The Legacy of Treachery

Mata Hari, Vidkun Quisling, Lord Haw Haw, Udi Adiv and Jonathan Pollard all have something in common: The ability to lie and to manipulate people and situations - and the motivation to do so. These are the criteria that have characterized traitors throughout history, sociologist Prof. Nahman Ben-Yehuda reveals in his new book.

Daphna Lewy
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Daphna Lewy

Unlike the telephone book, which is said to have too many characters and too little plot, Prof. Nahman Ben-Yehuda's new book has plot to spare. In addition, "Betrayers and Treason: Violation of Trust and Loyalty" has a fascinating array of protagonists whose exploits have stirred the imagination, inspired poems and plays, ignited social and nationalist passions and, in some cases, remained hidden for decades before eventually being revealed.

The protagonists of Ben-Yehuda's book include Mata Hari, Benedict Arnold, Harold (Kim) Philby, Cicero, Ernest Hemingway, Daniel Defoe, Mordechai Vanunu, Graham Greene, Galileo, Vidkun Quisling and Jonathan Pollard. While their individual stories are vastly divergent, all are linked by one major factor - or so the author thought before embarking on his research: All were accused of treason.

The dean of the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a sociologist, Ben-Yehuda has researched various types of social deviance for years and found treason to be an alluring subject. But the further he delved into it, the more ambiguous the topic became. His original working definitions had to be made more flexible, and he became much less certain than he had been at the outset that all of the persons whose actions are analyzed in "Betrayers and Treason" genuinely deserved to be called "traitors."

His previous book, "Retzah Politi" ("Political Murder"), surveyed political assassinations committed by Jews over the last century. In a good number of the instances described in it, the assassins sought to justify their actions by accusing their victims of treason. Most of the cases took place before the establishment of the state, and most of the victims - 60 percent - were also Jews: "The underground movements did make declarations to the effect that their objective was to liberate the homeland, but once they were already using political assassination as a tool, they directed most of their energy toward killing other Jews and not Brits or Arabs, explaining that they were cleansing the ranks of traitors."

After mulling over this apparent paradox, Ben-Yehuda decided to study treason, which he describes as a violation of trust, a breach of loyalty or interpersonal betrayal, but primarily as political betrayal or betrayal of the homeland.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had earlier been called a traitor by certain segments of the public, served as an impetus for Ben-Yehuda's research. He collected stories from all over the world and from different eras in history in which the word "traitor" featured prominently - though it's unclear how much this designation still applies in certain cases.

Universal category

Ben-Yehuda says his 401-page book, published recently by Westview, a British publishing house (as part of its "Crime and Society" series), is intended primarily to "raise questions" concerning an emotionally charged subject.

"I wanted to see whether the concept of treason exists in all cultures and whether it is a universal moral category. I found that the answer is affirmative. In every instance in which treason occurred, there was a violation of trust and breach of loyalty on the part of someone who putatively belonged to a certain group and acted in opposition to that group's norms."

Do you feel that the Israeli soldiers who are refusing to serve in the occupied territories fit into this category, as right-wing circles claim?

Prof. Ben-Yehuda: "This is a problematic issue. This is not a case of breach of trust, which is one of the bases for treason, but rather of people who are declaring in advance their unwillingness to fight because of reasons of conscience. The state needs to consider whether it is capable of coping with this. It allows the ultra-Orthodox, for example, not to serve due to reasons of conscience. So why not do the same for pacifists? On the other hand, this is a phenomenon that a regime most fears because refusal to serve in the army is an act of defiance that shakes the very foundation of its authority."

Those who are refusing to serve in the territories are not concealing their position - on the contrary: Many of them are stating it loudly in public.

Ben-Yehuda: "An act that is defined as treason is usually perpetrated secretly since, in every culture, there is the distinct sense that actions committed openly cannot possibly constitute treason. An accusation of treason also depends on various factors ... In the case of Quisling, whose name has become a synonym for traitor, it's not entirely clear what he betrayed. Yes, he founded a Nazi party in Norway, but he did this openly without ever hiding his intentions."

