Authors return to scene of Israeli espionage

We think we have some important stories to tell, and thus we returned to the subject of Israeli espionage. Our first effort in that field was a book in 1990 titled “Every Spy a Prince.” Twenty-two years later, we spoke with more people and got more stories — about recent events, but also new details about important operations going back to the beginnings of the Jewish state in 1948.

We are not surprised that the news media put their focus on our description of Israel’s covert activities aimed at stopping — or at least slowing — Iran’s nuclear program. Many of those were accurate, if brief, summaries of what we reported: notably, a news article by the Associated Press on July 8.

We had mixed feelings, therefore, when The New York Times gave our book significant attention on July 11. The headline atop a full column on Page A8 said: “Tehran Abuzz as Book Says Israel Killed 5 Scientists.”

Several of our friends said there is no such thing as bad publicity when one has written a book and it is just out, and the project thrives or languishes depending on how much attention it can get.  

Yet the wording of the Times article would lead newspaper readers to think we were accusing Jews in Iran — where approximately 25,000 still reside — of participating in secret Mossad missions, including assassinations.

The article says that our book contains the “assertion” that five scientists were killed in Iran “by operatives, most likely of Persian Jewish heritage, employed by Mossad …”

We do not want to attack the reporter, who had contacted us with only two questions this week: Could he rapidly have a free, review copy, to help the Times Foreign Desk possibly write an article that might mention “Spies Against Armageddon”? And did we or our publisher have any plan to translate the book into Farsi, the language of Iran?

We feel, however, that while the main thrust of his article turned out to be reporting what the news media in Iran are saying about our book, he himself distorted what we wrote. We are not suggesting that it was intentional, but there were some exaggerations and too much certainty — whereas we were cautious in suggesting what might be true about covert Mossad operations in Iran.

In a carefully worded passage on Page 14 — in our first chapter, “Stopping Iran” — our book says: “The Mossad also had a human treasury: Tens of thousands of ex-Iranians now lived in Israel. Iranian Jews had fled, especially just after the 1979 revolution, and many of their children also were well acquainted with the Persian language and customs. Individuals who were brave enough — and then selected and trained by the Mossad — could move back to Iran and secretly serve Israel.

“Israeli operatives inside Iran were available for all kinds of espionage and even, if and when the time came, for pinpointing targets for air strikes.”

We were not reporting that the assassins in 2007-2012 were Persian Jews returning to their homeland. We said that the Mossad “could” call upon the repository of ex-Iranians as well as other Israelis in the secret agency.

The Times article also mentioned “the book’s assertion that the assassins were all Mossad agents who used agency safe houses maintained inside Iran since the era of the shah.”

Again, we carefully report in our book that the Mossad has had safe houses in Iran since pre-1979 days, but we don’t report that all the assassins stayed in such houses.

The key paragraph on Page 13 of our book speaks of “possibilities.” We do not claim to know or to reveal how the assassins traveled or where they stayed:

“Naturally, no one in Tel Aviv was talking about any operational details of how Israelis entered and left Iran — or where they stayed while inside the Islamic Republic.

“There were many possibilities. Obviously, Israeli operatives traveled using the passports of other countries, including both bogus and genuine documents. That fact had been inadvertently revealed several times, over many years. In addition, the Mossad continuously maintained safe houses in Iran, dating back to the pre-1979 years under the Shah. That was an investment in the future, typical for Israeli intelligence.”

The Times article then caused some discomfort to some Persian Jews in the United States — and we heard from some — when it stated that our book contains “assertions about the assassins’ nationalities or religious beliefs …” We never discuss their religious beliefs. Yes, their nationality is Israeli. We do report that, and we explain that against the background of Mossad operations that penetrated enemy countries in decades past.

Our book treads carefully on some very sensitive territory, but we would like to think that we got the balance right. It is the historian’s job to tell readers what happened and to set it in context — and as historians of the espionage world, we further endeavor not to endanger anyone by revealing too many details.

Let us be clear, and we have written about this elsewhere and will continue to do so: Israel’s Mossad does not use local Jews as agents, saboteurs or assassins. Bitter lessons were learned more than half a century ago in Egypt, Iraq and other countries, where early operations by Israeli intelligence sometimes did use local Jews— and, if caught, the individuals were hanged, and their entire communities suffered official retribution from the Arab regime.

