Big Brother: When Secrecy Becomes a Norm in Israel, It Comes With a Price

This norm makes it difficult to distinguish between morality and its opposite – and that’s how an innocent physician became an accomplice to murder.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

Norms are invisible but powerful entities. They exist in every social group and are at the foundation of most people’s behavior. Even if they are not always conscious, they compel us to act in predictable ways. They command us to take a lost wallet back to its owner; to offer our seat to an elderly person; not to cut ahead in line. Norms are the quiet voice inside that compels us to be good, honorable, or reputable.

This is the reason why norms are the holy grail of sociologists. Indeed, one of the most puzzling questions sociology tries to answer is: How is it that different people behave in similar and predictable ways even when no one visibly forces them to do so? The answer is simple through the norms they learn and absorb from their environment. More than that: Through their capacity to observe its norms, people make themselves into competent members of a group. When they internalize a group norm, people acquire built-in sensors that help them figure out without much thinking what is allowed or forbidden, moral or immoral.

This is also why normative change is intriguing: what makes some norms become irrelevant or new ones emerge? For example, in powerful studies, the sociologist Norbert Elias demonstrated that in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, new norms were “invented.” These included the (then new) prohibition to eat with one’s hands; to take food from a common plate with the same fingers that a second ago had wiped a runny nose; to fart or burp in public; to urinate or defecate in the close vicinity of other people, etc. What were new norms in the 15th century are now considered so natural that we do not even see this behavior as the result of norms.

Powerful norms are thus so routinized that they become invisible; they act like a frame within which we organize our behavior and feelings. We do not see the frame, but it constrains our actions and shapes what we “instinctively” view as permissible, worthy, and a source of pride (or shame). Norms are both what makes us want to give our seat to an elderly person, and the feeling of guilt or shame we feel if we fail to offer our help. A norm, then, does not necessarily shape our behavior, but it shapes our response to the failure to uphold it. It is the norm not the act itself that makes us uncomfortable about throwing out a piece of chewing gum in a street in Switzerland and perfectly comfortable about leaving empty bottles on a public beach in Tel Aviv. This is also why “norms” and “normal” are the same word: Normal is nothing but the name we give to what norms silently dictate.

How are norms created and/or enforced? The answer is not straightforward. Sometimes a single powerful person is enough to create a norm. Take the example of Refik Veseli, a 17-year-old Muslim Albanian boy, who during World War II risked his life while hiding a Jewish family (the Mandils) from the Nazis; his act inspired a whole village of similar Muslims to do so, at the risk of their own lives. But more often, norms are linked to a powerful institution. For example, patriarchy connected to the institution of marriage allowed men to have sexual relations outside marriage, but prohibited women to do so. Or the institution of marriage itself connected to the institution of private property becomes a norm that stigmatizes unmarried women as “old maids.”

Institutions are able to secure appropriate mechanisms to uphold a norm, mechanisms that range from formal (prison, fines, etc.) to informal punishments (ridiculing, stigmatizing, shaming, excluding). Finally, a norm is usually repeated across a wide variety of social and cultural contexts. It is this repetition that gives it power, making it into an invisible and powerful property of our thinking. For example, detective novels and movies repeat countless times the norms contained in the legal system, the education system, and the institution of the police namely, that misdemeanor and crime are reprehensible, will be discovered and punished.

Why do countries or organizations differ so drastically in their normative structure? Why are there countries in which bribes are common, and others where bribery is considered a despicable infringement of public trust? Why is it that in some countries, a politician caught lying must resign, while in others (such as our own), lying is seen as a routine component of public affairs? The answer to these two questions is not that some countries have norms and others don’t, but rather that in both contexts, it is different institutions that shape their respective norms.

***

Maria Zkotsky is a doctor of Russian origin who came to live in Israel many years ago. She works as an anesthesiologist in an Israeli hospital. About six years ago, she met a man Shimon Cooper who was, he told her, an agent of the Mossad, the prestigious Intelligence Agency of Israel. As many or all of its members, he claimed he was entrusted with highly secret knowledge and with many difficult and delicate missions, some of which involved killing enemies of the country. One day, he asked Maria to help him accomplish a difficult mission: killing an enemy of the country. He asked Maria to help, because the Mossad had told him he must accomplish this mission alone: He must find a drug that can kill, yet be undetectable. Being an anesthesiologist, Dr. Maria Zkotsky provided him with the drug he required, understanding full well that it can and will kill someone. A few months later, she was arrested for providing help to her boyfriend for what turned out to have been the grisly murder of the man’s wife.

In an interview, Dr. Maria Zkotsky explained herself: “Our relationship was fantastic. ... He told me that he had been a Mossad agent for 25 years, working in a special assassinations unit. He told me of missions to Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and I believed him ... About six months before Jenny was killed he started telling me about an assassination mission in the United States and expressed interest in drugs that could kill someone without leaving a trace ... I told him everything I know. I felt like I was serving the country.”

