Why the Mossad Must Remain an Intelligence Service for All Jews

Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman

The actual destination for the bombs cleverly disguised as innocent shipments of printer ink, sent last weekend by the world jihad network (usually described by its generic name, Al-Qaida ) operating in Yemen, remains unclear. According to one assessment, addressing them to Jewish synagogues in Chicago was merely a ploy and the packages were to explode inside airplanes mid-flight. Another estimation holds the bombs were indeed intended to reach the synagogues.

In either case, the thwarting of the attacks - thanks to precise intelligence - has once again drawn attention to the risks lying in wait for Jewish communities around the world. If in the past such attacks were motivated by anti-Semitism, over the last decade they have stemmed from Islamic extremism.

The scene after Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue was attacked in 2003.Credit: AP

Since September 11, 2001, attempted attacks have been made on synagogues in Istanbul and the island of Djerba in Tunisia, on Jewish institutions and property in Morocco, and on a number of community centers in the United States, including in New York - and this is just a partial list of the larger and well-known incidents. Scores of other plots were thwarted at an early stage, or never ripened into operational planning.

Israeli intelligence services have always seen themselves as responsible not only for Israeli citizens' security, but also for that of Jewish communities abroad. This doctrine - of "the Jewish people's intelligence services" - can be traced back to the Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet, a branch of the Haganah underground that brought in illegal Jewish immigrants under the nose of the British Mandate, and remained in operation after the establishment of the state.

Two units were designated as the successors to the Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet, which was disbanded in 1952. The more secret of the two was the Mossad's Bitzur unit, tasked with overseeing the immigration of Jews from countries where their lives were in danger as well as protecting Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The other, Nativ, encouraged immigration from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain was charged with issuing immigration visas, establishing cultural centers and keeping track of any manifestations of anti-Semitism.

Over the years, the two units received help from Jewish welfare organizations, particularly the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The relationship between the American body and the intelligence community in Israel had begun even before the state's establishment, in the days of Joseph Joshua (Joe ) Schwartz, the director of the JDC in Europe. His fascinating life story is told in a new book, "I Am Joseph thy Brother" (in Hebrew ), by Ruth Bachi Kolodny.

During the time of the Holocaust, Schwartz financed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, kept track of the transports to Auschwitz, and rescued Jews and sent them to the Land of Israel. After the Holocaust, despite objections from the donors and top directors of the JDC, he persuaded them to send about a million dollars - a huge sum of money in those days - to help the illegal immigration operations being carried out by the Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet. This sensitive relationship continued throughout the years, with the JDC contributing money, manpower, training and a number of other things best left unspecified in operations that brought in Jews from Yemen, Syria, the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Dramatic shift

In recent years, however, there has been a dramatic shift, which for some reason has not entered the public discourse. Most countries now allow their Jews to emigrate unimpeded. The only reason Jews continue to live in those countries, even though they are harassed from time to time, is because they do not want to leave - each individual for his own reasons, sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes related to their families.

The American JDC is finding itself gradually returning to the foundations on which it was established at the start of the 20th century - welfare and aid programs for Jewish communities around the world. Bitzur and especially Nativ have found it difficult in recent years to determine how to define their mission.

In this context, more and more individuals at the Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and the Mossad, have been pushing to shut these two units down. But someone always comes to their defense. In recent years, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has served as Nativ's guardian angel.

The head of Nativ, Naomi Ben-Ami, believes her organization, whose 70 employees include emissaries abroad, plays an important role.

"In addition to issuing immigration visas in the Commonwealth of Independent States [the former Soviet Union republics], we have been acting in recent years under a government decision concerning ties to the State of Israel - distinct from matters of Jewish identity in which various organizations, among them the Jewish Agency, are taking an interest," she says.

When asked how connections to Israel come into play, Ben-Ami says: "We are trying to reach a very broad target audience in the former Soviet Union and tell people that they are entitled to immigrate to Israel. Many of them are completely unaware of this."

Bitzur's renewal

As for Bitzur, proposals have been made at the Mossad to shut it down. The unit's status within the espionage agency became shaky, it manpower was reduced and its administrative classification was narrowed. However, in the wake of recent terror threats to Jewish communities, the unit - which now has the status of a division (between a department and a branch ) - is experiencing a renewal.

Israel's concern for Jews who are citizens of other countries is a very delicate issue, as it could be interpreted as interference in those countries' domestic affairs. Would Israel allow, for instance, France or Russia to teach self-defense to their former citizens residing in Israel? Of course not. Nevertheless it is a fact that, through Bitzur, Israel has done this - as it did in the 1950s to protect the Jews of Morocco, Tunisia and Algiers, and in the 1960s in South America (mainly Argentina and Uruguay ).

Based on such precedents, one can only assume that the governments of Israel continue to find ways to implement the doctrine of "Jewish intelligence." This is done mainly through close cooperation with intelligence communities and police forces abroad. In fact, every month in one country or another, information is uncovered about world jihad activists gathering intelligence on Jewish institutions - photographing, conducting surveillance and even leaving dummy bombs - in Europe, North America and Asia. To counter these threats, the security chief of Jewish communities in cooperation with the respective local security services and police forces, as well as the "Jewish intelligence," have in recent years stepped up their preparedness to tackle any terrorist threat.