The use of Jonathan Pollard, an American with a high-level security clearance in U.S. naval intelligence, as a spy for Israel was an aberration. The Mossad would not have hired him. It was a separate agency, Lakam (the Science Liaison Bureau), that ran Pollard — who is now serving a life sentence for an operation that most Israeli officials and intelligence professionals believe was a mistake.  

The Mossad, we believe, would have known not to put the important American Jewish community in peril — not the least, American Jews working in U.S. defense and intelligence jobs — by employing Pollard.

To read the Associated Press and New York Times articles mentioned above, visit:

Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent based in Washington, and veteran Israeli intelligence reporter and commentator Yossi Melman are co-authors of the new “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.” They also wrote the best seller “Every Spy a Prince.” They blog at

Israeli author booted from Marseilles panel

An Israeli author was kicked off a panel discussion in Marseilles at the request of the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish.

Moshe Sakal, the author of “Yoland,” which was shortlisted for the 2011 Sapir Prize for literature, was removed Monday from a discussion of the Arab spring at a conference of Mediterranean writers, Haaretz reported.

French-Jewish author Pierre Assouline, the director of the conference, said Sakal’s participation in the panel “was not crucial.”

Darwish had apparently said that he would participate in the conference as long as he did not have to sit with any Israelis at roundtable discussions.

Describing the reaction to Sakal’s dismissial, Assouline said, “Half of the crowd got very angry, and the other half was thrilled.”

“I entered the hall just as [Moroccan poet] Tahar Ben Jelloun was speaking forcefully against this type of boycott,” Sakal said to Ha’aretz. “He said that there are many Israeli authors who are supportive [of the Palestinian cause] and one should speak to them even if one doesn’t approve of current Israeli politics.”

“There were hundreds of people there and there were a lot of hecklers,” Sakal said. “People were very upset.”

Books: Yehoshua’s latest explores boundaries of responsibility

The U.S publishers hated the title of A.B. Yehoshua’s latest book “The Mission of the Human Resources Manager.” It was, they argued, better suited to a personnel manual than the work of one of Israel’s most venerated authors. Ignoring Yehoshua’s pleas, they christened the novel’s English translation “A Woman in Jerusalem,” and the book became a nominee for this year’s prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to be announced at the Times’ Festival of Books this weekend (see story page 36).

Rummaging through the shelves of his apartment in Ramat Gan, Yehoshua located a copy of the book and studied its cover, with its stylized picture of a woman’s glittery eyelid, another attempt by the publishers to inject sex appeal into his latest creation.

“I have to admit,” he said cheerfully, “they did a good job.”

Yehoshua’s political views have ruffled more than a few feathers, though he seems to take criticism in stride.

In May 2006, Yehoshua caused an uproar at a prestigious gathering of American Jewry in Washington when he declared that Diaspora Jewry cannot live genuinely Jewish lives unless they move to Israel, and that “Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel … your Jewish identity has no meaning at all.”

While he eventually softened his remarks, his views have not changed significantly.

“In Israel,” he says, “you can be a full Jew with all the responsibilities and the obligations that come along with it.”

Israel’s ethical character, he believes, is a direct reflection of its people’s collective Jewish responsibility. “A Woman in Jerusalem” is Yehoshua’s attempt to explore the boundaries of that responsibility.

Following a suicide bombing at a crowded market, the corpse of Yulia Ragayev, a Russian-Orthodox temporary worker, lies unclaimed and unidentified in a Jerusalem morgue. A “weasel” of a journalist discovers a bloodied pay slip linking Ragayev to a well-established bakery and writes an expose condemning the bakery for its failure to claim her body. Shamed by the journalist’s accusations of heartless indifference, the bakery’s owner decides to atone for his company’s neglect. He assigns his human resources manager — a man whose family life has slowly disintegrated — to take any measures necessary to restore the bakery’s good name. While at first resentful, the human resources manager comes to share his boss’s desire for atonement.

Together with the journalist, he escorts Ragayev’s corpse home for burial only to discover that the dead woman’s mother wants her daughter buried in Jerusalem.

The novel has a palpable darkness to it and is almost bluntly allegorical.

Aside from Yulia Ragayev, whose name becomes almost a mantra for the human resources manager, the characters in the book remain nameless, defined only by their job titles. This is just one of the ways that Yehoshua distances himself from “A Liberated Bride,” his optimistic 2004 novel about a Haifa professor who breaks through personal, familial, ethnic and national boundaries.

The difference, Yehoshua said, was all in the timing. Whereas he began writing “Bride” before the outbreak of the second intifada, “A Woman in Jerusalem” was conceived during Israel’s gloomiest days.

