Israelis Don't Care if the State Is Spying on Them

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An IDF intelligence base.
An IDF intelligence base. Credit: David Bachar

The archive of the Haganah, the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews, is held in the museum devoted to the organization, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. It includes the archive of Shai (an acronym of the Hebrew for “information service”), the Haganah’s intelligence unit, which operated in the 1940s, gathering information about the country’s Arabs, British Mandate officials, the German Templers and the other Zionist undergrounds – the Irgun and Lehi. But those groups were not their only targets. They also spied on ordinary people who were perceived as being suspect in some way, dubious or susceptible to blackmail and exploitation.

A perusal of the archival files reveals the sheer volume of gossip-based information the Haganah collected, in common with the other underground groups. The Haganah wiretapped telephones in cafés and drugstores, ran a network of informants who picked up rumors and scraps of information about people, and carried out searches in the homes of people who were considered odd.

“Corrupt guy,” “rumors have circulated that he beat his wife,” “tried to commit suicide” – these are a small selection of the findings that were recorded in the files of Shai; along with, “she’s known as a harlot,” “has frequent nervous attacks,” “he says he invented a way to turn oranges into wool”; and: “homosexualist,” “dumb fellow,” “informer and bastard.”

The Irgun’s intelligence unit, known as Delek, collected information based on gossip with equal enthusiasm. A 1945 file, for example, contains details about a 50-year-old Herzliya man whose wife was said to be cheating on him with Jews and Englishmen alike. The source of the item elaborates: “He doesn’t like his youngest son because it’s whispered in Herzliya that he looks like a certain Englishman who used to court his wife.” That’s the sort of intelligence, among others, that our excellent boys came up with.

The intelligence collected by the organizations was based mainly on reports supplied by informants. The organizations were aware that some of the latter were out to settle personal accounts by means of bad-mouthing, but even so the intelligence services did not balk at using them. An especially close watch was kept on people who expressed nonconformist political views, such as Brit Shalom, an Arab-Jewish movement that promoted a binational state. In cases that were perceived as treasonous, the underground groups held a drumhead court martial and took action against purported traitors. In a few dozen cases, individuals who were considered to be traitors were actually executed. But with thousands of others the groups simply collected information.

An uneasy feeling crops up as one looks through the files of the intelligence services from the period of the underground organizations. Many people were kept under surveillance even though they had not committed any offense – they were simply considered “dubious.” But no less frightening is the thought that information of a similar character continued to be gathered even after Israel’s establishment – and it’s very possible that the practice is continuing to this very day. The ranking figures in Shai, among them Isser Be’eri and Isser Harel, afterward headed Military Intelligence of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, respectively. The Shai documents continued to serve the new organizations, and were likely expanded.

An article by Yossi Melman published in this newspaper last Friday made public classified documents that show how the Shin Bet spied until the 1980s on the “Canaanites” – a group of writers and poets who espoused a cultural vision that negated Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jewry. Based on research by Dr. Shai Feraro, the article showed that in the period following independence, the Haganah’s surveillance morphed into Shin Bet tracking, carried out by informers and collaborators. Inevitably, this raises the question of which groups of authors, artists or other citizens the Shin Bet has under surveillance today.

The answers to those questions will remain unknown for the foreseeable future. In any event, the Israeli public doesn’t seem especially eager to learn about the modes of activity of the intelligence organizations that operate in its name – it is apparently content with public relations reports that depict magnificent operations. Almost total legitimacy is afforded here to whatever means these organizations choose to adopt: All is justified in the name of security. Thus, whereas other countries are often shocked at revelations about unlawful activity by their intelligence services, in Israel indifference reigns on this subject.

In 2015, German public opinion was jolted when it became known that the country’s intelligence bodies had collected, on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency, information about companies and individual citizens. If a similar event were to occur in Israel, the media and most of the public would probably respond with a shrug of the shoulders. The prevailing conception here is that all means are legitimate as long as they serve the ends of our side.

A 2012 exhibition called “Top Secret” at the spy museum in Oberhausen, Germany, spotlighting the KGB, the CIA and the East German Stasi. Credit: Martin Meissner/AP

Lives of others

There are museums in Germany devoted to the activity of the Stasi, the East German intelligence organization. Visitors can have their pictures taken next to wiretapping devices and cameras that were employed to spy on citizens of the communist country. Educational exhibitions tell about the millions of people whom the Stasi kept under surveillance for decades, and films such as “The Lives of Others” depict its agents’ terrible methods.

The Stasi was indeed a monstrous organization: It’s difficult to find parallels for the vast scope of East Germany’s surveillance of its citizens. But that is not the reason that the Stasi’s espionage methods are open to the public’s scrutiny. The reason is that the East German state ceased to exist, so that no significant political force remained to protect its “good” name. Stasi personnel tried to destroy the files, but citizens who broke into its offices prevented them from proceeding and were able to save most of the documents.

The files of the Shai, too, are available for public perusal only because the Haganah was dismantled and no longer exists. The day may come when the Shin Bet will also be dismantled and its archive will be opened to the public. Until then, Israel’s citizens can only imagine what types of information is being collected about them.

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