“The Mossad Amazons,” by Nissim Mishal and Michael Bar-Zohar (English version forthcoming in April; Ktav Publishing House)
Among all of Israel’s security services, the Mossad has perhaps stirred the greatest curiosity. Its operations abroad, particularly in enemy countries, have long fired imaginations. But its glory has apparently faded a bit in recent decades, as has happened to other Israeli institutions, despite the organization’s somewhat romantic aura of secrecy.
Various shortcomings have overshadowed the national consensus vis-a-vis the Mossad, among them operational failures abroad. These include the botched attempt to assassinate then-Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan in 1997, and the political exploitation of successful espionage operations that once remained a secret for years, like exposure of the Iranian nuclear archives in 2018.
But the Mossad’s secret activities – those we know about, and numerous others that we imagine have happened – along with the organization’s valuable operational and intelligence achievements over the years, are still a source of pride for many Israelis. The Mossad remains a successful Israeli brand, and there’s nothing like a new book that comes out with new revelations about its workings to capture the hearts of readers and to make it a best seller (“The Mossad Amazons” came out in Hebrew last August; the English version is forthcoming).
Veteran Israeli journalist Nissim Mishal has joined forces in writing “The Mossad Amazons” with former lawmaker Michael Bar-Zohar, who has published many biographies of prominent local political figures, including David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres, and many books about local political history and security matters.
A snack, not a meal
In their new book the duo shine a light on a different subject: the role played by women in Mossad operations. A riveting as well as current topic. If in the past stories of female fighters/operatives in various organizations were packaged in a sexist way – focusing, for example, on the targets who were assassinated “after lured by women” – it is about time to show the women working for the Mossad - obviously no less talented, successful or sophisticated than their male peers - their proper respect.
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Among those mentioned in the book is Isabel Pedro, who was assigned in the 1960s by the Mossad, under the auspices of its then-director, Yitzhak Shamir, to conduct operations in Egypt; she succeeded, among other things, to procure the plans for the Aswan Dam. There’s also Cheryl Bentov, known by her code name “Cindy,” who helped capture nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in 1986; Sylvia Rafael, who participated in many Mossad operations around the world, including a failed one in Lillehammer, Norway in 1973, where a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, was shot to death after being mistaken for senior Fatah and PLO figure Ali Hassan Salameh; and Aliza Magen-Halevi, who planned and participated in dozens of operations, and was the first female deputy Mossad chief, in the 1990s. Sarah Aaronsohn – a member of Nili, the Jewish spy network working on behalf of the British in World War I – also gets an honorable mention in the new book as “the first woman fighter in the land of Israel.”
Many books and articles have been written about espionage and intelligence work done by women, but this is the first time a comprehensive story is being told about those in the service of the Mossad - even though many of the dangerous activities in which these and other female agents/fighters participated have been revealed in the past.
Thus, Mishal and Bar-Zohar’s latest collaboration has indeed been a source of curiosity and great expectations, and despite its limitations, it is a very impressive undertaking. The authors interviewed dozens of female Mossad agents and were authorized to describe details never before published about the operations they engaged in, some of them quite recent.
“The Mossad Amazons” is an impressive work in terms of scope. Moreover, the authors were granted permission to mention details never before published, and some of the people featured have never been exposed before, not even by their code names, and their stories are exciting and of national and operational import.
The book also has a promising beginning: a very brief chapter called “A woman fighter speaks,” a monologue by a female Mossad operative referred to as “Liat.” It is written in the first person and does justice to the character involved; her story breaks the familiar mold of the authors’ previous books.
However, the style of writing of the following chapters steals the limelight from many of the stories – some of which, particularly the most recent ones, have had gag orders lifted that allowed their publication for the first time. Even interviews conducted recently sound like other agency “legends” that have been handed down for generations. With such material – some of it up-to-date and of real relevance (such as the description of the exposure of the nuclear reactor in Syria) – and with such impressive access to women who were never interviewed before, the authors could have achieved a much more meaningful and personable result. Unlike the protagonists of their book, chosen painstakingly and celebrated for their daring and improvisational abilities, Mishal and Bar-Zohar are stuck in their old-fashioned way of writing and fail to meet the challenge.
Mishal and Bar-Zohar chose to tell the stories in chronological order, with each agent getting her own chapter, or sometimes several being mentioned at a time if they worked in tandem, which gives the book a schematic structure: Here’s the story of a Mossad recruit, this is how she was trained, this is how she penetrated the target country, and here’s the operation on the basis of which she is being mentioned in this book.
