I had lunch recently with an Israeli fellow blogger who I sometimes consult in my attempts to parse Israeli politics and government policy. I’d never met him before in person though we’ve been in contact for several years. We got to talking about the Mossad, Shin Bet and Israeli intelligence matters. He is a seruvnik who helped found one of the early seruvnik groups. Almost any effective pro-peace group, he told me, whether Jewish or Arab, is infiltrated by the Shin Bet. At times the intelligence agency will meet openly with leaders of such groups and tell them that they may protest up to a certain point, but that if they cross a line they will be punished. At other times, the Shin Bet plants individuals within groups either to divide them from within or else to foment actions which will discredit the group and allow it to be criminalized by the authorities.
My companion also told me that young people are recruited to careers in the Shin Bet or Mossad and consider it a badge of honor. Such a job is looked on as a great adventure by many. And every family seems to have at least one member of the extended family working for the intelligence services. It’s an open secret.
I asked him what was the difference between this and the CIA. He said the CIA had overt and covert branches. One could work honorably for an open department within the CIA. In Israel, the Mossad and Shin Bet are entirely shrouded in secrecy. There is no such thing as a public face or overt action. Budget figures are never public information.
This is the price Israel pays for being a national security state, for which citizens sacrifice rights that Americans take for granted.
Lest you think the harm is confined to Israel, intelligence analysts here estimate that Israel has one of the largest and most active intelligence apparatuses in the United States. Only countries like Russia and China have larger capabilities.
This country is by no means a perfect democracy. But I breathe more easily knowing there are rights and laws that protect me in ways they do not protect Israeli citizens (Israel has no constitution). So the next time you hear someone boast about Israel being the “only democracy in the Middle East,” you can fill in what’s missing from that specious claim.
Many Israelis seem prepared to sacrifice their rights for the sake of the supposed security that a strong national security state provides. But I question whether its an even exchange. Does it really provide the ironclad security it claims? And should security shorn of principle become a be-all and end-all of national existence? Here in the U.S., we’ve experienced eight years of this and thankfully the electorate turned away in revulsion from such an approach. Would that something like this one day happened in Israel.