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Israeli Security Services Dominated by Orthodox Jews, Settler Sympathizers

yoram cohen orthodox jew

Yoram Cohen and the reign of the knitted skullcap over Israeli intelligence services

There is much talk in the media about the heinous acts of hate and violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers.  They call them price tag attacks, but that doesn’t do them justice.  They’re acts of terror, Jewish terrorism.  I’ve also written here about the absolute ineffectiveness of the Israeli security apparatus in combating these attacks.  No less than a former Shin Bet and Mossad chief have together derided the performance of Yoram Cohen, the current Shabak chief.  I’ve similarly written here that the impunity of the terrorists isn’t an accident.  The State doesn’t want to capture the attackers nor stop the terror.  In effect, the Israeli government (and hence, the State itself) tacitly endorses terrorism.

There are many reasons for this ambivalence of the security services.  But one that has never been mentioned outside the Israeli media is the religious and political background of those who run these agencies.  They are, almost without an exception, Orthodox nationalists.  In some cases they are, or have been settlers themselves.  In discussing the insularity of the Shin Bet and its tendency to produce work tailor-made to the proclivities of its primary client, the prime minister, Amir Oren wrote:

The situation in the Shin Bet security service is worst of all, with three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.

…Despite silent internal foment, Shin Bet’s leaders are recruiting and promoting in their own image, and middle-level managers, therefore, see this as a model to emulate. The annual evaluation of Shin Bet employees now includes an arbitrary question, infuriating in its ambiguousness: Does the employee “act in accordance with a Zionist value system”? The Shin Bet is now filled with religious employees, much greater than their percentage in the population. Religious women doing national civilian service receive priority over secular women soldiers for interesting intelligence posts, and many remain in the Shin Bet after their voluntary period is over.

In other words, Shin Bet personnel do not reflect the demographic composition of Israeli society; but they do reflect the views of the settler movement, which they are sworn to police.  It’s really a built-in conflict of interest.  A recipe for failure and dysfunction.  If you don’t want the fox eating the chickens you don’t leave the coop wide-open for him to climb in.  Israel clearly wants the fox eating the chickens.

Amir Rappoport also writes in Maariv about a “quiet ferment” inside the intelligence agencies over the domination of what’s known as the “national-religious camp” (Orthodox pro-settler).  It’s widely believed that to rise in the ranks you have to reflect the views and background of your superiors.  If they wear a knitted skullcap and you don’t, you’re out of luck.  Such homogeneity can happen in any large organization.  But when it happens in an intelligence organization whose recommendations involve life and death decisions and the potential fate of the nation–the impact of such self-selection can be catastrophic.

I’ve often complained here about the narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination of Israeli military-intelligence strategists.  Either they see threats that don’t exist; or they refuse to threats where they do exist.  This phenomenon of a work force heavily slanted both religiously and ideologically toward right-wing nationalist views, is a perfect storm waiting to happen.

As an example, he notes that the expected next head of IDF intelligence (Aman) comes from an Orthodox Jewish background and his family hails from the Revisionist camp of right-wing Zionism.  Rappoport notes that scuttlebutt says that this appointment was directly supported by the prime minister himself, who never is involved in decisions on the appointment of officers below the rank of chief of staff.  But given Netanyahu’s long history in the Revisionist movement (his father was Jabotinsky’s secretary), it’s expected that he would offer more than a helping hand to “one of his own.”

This belies the historic image of the IDF as a professional, non-political army.  In the past, officers may’ve had political views, but they never expressed them overtly during service.  Only after retirement would they join a party and accept appointments as a minister.  Now, the word on the street is that some of the most sensitive posts are offered out of pure political considerations.  No surprise to the cynical among us.  But for some Israelis, it is jarring to learn of this Brave New World.

The current Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, comes from the same national-religious background.  He lives in Ramot, a neighborhood in occupied Jerusalem (conquered in 1967 and annexed by Israel).  As I’ve written here, he wasn’t Yuval Diskin’s choice for the job.  Instead, Yitzhak Ilan was the top choice until the settler rabbis and their champion intervened informing Bibi of their dislike of Ilan.  They wanted someone more simpatico with their world view.  As a result, they got Cohen, someone who can’t seem to catch a Jewish terrorist if his life depended on it.

Speculation has begun about who might succeed Cohen in 2016, when his tenure ends.  There is a competition between two senior unit heads.  Neither of their names had ever been reported until I did so in the above-linked post.  One of them is Roni Alsheikh, who serves as Yoram Cohen’s chief of staff.  Like Cohen, Alsheikh is Orthodox and Mizrahi (Cohen is of Afghan origin and Alsheikh, Yemenite).   The latter lived for many years in the settlement of Kochav HaShahar though he now lives in central Israel.  I profiled him in that post:

Alsheikh joined Shabak in the late 1980s as an interrogator.  If he gets the top job he’ll be the first to rise through the ranks as an interrogator – most previous directors ran Palestinian spies in the field. Though he’s known to have used torture in cases of alleged “ticking bombs“, he’s not considered one of the goons who use brute force to extract confessions from detainees. Instead, he mostly used his wits during interrogations, and he believes it’s better being (as Talmud Yerushalmi says) “the head of the foxes than the tail of the lions” (hence his nickname).

