a Vietnam veteran who served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in the 1980s. In 1998, he wrote a book called The Ownership Solution—A Shared Capitalism for the 21st Century, the cover of which features blurbs by, among others, Coretta Scott King, Mikhail Gorbachev and Senator John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV. In 2000, Gates was the Green Party’s candidate for Senate from Georgia. Gates also served on the advisory board of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish magazine, to which he contributed two articles in 2002 and 2003, both on the subject of corporate control and greed, and both still available online.

Gates’s interest in sayanim, he says, was sparked in November 2002 in London when he was approached by a stranger after giving a talk. The man introduced himself as James “Mel” Rockefeller and told Gates about  “a small group, a few within a few within a few, [that] was able to target [Jewish] identity in order to magnify their influence,” says Gates. “And that’s the sayanim.”

Gates and Rockefeller now run a website that interweaves the sayanim story with other complicated claims by Rockefeller. (One is that he himself is the illegitimate son of Nelson Rockefeller, whose conception was arranged by this “criminal syndicate” in order to preemptively put the kibosh on Nelson’s presidential aspirations. A representative of the Rockefeller family stated through an intermediary that their research contradicted Mel’s claims of being related to them.)

As the duo see it, the key support role the sayanim play in the supposed conspiracy is that of patsy. “If I’m a sayan, then if I’m put on the stand, if I’m put under [a truth serum like] sodium pentothal, I don’t really know what the operation is. I just helped with one little discrete portion,” says Gates, adding that with enough sayanim involved, “you’ve got the ability to run quite an extraordinary operation,” such as the launching of the war against Iraq, which he claims was for Israel’s benefit.

When we spoke, Gates acknowledged that his ideas sound like antisemitic tropes but insisted that he isn’t an antisemite, referencing his two Jewish grandchildren, Jewish friends and his connection to Tikkun. When asked directly who the people behind all of these conspiracies are, Gates was coy, saying “Well, I’m going to let you decide that.”

Although Gates and Rockefeller maintain that they are not antisemites, many of the people consuming their ideas clearly are. One Amazon reader’s review of Gates’ 2008 book, Guilt By Association: How Deception and Self-Deceit Took America to War, takes Israel’s culpability for 9/11 as a given and goes on to state that “The Jews must be fought on every front. Being smeared as an antisemite should be worn proudly as a badge of honor.”

 

The first public mention of real-life sayanim was in By Way of Deception, a 1990 tell-all account of life in the Mossad by Victor Ostrovsky, an embittered ex-agent. He wrote that the book was intended to expose the “twisted ideals and self-centered pragmatism” that he encountered within the agency, “out of love of Israel as a free and just country.” The government of Israel sought to block the publication of By Way of Deception in New York for security reasons, but did not succeed, and the book became a bestseller.

In it, Ostrovsky writes that there are thousands of sayanim around the world—2,000 active in London alone, with another 4,000 “on the list.” He describes how “a sayan running a rental agency could help the Mossad rent a car without having to complete the usual documentation. An apartment sayan could find accommodation without raising suspicions, a bank sayan could get you money if you needed it in the middle of the night, a doctor sayan would treat a bullet wound without reporting it to the police, and so on.” Ostrovsky’s book also claims that sayanim must be 100 percent Jewish. “The idea is to have a pool of people available when needed who can provide services but will keep quiet about them out of loyalty to the cause.”

Most of Ostrovsky’s claims have been neither verified nor refuted by other sources, and arguments continue about the credibility of his accounts. Dan Raviv, an American journalist whose 2012 book Spies Against Armageddon offers a detailed look at the Mossad, says that Ostrovsky likely exaggerated the numbers and how systematic these efforts are. But he thinks that many elements of the book are authentic. “Ostrovsky’s book contains enough truth that the Shamir government hated it, the Mossad hated it,” says Raviv. “He’s really considered a turncoat. His book is considered to have some dangerous elements.”

Raviv himself has written about the Mossad’s use of sayanim, which he says is on a vastly smaller scale than that proposed by Gates, or by Cohen, whose theories he regards as “crap.” In one 2004 mission described in Spies Against Armageddon, a sayan was involved in the Mossad’s efforts to procure fraudulent passports in New Zealand. Nowhere in By Way of Deception or Spies Against Armageddon do Raviv or Ostrevsky suggest that the Mossad or sayanim are involved in influencing the media, financial system or global politics.

People don’t have to be famous to be called a sayan: The term has also been leveled online at individuals with little or no public profile.

“The Mossad just doesn’t need what Mr. Jacob Cohen is suggesting,” Raviv says. “They don’t need thousands of Jews. They don’t need only Jews. They bribe, blackmail or fool enough people in countries all around the world to give the Mossad the information it needs.”

Raviv also points out that many other robust intelligence agencies employ similar strategies. “The CIA always looks for people who can be good sources of information, who can be fooled or bribed, in countries where it operates,” says Raviv. “There’s no reason the person needs to be American, Western or pro-Western. Often the person who’s helping them has no idea who exactly they’re helping.”

Therefore, he says, people who fixate on Mossad and their helpers “excessively” are exaggerating and have questionable motives. “Their motives could include being antisemitic or they could just be people who love to weave conspiracies,” he says. “Israel and the Jewish people, despite being tiny on this Earth, seem to attract more than our share of attention on almost everything.”

 

According to Dov Waxman, an author and professor specializing in Israel and antisemitism at the University of California-Los Angeles, it’s important to be nuanced when engaging with these sorts of conspiracy theories. “What makes [the sayanim conspiracy theory] antisemitic is not the claim that Israel has sometimes relied on Jews outside of Israel to support it financially, diplomatically or otherwise,” says Waxman. “It’s the leap from that fact to the allegation that somehow all Jews are therefore suspect.”

He notes that people on both the political extremes are susceptible to believing that “Zionists,” on the left, or “Jews,” on the right, are secretly pulling the world’s strings. He also says it’s important to discuss and acknowledge the “kernel of truth”—in this case the Mossad’s real activities—without fueling antisemitism. “We can acknowledge these incidents and episodes without casting aspersions on the loyalty of all Jews in the diaspora, or without saying that every Jewish organization is in the employ of Mossad,” he says.

For example, even if one were to take Ostrovsky’s 1990 total estimate of  about 6,000 sayanim in London at face value, Waxman says that would still constitute a “marginal phenomenon.” “There were about 340,000 Jews living in the United Kingdom in 1990,” he says. “So even if Ostrovsky’s number was accurate, and I doubt it was, it was still a tiny, tiny fraction of British Jews. And it certainly doesn’t then justify the antisemitic allegation that British Jews or British Jewish organizations are agents of the Israeli government.” That same logic applies to the United States. “It’s true that AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Council) provides lots of money to certain candidates. That doesn’t mean AIPAC controls Congress. It’s the leap from one to the other that is problematic.”

Rebecca Federman, at the ADL, says that this leap is representative of how antisemitism and conspiracy thinking often go hand in hand. “People may not feel they are antisemites, but these tropes are age-old,” she says, adding that it is very hard to dissuade people from believing conspiracy theories once they’ve embraced them. “They’re not going to read my ADL article and be like: ‘Oh, I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry,’” she continues. But for those who haven’t yet gone down the rabbit hole, exposing conspiracy theories such as the web of those surrounding sayanim has value. They may not have realized that supporting the conspiracy theory also spreads antisemitism. “For those in the gray area, maybe they will understand.”

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