“In one terrorist attack in Tel Aviv,” he says, “[many] people were killed — among them a whole family.”

Yehoshua began to be bothered by what he saw as Israel’s inability to cope with civilian death: “For soldiers there is a whole system of mourning. We are used to it, and it’s very important to Israeli society to commemorate the soldiers who were sent by us for us and were killed.

“But what about the lady who was drinking coffee in a cafe when she was killed or a foreign worker who was sitting on a bus? How do we make sense of that? They were not killed for defending their country or conquering territory — if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It was disturbing.”

Also disturbing, Yehoshua said, was the way “that Israeli society tried to repress the deaths. In the beginning there was news, but after a certain time the bus was cleaned up and society returned to ‘normal life.’ It’s very dangerous for a society to repress things.”

As a non-Jew, an immigrant temporary worker, and a woman without a family, Ragayev represents death at its most marginal.

“I wanted to take my pen,” Yehoshua said, “and put it inside the black plastic shroud. I wanted to take this anonymous victim and try to make love to her.”

Like many of Yehoshua’s protagonists, the human resources manager has an almost neurotic obsessiveness about him, along with a desire to push past interpersonal boundaries and peek into the secret corners of peoples’ lives. Yehoshua says that while he no doubt brings this obsessiveness from “a personal quest, a turbulence, an unrest,” his characters’ missions are aimed at “accomplishing something, repairing reality and taking responsibility.”

Whether In “The Lover,” “Open Heart,” “A Liberated Bride” or “A Woman in Jerusalem,” those missions have involved crossing borders of some kind — an issue that continues to preoccupy Yehoshua, with no signs of abatement. It is the same issue, he says, that propelled his hotly contested remarks in Washington.

“The question of the borders is the most important one for the Jews,” he says. “If I had to define Zionism in one word, I would say ‘borders.’ For centuries the Jews crossed borders, moving from one country to another, exchanging national identities. Israel has been a tremendous change in the Jewish DNA. Today we must have borders and we must have sovereignty and responsibility on those borders.”

Tellingly, in “A Woman in Jerusalem,” the journalist tells the human resources manager that “true love requires separation.” Politically, Yehoshua has been a forceful voice in the call for separation. In 2002, at the height of the bloody second intifada, he joined other left-wing intellectuals and political figures in calling for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. In addition to withdrawing from the territories, Yehoshua suggested a security fence with openings for passage between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

When the Israeli army evacuated Jews from Gaza, he said, he was “very proud of Israel — proud of the way in which it was done, proud of how the settlers behaved. Not one drop of blood was spilled.

Crooners celebrate Canuckia’s Cohen and a first for our very own Greenberg

Saturday the 24th

A Leonard Cohen love fest takes place at Royce Hall this evening. The enigmatic genius poet/songwriter is paid tribute in an event titled “The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen,” which is presented by Perla Batalla, a vocalist with whom he has frequently worked. While surprise guests are promised, confirmed performers include Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Howard Tate, Bill Gable, Bill Frisell and Don Was.

8 p.m. $17-$52. UCLA Royce Hall, Westwood. (310) 825-2101. ‘ target=’_blank’>

Tuesday the 27th

Despite what we feel is a terrible title, “Melanoma My Love” may be worth your attention. The interesting premise of this Israeli film is a tragic tale about a young dancer who is diagnosed with melanoma at age 30, and given only three months to live. Not wanting to shatter her spirit with such precious time left, her husband chooses to hide the prognosis from her. The film screens — with a conversation with star Sharon Zukerman to follow — at UC Irvine tonight, and Pomona College tomorrow.

Feb. 27, UC Irvine.

Feb. 28, Pomona College International Theater, Pomona.
‘ target=’_blank’>

Thursday the 1st

Local author T Cooper signs her new acclaimed novel, “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes” at Malibu’s Diesel bookstore on Wednesday, and Skylight Books today. To quote Publisher’s Weekly’s assessment of her latest, “[Cooper] takes apart the usual Jewish heritage tale and the themes of assimilation, touching them with postmodern parody and Chagallesque folk magic.”

Feb. 28, 7 p.m., Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Road, Malibu. (310) 456-9961.

March 1, 7:30 p.m. Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 660-1175.

