Moshe Sharett, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, visited Egypt in 1945. In Cairo he met a most remarkable young woman, a beautiful journalist who was the darling of Egyptian high society – from high-ranking military brass, to culture icons and Muslim sheikhs, to the court of King Faruk.
Yolande Harmer was not only Jewish but, as he was to discover, a dedicated Zionist. Sharett, noting the incredible range of contacts this fabulous young Jewess maintained, conceived of recruiting her as a secret agent for the then Jewish settlement in Palestine.
To his amazement, the elegant charmer accepted the mission with enthusiasm, in time becoming Israel’s top spy.
Who was this mysterious seductress, referred to as “Israel’s Mata Hari” and who contributed more than any other to the establishment of the Jewish State? Born in Alexandria to Jewish parents, Yolande, as per the customs of the times, was married off at the age of seventeen to a respectable businessman named Jacques de Botton. A year later the teenage bride became a mother. Her son, Guilbert de Botton, would become a prominent entrepreneur, and his son, Alain de Botton, a world-famous philosopher.
Yolande and Jacques separated after a time and the lovely divorcee evolved into a sparkling socialite and popular journalist.
After the fateful a cocktail party when Sharett recruited her, she went into high gear gathering intelligence in King Farouk’s court in Cairo and made many other important contacts. The senior editors of Al-Ahram, the most widely circulated Egyptian daily newspaper, divulged information to her. Tak ed-Din as-Sulh, the chief assistant of Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, known as Azzam pasha and Mahmoud Mahlouf, son of the Grand Mufti of Cairo were her admirers and sources of vital intelligence.
When the Swedish ambassador to Egypt, Widar Bagge, became enamored with her, she swayed him to sympathize with the Zionist struggle for self-determination and the freedom of the Jewish people. Eli Peleg, a Yishuv emissary in Cairo, reported Yolande’s success with Bagge: “Several months ago he was indifferent to our cause, but today he is an enthusiastic Zionist.”
Yolande provided the Yishuv with important strategic information, including the texts of resolutions adopted by the Arab League in 1947 and 1948 declaring that they “will sacrifice all the political and economic interest of the Arab world in order to save Arab Palestine.” She also uncovered Arab military plans for the end of the British Mandate for Palestine.
However, during her work in Egypt she often risked not only her own life, but the life of her son, Guilbert. By July 1948, Yoland Harmer’s fabulous luck ran out, and she was arrested. In August 1948 due to her high-placed contacts, she was freed and deported to Paris. Despite her declining health she continued to work for the Middle East Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, becoming a key figure in that department by 1949. In Paris she maintained her Egyptian contacts, continuing to provide Israel with valuable information to the end.
In 1959, Yolande Gabai Har-Mor’s battle with cancer ended. Israel’s remarkable grand lady died in anonymity; only a few have been aware of her great contribution to the establishment of our State.