Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 37, 38
Seeing the Light
After Growing Up Together, When My Friend Chose Death, I Chose Life
By Victor Ostrovsky
As I walked slowly into the yard, the sun was halfway to its zenith, and the temperature was rising fast. I kicked the hot sand with the tip of my shoe and stared at the group closing around me. They were scanning me with their eyes, wondering who I was. I lowered my hand and felt the cold metal of the gun at my hip. "Hands up!" I shouted, pointing my gun in a lightning draw. They stepped back, staring puzzled at one another. They didn't understand, and I couldn't speak a word of Hebrew.
Being mostly secular, we created a religion unto ourselves.
I was five years old, and a newcomer to Israel. It seemed they didn't play the games we did, back home in Canada. The year was 1955 and nobody in the kindergarten had heard of television, hot dogs or comic books. I had come to live with my grandparents, who couldn't speak English either. I can't remember how long it took me to adjust. All I remember is that the following year, 1956, when the sirens were howling during the Sinai campaign, I was scared in Hebrew.
The state of Israel was only a year or two older than I was. I felt like we were friends, growing up together. I was proud of our achievements, my new friend and I. It was a common feeling among Israelis at the time.
There was harmony and unity of spirit. We were realizing an ancient promise made to our ancestors. To those whose names were etched on the marble monuments, who had provided the "silver platter" upon which independence had been handed to us, we vowed to build a place that would be worthy of their sacrifice. It was to be a beacon of justice, and hope, for all.
In time, the reality of living under siege sank in, and the hope for peace disintegrated. Being mostly secular, we created a religion unto ourselves. Mainly we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the Jews of the diaspora, for whom we had little respect. They lacked the courage and conviction to join us in the struggle, preferring the "fleshpots of foreign lands, and the palaces of Aisave to the tents of Jacob."
Then, as now, their role was to send their money and keep their opinions to themselves. As a newly resurrected nation, we drew our legitimacy from our linkage to the Bible. Our heroes were the biblical warriors, from Barak ben Avinoam and Deborah and on to the Maccabees. To that list, we added the names of new heroes, fresh links in the chain that validated our claims. We worshipped at the altar of Trumpeldor, whose dying words at Tel-Hai (our Alamo) were, "It is good to die for our country." A "new Jew" with a plough and a rifle.
At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the cards we sent each other were not imprinted with the traditional religious symbols. They were depictions of soldiers, tanks and fighter planes. We accepted that there would never be peace and that we would have to defend ourselves forever.
To reinforce our conviction, we embraced the tragedy of Masada where, 2,000 years ago, a small group of Israelites besieged on a mountain top by Roman legions committed suicide by hurling themselves off the bluff rather than surrender. In that act we saw the embodiment of everything we stood for as a people. We did not realize we were worshipping death, not life.
Instead, we felt we were unique and strong. We expressed this feeling with purposeful arrogance. Everything we did as youths was in anticipation of joining the army and becoming a part of the power that had miraculously bonded our diverse nation.
Almost all of our information regarding our neighbors came from a well-oiled government-sponsored media apparatus. The only portrait of the Arabs available to us was that of bloodthirsty mobs, chanting in unison, "death to the Jews." We learned that for us there was nowhere to run and no choice but to stand and fight.
We would not be like previous generations of our people, led by the millions to the slaughter, like sheep. We would fight. Then, with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, we learned in detail the horrors of the Holocaust. In a way that awed us all, we thirsted, collectively, for revenge. "Never again," we said, and dug in our heels at the top of Masada.
With the Six-Day War of June 1967 came exhilaration. We had proved we were the best, that no one could match us. Jerusalem was reunited, and the borders were no longer so close that you could see "abroad" from every high building. Books were printed showing our victories, songs sung in praise of our leaders. And, of course, more monuments were erected and more fields hallowed by the presence of our dead.
After 1967, however, for the first time, we saw our enemy up close-not as prisoners of war or captured terrorists, but as civilians, ordinary people. We had to look into the eyes of those we had dispossessed, in whose houses we had lived while they were refugees.
We hated them for placing the mirror so close to our faces. We knew that we were better than they. We had the proof. We had won! Weren't they just a tiny patch of tranquil waters we had walled off from that hostile sea of enemies, chanting that they wanted us dead? We owed them nothing. They had set out to destroy us and they had lost. There was nothing more to be said.
In fact, as a superior and chosen people, our mere presence as a benevolent occupier was, in and of itself, a benefit for them. We allowed them to be a source of cheap labor for us, and felt it was a fair exchange. They were lucky to be employed and their presence gave us the freedom to pursue our higher calling.
To any who objected, we were ruthless and brutal from the start. When asked about peace, we would say cynically, "Sure we want peace, a piece of Jordan, a piece of Lebanon."
Instead of searching for solutions in Damascus, Cairo and Rabat, we accepted our status in the Middle East as final. We searched the world for friends, but those we found in Paris or New York could not solve our problems with our neighbors. We offered ourselves to the West as "a fortress of stability, in a sea of uncertainty and communist subversion." We became merchants of death, offering weapons to any and every dictator who could afford them.
We made the name of Israel synonymous with oppression. Yes, we lived by the sword, and were proud to die by it and have our names added to the long lists on the cold marble slabs.