Friday the 2nd

A Shabbat service with vocal resonance awaits at the Wilshire Theatre, this evening. The 50-voice Tabernacle Gospel Choir led by Justin White joins the Tova Marcos Singers of Temple of the Arts in an interfaith, intercultural “Shared Heritage of Freedom” service. They will be led by Rabbi David Baron and Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

8 p.m. Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 658-9100. IFF: Engaging in disengagement — five horrible days in Gaza

Your Letters

Buy It Now

Thank you for your article about the impending closures of Jewish Community Centers (JCC) (“Buy It Now,” May 14). The Los Angeles Jewish community runs contrary to the rest of the country. Jewish philanthropy is very visible in the secular community, with large contributions to local hospitals and universities. Why is there not an outcry against the closure of our Jewish Community Centers?

As a founder of the West Coast Jewish Theatre (a member of the Association of Jewish Theatres, which is affiliated with the National Council of JCCs), I am heartbroken because I have visited JCCs in so many cities, such as Newton, Mass.; Kansas City, Mo.; Cleveland; Washington, D.C.; and Southfield, Mich., among others. I think The Jewish Federation should reconsider what legacy they are leaving Los Angeles, and a concerted effort should be made to change directions and educate The Federation and the rest of the community as to the importance of the JCCs.

Naomi Jacobs, Marina Del Rey

Lacking Credentials

I read the opinion piece by Nonie Darwish, “When Arab Means Never Saying Sorry” (June 4). I found the polemic to be reductionist and simplistic (what does the term “Arab street” really mean?), so naturally I looked to see what were the credentials of the author. I found none listed; evidently she has no background in Arabic studies, whether literature, history, political science, anthropology, sociology or any other discipline. So what about her personal experience and what might give that experience any legitimacy? Her Web site, replete with misspellings, coyly says that she has a Middle Eastern background but deliberately leaves unclear whether she is Jewish or Arabic. That she is on the board of something called the Mid East Education Team means nothing — anyone can create a pseudo-education “team” or institution that is totally devoid of value. The Institute for Historical Review, for example, is nothing more than a group of so-called historians dedicated to Holocaust denial and ongoing anti-Semitism. I do not understand why The Jewish Journal, with so many experts on every facet of the Middle East and terrorism at its disposal, would stoop to give space to someone with nothing to bring to the discussion and no useful policies to propose.

Deborah Bochner Kennel, Los Angeles

Editor’s note:

Darwish, profiled in The Jewish Journal of April 23,2004, was born in Cairo, Egypt, and raised for much of her childhood in Gaza.She holds a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology and sociology from theAmerican University of Cairo. In Cairo, she worked as an editor at Middle EastNews Agency. For more on Darwish, visit  and

New Coalition

Leonard Fein is exactly correct that blind support of Israeli policies and actions does not make one a true friend of Israel (“Pursuit of Peace Requires New Coalition,” June 4).

Fein says, “We have long since learned to swallow hard as the Israelis persist in policies that are ill-conceived and ill-executed, policies that threaten the entire Zionist enterprise.”

I go further and say that as a Jewish American I am embarrassed by those policies, many of which are designed to mistreat and humiliate Palestinians. These policies are not leading to a two-state solution, which is the only resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem that will preserve Israel as a Jewish state.

Fein does not mention the unintended consequences that blind support for Israeli policies and actions by the U.S. government have brought. Clearly the lack of a solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem and the U.S. support of all Israeli actions causes angst throughout the Arab and wider Muslim world, and underlies much of the Islamic terror that the United States is now fighting.

President Bush, fighting America’s war on terror, and Prime Minister Sharon, fighting Palestinians, are in a mutual death dance. It has to stop.

Jeff Warner, La Habra Heights

Leonard Fein is right on target. He states that since the Palestinians rejected the Clinton/Barak plan, Israel is compelled to try new and different approaches. After all, giving them 97 percent of what they were asking for was surely not enough.

Here are some ideas that would fit his predictable ideology: How about forming a binational state? How about letting the descendants of the Palestinian refugees enter Israel? How about making all the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Israeli citizens? Or better still, how about making all the Jews return to their points of origins? These are approaches that will satisfy the Palestinians. And peace will surely follow.

And, then like the Europeans and the Arabs, Fein can polish up a draft of the eulogy for Israel. The world will weep sanctimoniously for the late State of Israel, but the problem with the Palestinians will be solved forever.

Fein has ignored the fact that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are opposite sides of the same coin: one explicitly calling for the destruction of Israel, the other implicitly, and both by their actions.

