Tonight I’m going to tell a sad story, but an instructive one. It begins with the tragic news that an 88 year-old retired Israeli doctor, respected in his profession for many decades, committed suicide in his Ramat Aviv apartment. The man’s son said his father had been very sick, so it is no surprise that the doctor took his life. So far there is nothing unusual in this story. Until you begin to unravel the man’s history.
He was Dr. Yonah Elian, for two decades the Mossad’s favorite doctor, the man they took along on delicate operations in which they required an anesthesiologist to sedate a victim who was to be kidnapped or otherwise incapacitated. Elian worked especially closely with Rafi Eitan, one of Israel’s storied spymasters who captured Eichmann and less heroically, “ran” Jonathan Pollard. The doctor was part of the team that kidnapped Eichman in Argentina and sedated him so that they could transport him back to Israel where he was later executed.
Elian also inadvertently killed one of the Mossad’s targets on one of these missions. In 1954, the Mossad got word that an Israeli engineer, Capt. Alexander “Avner” Israel, was offering military secrets to the Egyptians in Europe. Dubbing it Operation Bren (p. 4 ff.), they hastily dispatch a team to kidnap him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial for treason. The team found their quarry quickly through the use of a “honeypot” female agent (shades of Mordechai Vanunu) who lured him to a romantic Paris rendezvous. Then Elian sedated him and the victim was hustled off to an Israeli military transport plane. Unfortunately, the plane had to make several refueling stops and each time he was sedated anew. Apparently this anesthesiologist didn’t realize there were limits to how much sedation a human being could take and he gave the man an overdose and he died.
When the plane landed and they discovered they’d killed him they decided there should be no evidence left behind. To accomplish the cover-up, they promptly took off once again and dumped the body in the Mediterranean Sea. Isser Harel, then Mossad chief, never told the victim’s family a word about the man’s death. No compensation was ever offered for the murder. As Prof. Shlomo Spiro wrote in a paper on the subject of ethics[!] in the field of Israeli intelligence:
The Mossad then obliterated every reference to the man in Israeli official files, and the case kept secret for five decades. Generations of Mossad officers heard rumors of this failed operation, many knew the details, but nothing was done to inform Alexander’s family or provide for their support.
In those days, Israeli intelligence could obliterate such a failure and so avoid scandal. Not so today, though God knows it tries.
In his comments about Dr. Elian, Rafi Eitan lied when he said that the doctor never compromised his Hippocratic Oath. Of course he did. Certainly when he killed the IDF officer, but arguably even when he helped capture Eichmann. Yes, you may argue that Eichmann was one of the world’s great mass murderers and that anything that could be done to apprehend him should be done. But a doctor lives by a different professional standard. And a doctor may not use his medical expertise in a way that will lead to the death of a patient.
I wonder what Dr. Elian thought of these moral conundrums with which he lived when he died. If he had any he rarely expressed them. Even to his family. But several years before his death, Dr. Elian did tell his son (Hebrew) that he was terribly conflicted about what he’d done to Eichmann because it violated his Hippocratic oath. Every attempt by the family to remind him of the significance of bringing the great Nazi monster to justice fell on death ears, the son recounts.
When the Knesset attempted to give Dr. Elian a certificate of appreciation for his service to the country, he would only accept it anonymously and would not attend the ceremony himself. He sent his son in his place.
The doctor’s son also tells the strange story of how he parted with his father before he left for the Eichmann operation. Dr. Elian woke his twins and told them he would be away on business in Eilat for a few days. Over a week later he returned with a gift–a toy pistol with an ivory handle. The son remembers marveling at the gift and thinking what wonderful things they had in Eilat!
Despite this, one can tell that this was a man of depth, subtlety and nuance. A man who realized the moral contradictions of the life he lived. A man haunted by ghosts. This is everything that today’s Israel is not. Today’s Israel has no moral doubts. It only has certainties. As a result it can do much more damage than Dr. Elian. At least he stopped his service to the Mossad when Rafi Eitan ceased his role as chief of operations for the Mossad.
Certainly, I can’t argue that a man who lived out a long life was thinking of the ways he failed his professional oath as he took his life. After all, if this was highest in his mind he might’ve done so earlier. Likely, a terminal illness served as the motivating force for his last act. But still…
This story takes on added significance in light of the knowledge that U.S. doctors have collaborated with the CIA and military intelligence in the interrogation and torture of Al Qaeda suspects, thus violating their Hippocratic Oath. This has led to various professional organizations condemning exploitation of their profession for the sake of intelligence gathering.
In fact, the Israeli Medical Association has taken a similar stand here. But there remain numerous reports (and here) of doctors who betray the ethics of their profession in service to the spymasters and torturers. At least Dr. Elian had the good conscience to regret his collaboration.