Each new female Mossad fighter is, therefore, presented at the start of each chapter, with few exceptions such as Magen-Halevi or Rafael, and then they disappear with no further mention elsewhere in the volume, which means there is no truly in-depth look at the significance of and the lessons that may be learned from the personal stories of these women in the testosterone-infused world of espionage. Nearly any mention of the dilemmas or misgivings these women had about a specific operation, or relating to the larger picture in general, remains at a superficial level – one that relates more to femininity and sex, to the fear they experience when they pull the trigger, and of course to their yearning for romantic relationships. Thus, there are no surprising lessons in this book, but plenty of clichés.
A large number of quotes and stories about women in the Mossad come from others here, and when finally the heroines themselves get the right to speak, their recollections almost always start, or end, with clichés. “There are of course moments of fear,” one of them says, adding that fear-induced adrenaline helps to face challenges and “to do the impossible.” What is expected of a female agent of the Mossad? Personal charm, equanimity and calmness, and a sense of adventure, she says: “Without that I wouldn’t be there.”
“It’s now the turn of Sylvia’s handlers to be shocked,” the authors write, describing the revelation of a romantic relationship that agent Rafael had kept secret. Her superiors knew Rafael was “an independent, romantic woman,” but didn’t believe she’d get involve in something like that without informing them, Mishal and Bar-Zohar continue, adding that Sylvia apparently had a fling with one or more other Mossad men in Paris, which she also didn’t report to the higher-ups; she yearned for love, for “a warm and personal relationship.”
Between the lines you get the impression that, according to the authors, the background of a Mossad woman’s romantic relationships was completely different than that of their male counterparts, whose love affairs were ostensibly conducted for “utilitarian” purposes.
About “Liron,” one of the other female heroines mentioned in the book – an outstanding and decorated Mossad operative, in the mid-1990s – the authors reveal that, during her stint in the agency, she discovered that a “good-looking and smart woman” has an advantage. She knew that women “arouse less suspicion than men,” and that while women may have less physical strength than men, “they use their brains more.” A woman’s way of thinking and a man’s strength are an amazing combination – “the sky is the limit,” the authors write. This sort of old-fashioned, annoying narrative runs all throughout their book.
Anyone who has read one or more of the Mishal-Bar-Zohar books will recognize in the first pages that “The Mossad Amazons” is a continuation of what they’ve done before, rather than heralding a literary work that stands on its own, and it shares the same flaws as their earlier collaborations: It uses an outdated, flowery approach that tends to overdo the drama, and hardly ventures into any discussion relating to the moral aspects of this story, beyond presenting operational details or gossip. For enthusiasts of the genre and others who view the book as a collection of suspense-filled espionage adventures, which isn’t too complicated and doesn’t ask too many questions that might have been raised regarding the subject of female agents in the Mossad – all this won’t bother them. After all we are talking about a snack, not an entire meal.
Similar to other best sellers by Mishal and Bar-Zohar about the agency, this book also includes a lot of already chewed-over materials; it merely emphasizes the stories of female operatives who worked for the organization, along with some new details and anecdotes. For example, there’s the story of “Sigal,” a Mossad agent who apparently notched up many impressive achievements, but the only thing the authors offer readers about her work is a bunch of generalities with no sting – along the lines of: “The contacts she created, especially at senior levels, continue to bear fruit.” But without the name of her target country or any other significant details, one can only read this and be jealous of the great access Mishal and Bar-Zohar had to the Mossad personnel they interviewed. From the story itself, details of which have been censored, of course, too little meat remains and the reader’s natural curiosity is not satisfied.
However, perhaps out of an intent to grab more readers, Mishal and Bar-Zohar chose to use a lot of clichés and something less than fine literary writing. There are many details and names cited without any attempt to dive even a little into the depths of the heroines’ decision making or the psychological aspects of being a spy in enemy territory. Other authors, including writers of fictional novels who were spies themselves, such as John Le Carre or Jonathan de Shalit (the pen name of a former Israeli security establishment figure), knew how to crack open the psychological complexities of the life of an espionage agent. Moreover, the female characters they created – including operative Yaara Stein, in de Shalit’s book – evidenced the nuances of the emotions and dilemmas you would expect to see in a book about real Mossad women. The authors sacrifice depth on the altar of the template, and their range of fire doesn’t make up for the sense of an opportunity missed.
The final result is rather disappointing, especially considering the feeling you get while reading “The Mossad Amazons” that an entirely different kind of book could have been written.