Jack Salem, Los Angeles

Israeli Novel of Ideas Overpowers Story

“Foiglman” by Aharon Megged. Translated by Marganit
Weinberger-Rotman. (Toby Press, $19.95).

Can a work of fiction be important without being successful?
If so, it would look pretty much like “Foiglman,” by the distinguished Israeli
author, Aharon Megged.

“Foiglman” was originally published in Israel in 1988 and is
being issued here for the first time in English by Toby Press, a
Connecticut-based firm with an active editorial office in Jerusalem that has
been busily acquiring backlists of leading Israeli writers.

Megged’s book is a novel of ideas in which ideas completely
overpower the novel itself. True, they are ideas of the utmost gravity, and
they are given unusually thoughtful and provocative treatment here. If the
fictional framework of Megged’s book were handled as magnificently, in fact,
this would have been a staggering work of art.

At the center of the novel is Zvi Arbel, a 60-ish professor
of European history and the author of “The Great Betrayal,” a study of a 1648 massacre
of Polish Jews that many historians view as analogous to the Nazi genocide. Zvi
lives comfortably in his hometown of Tel Aviv and teaches at the university,
while his wife, Nora, works as a biologist. Their grown son, Yoav, is employed
by the army and lives nearby with his wife and young daughter.

Trouble arrives one day in the form of a fawning fan letter.
Out of the blue, an obscure Yiddish poet named Shmuel Foiglman sends Zvi a
volume of his poems that contains a lavish dedication “to the very important
author of ‘The Great Betrayal,’ who … penetrated to the crux of the awesome
tragedy of the murdered Jewish people, the ashes of whose 6 million are
scattered over the earth of Europe.”

With little interest in poetry and only a spotty command of
Yiddish, Zvi is perplexed by this gift from a total stranger. Yet something
about the book — which contains mostly lamentations by a man who clearly lived
through the Holocaust — elicits sympathy from Zvi.

The two men strike up a correspondence, followed by a series
of meetings in both Tel Aviv and Paris. Against the wishes of Zvi’s
increasingly irritated wife, he offers to arrange for a translation of
Foiglman’s book into Hebrew and, eventually, for Foiglman to move to Israel for

Over time, Zvi learns pieces of Foiglman’s past, from his
childhood in Zamosc, Poland, to the 1942 deportation of the town’s Jews,
whereupon Foiglman and his twin brother fled to the barn of a Polish peasant,
who agreed to hide them for a high ransom, then turned them over to the Germans
two weeks later.

“Thus Shmuel Foiglman,” Megged writes, “witnessed first hand
‘The Great Betrayal.'”

Later, the brothers were sent to Majdanek and from there to
various labor camps, surviving somehow until the end of the war, when they wandered,
barely alive, through a shattered Europe.

Though he now expects that here in Israel both he and his
poetry will at last find a nurturing home, Foiglman is doomed to
disappointment. There is little interest in Yiddish in Israel at all, where
Hebrew reigns supreme. Foiglman’s hopes that the Yiddish language might rise
again out of the European destruction, that something might be preserved from
that savage annihilation, are dashed.

After Zvi himself puts up the money to translate Foiglman’s
book, it is all but ignored by the Israeli literati.

“Sometimes at night,” Foiglman confesses to Zvi, “I wake up
from a terrible nightmare in which I’m shouting, ‘Gevald!’ and nobody
understands my language.”

Meanwhile, as Zvi’s friendship with the poet blooms, his
marriage withers. At first merely irritated by Foiglman, Nora becomes jealous,
then angry and finally, after Zvi refuses to cut off his association, she
begins a tumultuous affair with a younger man.

Finally, after months of unbearable agitation, she commits
suicide. Four months later, Foiglman becomes ill and dies, leaving Zvi doubly
haunted by sorrow and guilt.

If these domestic betrayals seem trifling when compared to
the massive betrayals of history and language that are the themes of Megged’s
book, their failure to move the reader lies at the bottom of the perhaps
unavoidable pitfall the author has set for himself. The truth is that the
author has succeeded so well in outlining his big ideas — the impossibility of
translating the horror of the Holocaust, the failure of art and faith in the
face of mass murder — that his own novel has become a disappointed testament to
the truths of those ideas.

His characters are simply too flimsy to bear the symbolic
weight he has heaped on them, and it’s difficult to care about Zvi and Nora’s
marital squabbles in the face of Foiglman’s devastating history.

In the end, the reader is left with awe and certainly
compassion for the victims of genocide, but with little in the way of aesthetic
satisfaction . Â