Shall we bet on how effective Alsheikh will be in pursuing Jewish terrorists?

The bettors among Israelis have put their money on Yossi Cohen as the next head of the Mossad after Tamir Pardo’s term ends.  Cohen, who served as a visiting fellow at WINEP before being appointed to his current job as national security advisor, is also national-religious.  Rappoport concludes:

In the next year or so, it’s expected that the heads of Aman, Shabak and Mossad will all be from the national-religious camp…There’s no doubt that it’s of vital importance to Netanyahu who heads these agencies.  While prime ministers in the past have all sought to have intelligence heads who were shared their background or world view, Bibi is unlike them in that he’s succeeded.

Yet another Maariv article noted (Hebrew) not only that the numbers of knitted skullcaps has vastly increased in the ranks of the Mossad, but another unprecedented development has been the consideration of halachic matters in intelligence practice, including top-secret foreign missions.  There is even a rabbi on staff whom staff consult on a regular basis asking what is permitted and prohibited, including concerning operational matters.  They even render judgement on what foods an agent may eat in a foreign (and presumably treif) country; and what acts may be performed on Shabbat.

Barack Obama consults lawyers before murdering Osama bin Laden.  Apparently, Tamir Pardo consults his rabbi.  I’m not sure which is worse.  But at least if Obama consulted a truly independent lawyer he might hear a contrary view.  I don’t expect a rabbi to have any expertise either legally or professionally in this field.  It’s only marginally better than consulting a fortune teller.  Can you imagine Pres. Obama consulting Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson before a Navy SEAL mission like the bin Laden assassination?  It beggars belief.

How can you call Israel a democracy when it’s as important to consult a rabbi about a top secret mission as it is to consult an elected minister?

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • nessim dayan May 17, 2014, 2:42 AM

    Most senior politicians are/were and will be from the army ranks. the higher they are the higher they were in the army.
    In Egypt we see the army slowly populating the top echelons with army hacks – They don’t call Egypt “DEMOCRACY” by any way or form. So why in hell would any one call Israel a democracy when the to top government is composed of ex-army hacks that “govern” according to military rules. Let’s be clear about this Israel IS NO DEMOCRACY BY ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM.
    As Kissinger said, Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy – Domestic is equivalent to internal policy by it’s own name is a police state. That was in the 70’s. and PLUS C’A CHANGE PLUS C’EST LA MEME CHOSE. To call is Israel a Democracy is a misnomer if there was one. – when the army holds 80% of israel’s lands what is the difference with Egypt.

    • David May 18, 2014, 10:40 AM

      I’ve come to view Israel as a one-party state operating between competing “factions.” This is not unreasonable as certain forms of political organizing are illegal, including any threat to the particular national identity of “Israel.” That’s at least my understanding.

      It seems inevitable that those with the least tolerant politics/religion would operate at the margins of the ideological state, aiming to control any threat to the ideology, i.e. Palestinians and “leftists.”

      Lastly, when did the IDF have a rep as a non-political, professional army? It must have been before my time. I agree with @Dayan that the military presides over Israel and any pretense of democracy is a sham.

  • Roger May 17, 2014, 9:31 AM

    The fact that Israel defines itself as a jewish and democratic state is an oxymoron. It is as if the USA defines itself as a christian and democratic country, So that all who are not christian are discriminated. Now there is a new resolution taken by the government securing cheap appartments to those who had served in the army. Major and minor ministers go to consult with rabbis like Afargan (the x-ray rabbi), do you believe that?

    • Rain May 18, 2014, 10:24 AM

      An overly simplistic view. There are many democracies who define themselves as having a state religion. UK currently defines its state religion as Anglican, France, Ireland as Catholic etc. It is not the definition itself that is problematic but the resulting definitions and conditions that occur from it. Israel could in fact in theory be a country whose state religion is Judaism and still ensure equal rights for all. Unfortunately we have a long way to go…

      • Richard Silverstein May 18, 2014, 2:41 PM

        @ Rain: It is always problematic when a nation has a state religion. Even in a relatively progressive country like Ireland, Roman Catholicism exerted a pernicious influence over political issues like abortion & birth control (not to mention the horrible sex abuse scandals). But Israel’s state religion is far more pernicious and exclusivist than those relatively benign countries, as you noted.

  • Oui May 17, 2014, 11:48 PM

    Rabbi Nissan Kaplan at the prestigious haredi Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem told students recently that the government is comparable to the Jewish people’s ancient enemy the Amalekites and that government officials should in theory be killed.

    • Richard Silverstein May 18, 2014, 1:07 AM

      @ Oui: Though this sort of story is unfortunately nothing new, every time I read a new account of such horror I’m shocked anew that it’s possible for a Jew to say and believe such things!

  • nessim dayan May 18, 2014, 1:55 PM

    I wish to know if the current relation between israel and the U.S. is in any way different from any U.S. relations had/have or will have with any military puppet regime. convenience for convenience sake until the puppet regime self implodes.
    at the direction israel goes a two state fantasy does not exist, any other solution WILL self implode, to pretend that doing the same analysis again and again and somehow to expect a different result exists only in the domain of fools or any current israeli politicians. I, oh so hope, I am not the only one heartbroken at the sight of the abyss and yet unable to be heard

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