Discovering the Mossad's 'Crazy, Rebellious' Forefather

The myth of Avshalom Feinberg is getting a new lease on life: Efraim Halevy, formerly head of the Mossad, described him recently as the father of Israel's intelligence community.

Avshalom Feinberg was a handsome young man from Gedera; he lent a touch of Parisian, heartbreaking romance to the early stages of Zionist existence in the Land of Israel. Acquaintances described him as a fearless knight with eyes that shined like sparkling fireflies. They remembered him as a tough and brave young man, but also gentle and sentimental; a horseman, swordsman, sharpshooter and wrestler who cast fear throughout the land, and also a philosopher and poet. Feinberg procured his place in Israeli mythology as a spy: In 1917 he vanished in the Sinai Desert, while on his way to Egypt to help the British conquer the Land of Israel from the Ottomans. He was 28 years old at the time; the circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery.

Most of the Jews who lived in the country back then were loyal to the Ottoman regime; David Ben-Gurion even believed that the Ottoman Empire would defeat the British. There were those, though not many, who believed in a British victory, and to help out they set up a pro-British espionage organization, NILI (a Hebrew acronym for the phrase from 1 Samuel 15:29 meaning "the glory of Israel will not deceive"). The heritage of NILI was cultivated largely by right-wing political circles. The left tended to disavow it. A lot of bad blood flowed in this connection in politics, both before the establishment of the state and afterward. In the months leading up to the war in 1967, an atmosphere of mundane routine and despair came over the country. The newspapers nurtured a pining for a savior figure to rescue the country and restore to it the glory of its early days, days of challenge, vision and daring, Sturm und Drang. In this context they also waxed nostalgic over the figure of the wondrous hero Avshalom Feinberg, a member of the founders' tribe, who had disappeared in the desert 50 years earlier. Immediately after the Six-Day War, the memory of the spy with the handsome beard was enlisted into the ranks of the Movement for Greater Israel. Feinberg left behind a legend: When setting out for Sinai, the story goes, he took along a few dates, and after his death a tall palm tree grew out of the remains of his body. Bedouin in Sinai could point to the tree, an excavation conducted among the roots turned up human bones, and Israel, whose brains the Six-Day War had addled, decided to believe that the bones were Avshalom's. They were brought for burial in a state ceremony on Mount Herzl; the press reported that thousands attended the funeral and that many wept, whether for sorrow or joy we cannot know.

Now the myth of Feinberg is getting a new lease on life: Efraim Halevy, formerly head of the Mossad, described him recently as the father of Israel's intelligence community. Halevy spoke at the dedication of a new commemorative site in Feinberg's memory, consisting of a large monument that is reminiscent of a Muslim sheikh's tomb. It previously stood at the entrance to Hadera, and was dismantled in a complicated engineering operation to enable the building of Route 9. Each and every stone was numbered and then reassembled in Hadera Stream Park. The new memorial site cost about NIS 3 million to create.

Halevy cited the words of the author Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen, according to whom Feinberg was "a crazy character, stubborn and rebellious, who does not accept authority." This description, Halevy said, applies today as well to rare specimens in the Mossad, who are "unique figures and convention breakers." According to him, Feinberg was "a pioneer of a basic strategic-intelligence approach that has served as a cornerstone of Israel's conduct since its establishment." The municipality of Hadera, where a reconstruction of the Feinberg family's house is open to the public, also helped to produce a new children's book, "The Secret of the Palm Tree," by Ran Levy-Yamamori, with colorful illustrations by Alex Firlay. The book is written in the first person, in the voice of Tzila, Feinberg's younger sister and mother of the former Labor Knesset member Tamar Eshel. At birth, the reader will learn, Avshalom was so small that he had to be dressed in doll's clothes. The book does not leave any room for doubt concerning the tale of Feinberg's death: "Avshalom loved the land and its flora. The land repaid him and grew out of him a wondrous palm tree that safeguarded him and the secret of his burial." Hadera's mayor, Haim Avitan, composed a preface to the book in which he called upon the children of his city to adopt Feinberg's worldview for themselves. These days the children won't have difficulty identifying with what Feinberg thought of the Turks: "Even as a boy he believed that only with courage and wholehearted faith would it be possible to expel the Turkish enemy and be free in the land."