Cold reality penetrated our euphoria with the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. We were not invincible, and the idea first paralyzed and then polarized us. It frightened some of us into searching, for the first time, for a solution, and others into renewed fervor for further fortifying "fortress Israel."
A Profound Reorientation
The changes taking place around us, however, were more than attitudinal. They involved a profound reorientation of our political vision. The oppressed minority of Sephardic Jews, who had come to Israel from the Arab countries, had become a majority. They were a factor in toppling the Labor government, which they felt, correctly, had treated them badly over the years by favoring the Ashkanazi Jews from Europe.
With the right-wing Likud party came a prime minister I had learned to regard in my youth as a terrorist whose followers were thugs. Menachem Begin's Likud had at its core a smaller party called Herut. It was the political manifestation of the Betar movement whose anthem spoke for its ideology, "With blood and sweat we will build a race, benevolent, majestic and cruel."
By the next elections, the changes were becoming visible throughout Israel. What we believed to be a "working democracy" was slowly disappearing, one bit at a time. If you dared to place a bumper sticker for the Labor or any other so-called liberal party on your car, chances were that you would have your car window smashed. And now there were new "Zionist movements" that wanted to annex the territories and spoke of establishing "greater Israel" on all of "the promised lands." The murderous Kahane movement that originated in the United States found fertile soil in Israel.
Suddenly this gathering darkness was penetrated by a ray of hope. Unbelievably, a brave man we had regarded as a monster came from Cairo and turned out to be human and more. What followed the Camp David Accoeds and the peace with Egypt, however, seemed even more unbearable than what had gone before. We saw settlers from the fundamentalist, right-wing, messianic parties fighting physically with our soldiers, who were evicting them from the Jewish settlements they had established in the Sinai.
Israel has embarked on a course that puts its own citizens in great danger.
Then, in 1982, for the first time we saw clearly an Israeli government entering a war that it had the choice to avoid. Leading that war was the worst of the thugs surrounding the prime minister. I saw Defense Minister Ariel Sharon lying to our allies and to the world when he said he planned only a limited policing action along our northern borders, while I, as a lieutenant commander in the Navy at the time, was planning the assault on Beirut.
Seeing the Lies Up Close
Like seeing the faces of the Arab "enemy" up close, seeing the lies accompanying our wars up close started the erosion of my personal convictions. My country's big lie was followed, again, by a heavy toll of the lives of my countrymen.
By now, however, our youth wanted more than just the expectation of having their names etched on the marble slabs. They wanted life, hope and a future. The Peace Now movement had started in Israel, and it seemed to represent a revival of the pioneer spirit for a time.
By then, however, I was in the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, seeing firsthand the cold and cynical way in which the course was being charted for the country I loved. My new superiors, having seized much of the control of the ship of state from the politicians, were steering it from behind the scenes to a future their warped instincts told them was good.
Now I became, for the first time, truly terrified, knowing nothing was being done to turn Israel from the disastrous course her self-appointed protectors had set for her.
When Israel was created, it was to be a safe haven for Jewish people anywhere who felt themselves in danger. Yet today, led by still another ex-terrorist, it has embarked on a course that puts its own citizens in great danger.
Yitzhak Shamir's own LEHI terrorist organization, which became known to its British opponents as the "Stern Gang," had requested an alliance with Nazi Germany early in World War II. Its rationale was that since both Israel's revisionists and Hitler's Nazis were fighting the British, their goals were compatible.
Shamir and his followers, from their shortsighted embrace of Nazi Germany to their rejection almost two generations later of the Camp David agreements, have placed the people of Israel in greater danger than any other Jews anywhere else in the world. Shamir's antipathy to peace and his aversion to a just solution based upon U.S. Security Council Resolution 242, again will bring war into the region in the very near future.
To comprehend the kinds of weapons that could be deployed by both sides in such a war is to understand the level of stupidity involved in the taking of such chances with the fate of whole peoples. It becomes meaningless to say that Shamir will be held responsible, as will all of the others who knew better but remained silent.
No Need for More Names
The marble monuments are full. There is no need for more names, and no purpose for more dying. The peace we sought is attainable at last, but our new leaders reject it. Nor is it easy for the Jewish communities in North America to contemplate halting their blind support for Israel. It is not easy for them, even though Israel behaves in ways they would find unacceptable from their own governments. It is not easy for them even though every Jew in the United States and Canada knows that calling a halt is the only way to save Israel from the stranglehold of those who, by actively torturing and abusing the Palestinians, ensure the emnity of all of Israel's Arab neighbors, whose lands these Israeli expansionists also covet.
It is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary, for the Jews in the diaspora to say stop if the expansionists are to be halted. Israel's new leaders know this and they are counting on the diaspora Jews to avoid taking that collectively hard decision, just as they avoid taking the individually hard decision to come and participate in the difficult life of the country they profess to love.
My greatest fear for Israel is that the Jews in the diaspora will leave its fate solely in the hands of the hard-eyed expansionists who rule there now. I know what Israel's current rulers still want, and I know what they will do to get it because, for too long, I was one of them myself. ❑
Victor Ostrovsky is a former Mossad agent who now lives in Canada. He is the author of By Way of Deception, which is available from the AET Book Club at the discounted price of $5 (list price: $5.99).