The book covers a fascinating selection of incidents, including cases from both world wars, radio broadcasts of false propaganda of the type aired by "Lord Haw Haw," betrayals by intellectuals such as Ezra Pound or Knute Hamson, and betrayals in Jewish history and in the State of Israel.

"Our society bestows the title of `traitor' on people very easily. Like every society facing high-pressure situations, it seeks to draw clear lines between who is on its side and who it believes is endangering it or standing on the opposite side. Condemning someone as a traitor is a clear way of demarcating the boundaries of who is considered OK, of who is ostensibly working for the good of the society or the group."

Ben-Yehuda gives scant attention to the motives of traitors or those accused of treason. Be it money, sex or ideology, such motivations are difficult to assess and, in his opinion, may depend on the whims of those involved: Someone who has been arrested and accused of treason may claim ideological motives and even convince himself that such was truly the case - and then go on to evince completely different motives in the course of his investigation, trial and time spent in prison, as well as in reaction to society's responses.

Betrayal occurs within a social situation, he says, and one person's traitor is another group's hero. As far as Ben-Yehuda is concerned, Mata Hari, whose photo graces the cover of "Betrayers and Treason," does not deserve the title of traitor. Though she was executed by the French, who charged her with treason and spying for Germany during World War I, she never owed any loyalty to French society, he says. She is on the cover because her story merits discussion, precisely because of the common tendency to confuse every instance of espionage or transfer of classified information with genuine treason.

Udi Adiv, on the other hand, is undeniably a traitor, according to Ben-Yehuda. He belonged to a Jewish-Arab group that supplied intelligence information to the Syrians. Adiv, a paratrooper who fought in the Six-Day War and an outstanding basketball player, visited Damascus and was trained there. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison for espionage and treason despite claiming that he had never passed on vital information and expressing remorse for his actions (though not for the motivations behind them). While in prison, he married Sylvia Klingberg, the daughter of Marcus Klingberg, a man who was eventually revealed to be a Soviet spy. They divorced after three years.

"Adiv came from the heart of the Jewish collective in Israel. His decision to help Syria, an enemy state, was essentially a decision to violate the trust placed in him and his loyalty to the country, and thus, in Israel, his name became synonymous with treachery," says Ben-Yehuda.

Becoming a traitor, he notes, is easy and requires just a few basic characteristics: the ability to lie and to manipulate people and situations, and the motivation to do so. Yet, despite the fact that human beings find it very easy to lie and to justify immoral behavior, most "display loyalty to the framework in which they live, especially the political or social framework, even if they may betray others in their personal lives. Even though such betrayals are often very easy to prove, they are largely outside the province of the law."

Nonetheless, the tendency in every culture is to punish traitors to the homeland severely. Why?

Ben-Yehuda: "Because of the intensity of the threat. Trust is an important factor in societal cohesion. And when that trust is violated, the soundness of that society and its ability to survive is perceived to be under real threat."

From this perspective, treason may also be considered a type of social deviance, albeit a serious type, but one that exists in society just like rape, murder and robbery. The way different types of deviance are ranked and the intensity with which society reacts to them changes with time.

An example of betrayal that is open to question, and about which views have changed with the time, is the case of Malinsi, from 16th-century Mexico. When Hernan Cortes was conquering Mexico, a local woman named Malinsi was reputed to have aided him in his efforts. A captive slave girl, she became Cortes' lover and served him as interpreter, mediator and guide. She was dubbed "la Malinche" ("the traitoress") by the native Indians, and her name became synonymous with betrayal and everything that was rotten in Mexico.

According to Ben-Yehuda, in Spanish sources, Malinsi is described as a heroine who was even deserving of having a volcano named for her. The Spaniards consider her worthy of honor and esteem for the important role she played in the conquest. The Aztecs, of course, saw her as an arch-traitor.