This affair has all the elements of a B movie: love between a native man and a foreign, Russian woman, trust given and trust betrayed, the faking of a prestigious position in a powerful state agency, a wife’s murder, the threat of an enemy of the state, secret services. It turned out that this man had murdered two previous wives in similar circumstances, managed to fool the police about the strange similarity of their untimely death, pretended for six years to be Maria Zkotsky’s devoted boyfriend when he was actually married, and played the part of a secret agent of the powerful Mossad.

The story mixes many genres low sexual drama, cold-blooded crime, the story of a con-man, high national drama. But what is intriguing, even fascinating in the story is the way in which it reflects a profound sense of the normality of Israeli society. The story has two levels: the faked one (who the man pretended to be), and the real one (who he was in fact). The police and the public are interested in the real one who he really was, what he really did or did not do, the real facts of the murder. Sociologists are interested in the fake dimension of the story that is, how the appearance of normality is created, both for Dr. Zkotsky and for the ordinary reader of this story.

How could a woman who seems to be, by any standard, a normal, dutiful citizen, become the unknown accomplice of a grisly murderer? It is because this man Shimon Cooper appealed to a widespread sense of normality.

Maria Zkotsky is a physician, an anesthesiologist committed to the duties of her profession. Doctors are the most regulated of all professionals. By definition, the profession of medicine requires a large number of stringent ethical concerns for the lives of human beings. A doctor is someone who is trained and obligated to value human life and to save it. Few medical specialties demand as much trust as anesthesiology.

Anesthesiology consists of bringing patients to a state of unconsciousness so as to prevent them from feeling pain, and then waking them from a slumber that looks like death. How then could this doctor, trained in the valuation of life, who can resuscitate people in a quasi-coma, become the (unknowing) accomplice of a criminal act? Of course, the reader who prefers a short and lazy analysis will think that the answer is simple that it can be found in her psychological failings. As a Channel 2 journalist asked Dr. Zkotsky, rather harshly: “So are you naive, or are you stupid?”

Sociologists take a different approach. They assume that as a member of a social group, Dr. Zkotsky is in all likelihood a competent member of her group. She decided to help Shimon Cooper because his request fell within a certain range of what was normatively acceptable to her. Very few people except for criminals act outside the framework of the range of allowed behavior. I do not say that any woman would have acquiesced to Cooper’s request. I am simply suggesting that something about the range of possible normative behaviors in Israeli society made his request plausible to a woman who is a competent member of her society. It is such plausibility we must investigate. We must ask what in his request seemed credible to her, so she could go along with it; for the police to accept it as evidence of her innocence; and for the reader who, I assume, understands what she meant when she said, “I thought I was helping my country.” In short, what made Dr. Zkotsky feel she was a dutiful citizen when she helped a presumed Mossad agent kill an unknown person with lethal and undetectable drugs?

***

Close friends of mine, with whom I often have dinner on Friday nights, have a son who recently started an intensive course for a top army intelligence unit. When we sat down to dinner one Friday evening, I was stunned and dismayed to see that his mother’s curious questions about his new activities were met with utter silence. She tried to understand the nature of the material he was learning, who were his teachers, which function he would perform in short, what these long days, starting at 7 A.M. and ending at midnight, were made of. To her questions, he frequently answered, “It is secret. I cannot tell.” With time, my friend has learned to tiptoe around these questions, and has taught herself not to ask them. She has learned to accept that secrecy is the ritual by which men (and some women) learn to differentiate themselves from the ordinary life of families, fathers, mothers, wives, children and old people.

As I myself slowly came to realize, secrecy powerfully structures this society in a way that is entirely unique to Israel. It divides husbands from wives, mothers from sons and marks the powerful and overwhelming presence of the state between the soup and the fish. Secrecy binds (mostly) men to their country, drives a wedge between them and their family, and teaches women not to ask questions. The secrecy of men is what women must learn to accept, and what they accept in it is the powerful, indestructible bond of solidarity of men to the state and to other men similarly engaged in secrecy.

***

The Mossad is Israel’s intelligence agency. An intelligence agency operates under cover and hides its activities from others. In that, the Mossad’s mission resembles that of similar intelligence agencies in the rest of the world (gathering information on potential enemies of the state inside and outside the borders of Israel). But the Mossad has a specificity that other such agencies do not: It is entrusted with the mission of defending the Jewish people worldwide. This can include bringing endangered Jews to Israel or punishing enemies of the Jewish people, understood as all the Jewish communities everywhere in the world.

For example, it was the Mossad that kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and brought him to Israel for trial in 1961, and hunted down the perpetrators of the Mombasa terror attack in 2002, which claimed three lives. The Mossad’s scope of action thus reaches beyond territorial boundaries, and has the quasi-spiritual mission of defending the entire Jewish people wherever it is endangered. In that sense, through the Mossad, Israel is a state without borders, for its connection to the Jews reaches wherever they are. It also means that the operations of Israel’s secret services are entrusted with tremendous moral power (indeed, what could be given greater legitimacy than the act and fact of defending that spiritual entity called “the Jewish people”?).

The agency plays a powerful role in regulating what it perceives to be the failure or reluctance of other countries to fight effectively those who endanger the security of the State of Israel and Jews worldwide. This is why one of its main missions is to track down and kill those who hide in Arab countries. The Mossad is thought to be behind assassinations such as that of an Iranian nuclear scientist in 2012; Fathi Shkaki, the leader of Islamic Jihad, in 1995; and Gerald Bull, the Canadian inventor of the Iraqi “supergun,” in 1990. The Israeli media treat the Mossad’s successful operations with pride, relief, and an odd sense of power when the small Jewish people exacts revenge from the big and hostile world of non-Jews.

It is in those moments of pride, relief, and empowerment that we know an institution has become a source of normativity it shapes what we value. To say this is not to express an opinion on the quality of the Mossad leaders. Rather, it is to point out that some organizations are so powerful that they are able to create norms, regardless of the quality or intentions of their leaders.

The Mossad is not the only agency of its kind. It powerfully resonates with many others similar to it. In “The Gatekeepers,” the remarkable film by Dror Moreh, six former heads of the Shin Bet, or Shabak Yuval Diskin, Avraham Shalom, Carmi Gillon, Jacob Perry, Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon are interviewed about the activities of the agency. Without knowing it, these men speak like sociologists, retracing the emergence of new norms shaped by the organization they headed, norms they were not fully aware of, even when implementing them. What are these norms? This is how I would translate what they said:

1. The former heads of the Shin Bet discuss the policy of targeted assassination, which began in the occupied territories in the 1980s, but were fully implemented in the 1990s. In the film, it is connected to the Bus 300 affair of 1984, in which Palestinians who had seized a bus were captured by Shin Bet forces who managed to overcome them; instead of being brought to trial, the Palestinians were killed. At the time, the affair showed the relative power of Israeli respect for the rule of law, because it became a scandal (even if witnesses lied about the facts). But what was then a scandal slowly turned into a systematic policy of targeted assassination. (I think there is an analytical distinction between the Bus 300 affair and targeted assassinations, but one may wonder if their effects on society are not similar.)

Killing people even enemies of the state without submitting them to the rule of law sends powerful messages to society. One is that the state has the right, the sovereignty and the power to do as it pleases, to violate international law and to violate territorial boundaries, in order to take revenge upon actual and potential enemies of the state. The state defends a primitive form of justice that bypasses laws and courts. In so doing, the state presents itself as above civil society, defined as that which protects citizens from arbitrary power and violence. This violates basic tenets of democracy because the state does not reflect the citizens’ sovereignty, but quite the opposite: it is the citizen who must carry the demands of the state. The second message is that violence presents itself as the routine, accepted form of operation used by the state to solve its problems. Violence becomes normalized, in fact it becomes invisible, because it becomes the norm.

2. Diskin insightfully suggests that the work of the Shin Bet is based on a vision of the world as divided between foes and friends. In other words, the professional vocation of the agency to track down and find enemies dictates modes of thinking that are binary. This has at least two results. The first is a cognitive one: In dividing the world neatly between friends and foes, modes of thinking become simplistic, black and white. As Diskin himself put it: The decision-makers did not like thinking of several options at once. When a decision had to be made, it had to be boiled down to two options, to either-or thinking. That such thinking is unlikely to foster creativity and complexity is obvious, but it also weakens the cognitive and emotional capacity to see the world in neutral terms, as a set of processes to be understood independently of whether they are for or against the Jews. Second, such a dichotomous mode of dividing the world fosters a paranoid way of thinking, whose main purpose is to identify and destroy enemies. This mentality of ‘us vs. them,’ ‘enemies vs. friends’ penetrates deeply into civil society. How does it impact on civil society? In that it bases social solidarity on fear of a common enemy. What gets occluded is a positive solidarity, one that evolves from the universalist consciousness and the desire to defend human rights and justice for all human beings, regardless of their ethnic or religious membership.

3. The result of this is to make morality irrelevant to human affairs. Defining the world as friend or foe, justifies the perception that anyone who is not a friend is automatically a foe. Having so many foes in turn justifies ignoring morality. As Avraham Shalom says with a sarcastic smile during the film: Morality has nothing to do with fighting terror. When you fight, you only want to win. Indeed, a state that fights what it defines as “terror” allows itself, by definition, to bypass morality, because it can see the other, by definition, only as an existential threat, and because it experiences itself as under a permanent state of existential threat. This is also why torture and abuse become routine ways to treat the enemy: They are only the instruments to reach the goal of weakening the enemy. The idea that you can and should in fact violate the body and dignity of your enemies in order to achieve your purpose maximum security becomes a routine way of thinking, making us oblivious to the otherness and vulnerability of another.