"Treason is the only transgression that is explicitly mentioned in the American constitution," says Ben-Yehuda. "It's an attempt to define clear social boundaries, because this is an extremely threatening thing. It's as if the traitor is saying to the society that it cannot tell him how to behave, that he has no loyalty to the central government and that he alone will determine his political boundaries. Let's say he doesn't agree with the government's policy and believes that he's waging a just struggle against it. Most traitors ... think that it is the social mainstream that has lost its way. Every regime will view this as a very dangerous stance, since it has no way to deal with it."

If treason is so difficult to prove, why is it so easy to make the accusation? Why does the law go beyond punishing a person to defining that person as a traitor and punishing him for breach of loyalty as well?

"Because it's a way of engendering social integration, of making a sharp demarcation of values. When society unites against a traitor, all kinds of things are suddenly made clear. Suddenly, it's clear what is OK and what isn't, value-wise. The cognitive conflict [over] who we are and who is against us disappears. The traitor unites us. He's on the outside and we're all standing opposite him, together.

"Look what happened in Germany: Before the Nazis came to power, Hitler was accused and convicted there of treason, but after coming to power, it became clear that, in the eyes of the Germany, his ideology was not considered treason and it was his opponents who were the traitors."

During the four years that he devoted to his research on the subject, Ben-Yehuda spent much time in the British War Museum in London, listening to tape recordings of "Lord Haw Haw," a Briton named William Joyce, who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Hamburg to his countrymen. His broadcasts always opened with the famous line, "Germany calling! Germany calling!" The museum possessed tapes that had been kept by the British MI5 intelligence agency.

"It was really frightening," says Ben-Yehuda, playing samples for his interviewer, "because he's so convincing, regardless of the false information he was broadcasting, which was intended to lower the morale of the British forces and the British population. The man lies in a very authoritative tone, in a perfect British accent. I asked myself: Whom did he really betray? After all, he was the No. 2 man in Oswald Mosley's fascist party and never hid his Nazi sympathies.

"There's no question that he did things that were very threatening to Britain, but can this be called treason? I have my doubts, because he never made any pretense of belonging to the collective, opposite which he stood. Lord Haw Haw received a medal from the Germans and was executed by the British. He didn't hide his views and [the British] were not surprised by his deeds, but they had a need to take revenge on him."

Another Briton from the same era whom many regard as a traitor, though he was never officially declared as such, was King Edward VIII. Ben-Yehuda says British intelligence had in its possession a recording of a conversation between him and Hitler. The recording disappeared after the war, and many historians agree that Edward's abdication was not only due to his love for the American divorcee Wallace Simpson, but also, and perhaps primarily, due to his Nazi sympathies.

Deeds of deviance

Ben-Yehuda says that the desire to brand someone a traitor, to apply this uncompromising definition, derives from "the wish to discover how they differ from us, what it is about their inner essence that is twisted and alien. So we stigmatize them and assign them a motivation. We ascribe motives to them that they may not have." Ben-Yehuda acknowledges that, as his research progressed, his determination to label the various deeds of his protagonists as treason was shaken. In fact, by the time he finished writing, he was more convinced than ever that espionage is not treason, that it is part of the international political game and does not automatically merit punishment by execution - that it should be treated like any other crime. He does not believe that the law should deal with the category of "treason" per se, but should set clear punitive guidelines for specific types of actions and not deal in questions of loyalty, nationalist feelings, impairment of societal solidarity, and so on.

"All this is very problematic and open to endless interpretations," he explains. "Take the story of Mordechai Vanunu, for example. I have no doubt that he is being severely punished for the serious threat that his actions caused Israeli society - not because his actions could truly be described as treason, and even though he took himself completely out of the collective, both when he converted to Christianity and ... by revealing secrets he knew as a worker in a nuclear facility.

"Certainly, some will argue that this was not treason, but an act aimed at saving Israelis from the actions of those in power, and that he did what he did not to serve the enemy, but for the good of his nation ... But the state nonetheless feels very threatened by him and by what he symbolizes."