4. Finally, the Shin Bet, like the Mossad, operates in secrecy. Secrecy looks like a glamorous attribute of organizations and people. The Mossad, the Shin Bet, the IDF intelligence corps Haman and other such units in the army, the numerous and varied security services provided by the state and private companies all of these occupy a large segment of Israeli society and an even larger segment of Israeli male society. I would even venture to offer a rough estimate that one in five men who are or were on active duty learns at some point or another in his life the imperative of secrecy in one form or another. While the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency remains confined to a very small proportion of American society, the practice of “secrecy” in Israel touches far more significant portions of the population, and spreads accordingly. Secrecy plays such a large part in the formation of the mentality of these men and these groups that we forget to ask about its consequences. By definition, secrecy cannot be checked, balanced, examined or criticized by the public. It forms a habit of acting far from public scrutiny. It also thereby negates the premises of a democratic polity, which is based on transparency. More than that: secrecy teaches contempt for public accountability. It is at the heart of an anti-democratic mentality. It makes people accept that they are not to ask questions (“I cannot tell you what our methods are,” the El Al security officers always tell me rudely). Let me thus make a modest suggestion to solve the sociological mystery with which I started: It is this normative structure that explains Dr. Zkotsky’s behavior. Her collaboration with Cooper was premised on a number of norms:

A) His secrecy this man could not tell her what the mission was is an accepted and even glorified aspect of Israeli society.

B) She did not ask questions, because like my friend of the Friday night dinners, she knows this is what women do: they do not ask the men who go on dangerous missions what their work consists of.

C) Even more disturbing is the naive acceptance that the State of Israel can and in fact must commit murder against a man from another country, if that person is defined as an enemy. Cooper appealed to a very simplistic vision of the world, one based on friends and enemies.

D) The suspension of the rule of law is simply a routine aspect of how Israel conducts its affairs. This, I would argue, is the normative matrix from which Zkotsky drew to become the associate of the criminal Cooper. (We may wonder only wonder if this normative structure of Israeli society does not bear a resemblance to the paranoid and brutal nature of the Soviet state, with which Zkotsky was familiar before she immigrated to Israel.

***

All the Shin Bet heads Diskin, Gillon, Shalom, Dichter, Perry, Ayalon said the same thing: the national-religious camp some of whose members rejoiced at Rabin’s assassination was an outcome of the blind policy of different Israeli governments, of the left and the right, and of the ways in which the Shin Beit implemented a tough policy of surveillance, intimidation, torture, and assassination of Palestinians in the territories. The settler movement grew undisturbed because the Jewish state was quietly serving their interests. Let it be said clearly: The religious settlement movement represents the darkest forces a democratic society can breed: viewing the world as a dangerous enemy, justifying the blatant lack of morality to control and subdue others with violence, making brutality and violence into routine mentalities, and worst of all, wrapping all of this in the blue tallit of Jewish and patriotic values. All of these condemn Israel to becoming one of these countries that are unable to see their own violence. To many Israelis, their own violence somehow always seems magically justified and even moral (for example, see Likud MK Danny Danon, who self-righteously suggested that for every rocket launched at Israel, the IDF should destroy one neighborhood in Gaza).

Indeed, as “The Gatekeepers” makes clear, the settlement phenomenon which included the unlawful seizure of Palestinian land, regular harassment of Palestinians by the army and the settlers, the colonial relationship of lordship, and the routine use of violence were gradual outcomes of the systematic policies of several Israeli governments and of the norms that were gradually enforced by the security agencies and the army. Naftali Bennett and his voters can wrap themselves in the tallit of Jewish spirituality, but the tallith is not big enough to hide the primitive character of their world view. The Jewish values the settlement movement so proudly and loudly promotes, is in fact based on norms of violence and lawlessness (Rabin’s murder was widely approved and Moshe Feiglin has called for civil disobedience). Dr. Maria Zkotsky an involuntary accomplice to a murder is only one of the many links connecting Israeli society to the settlements, in a long chain of norms transformed into a bleak normality.

Shin Bet agents with the Palestinian Majdi Abu Juma'a after the attack on Bus 300, 1984.Credit: Alex Levac
Former heads of the Shin Bet in 'The Gatekeepers.' Clockwise from top left: Jacob Perry, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin.Credit: Screenshot
Shimon Cooper in court. Credit: Nir Keidar
Dr. Maria Zkotsky in court. Credit: Alon Ron

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