Getting a Seat in the Israeli Pantheon

Shortly after dawn one day in February 1959, a secret funeral was held in Jerusalem. The whole scene seemed to have come from a British spy film: "The rain did not stop falling all night long," recalled one participant. "Due to the rain and cold, all of us were wrapped in winter coats, and wore hats that concealed our faces." But all present knew who was trailing behind the coffin. Shimon Peres was there, as were Moshe Dayan and several of the founding fathers of the intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces: Yehoshafat Harkabi, Benjamin Gibli, Mordechai Ben Tzur. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was represented by his military secretary, Haim Ben David.

The coffin had been brought to Israel the previous night in a clandestine operation, arriving at around midnight. Haim Yogev, a defense establishment official, was among those who had received it. "None of us knew what the objective of the trip was," he would later say. "There was something mysterious about the journey. The expression on the faces of the people who accompanied the coffin was somber."

Meir Bineth
IDF Spokesman

Thus, the coffin of Meir (Max ) Bineth - an Israeli spy who was active in the early 1950s in Egypt - was laid to rest in a secret military funeral on Mount Herzl. The Egyptians had exposed his identity and arrested him. On December 21, 1954, while still in prison, Bineth slashed his right arm and bled to death. Initially he was interred in Italy.

Bineth was exposed in the wake of the arrests of Israeli agents who had taken part in attacks against American and British facilities in Egypt in July 1954 - the so-called "esek bish" (rotten affair ), which in turn spurred the "Lavon affair." At the time of Bineth's funeral, these agents were still in detention. This was one of the reasons that the Jerusalem ceremony took place in secret. However, a new book by Shaul Webber ("The Spy Who Was Forgotten," Maariv Library, in Hebrew ) alleges that it wasn't the only reason: Someone wished to erase Bineth from the national memory.

Bineth's story finds its way into the media every few years, in the form of an article in one of the newspaper supplements, or in a book or film. Usually the claim is made that "the system" failed in the affair, and that Bineth had fallen victim to a plot to "forget him," in contrast to Eli Cohen. Cohen is considered a national hero, even though he, too, was exposed, in his case, in Syria. Bineth was apparently exposed because someone - perhaps his superiors, or perhaps he himself - was not careful to "compartmentalize": to strictly avoid contact with the other protagonists of the "rotten affair."

Bineth's widow, Jane, voiced serious allegations against the defense establishment in the course of a conversation held with Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. Among other things, she complained that not enough was done to attain her husband's release from arrest. "I have had easier conversations than that one," Sharett later wrote, summing up the talk in his diary.

The widow intended to write a book and have it published abroad, but the Israel Defense Forces apparently prevented this. Defense establishment official Yogev, who subsequently died, said of the case: "Following numerous efforts, she agreed to delay her trip. Simultaneously, I acted through the commander of the Israel Police unit for special tasks, in order to prevent at all costs her departure from the country, in the event that my efforts failed. Sometime during the three days of her trip's delay, our people succeeded in penetrating her apartment and removing all of the documents that were liable to harm members of the network who were sitting in the prison in Egypt, as well as entangle the state in the airing of secrets and unlawful activities."

The bookshelves sag under the weight of volumes that seek to do justice to heroes who were "forgotten" or "deprived." The truth is that the pantheon of Israeli heroism is not unlike Nokia Stadium during a game between Maccabi and Real. It is very difficult to get a good seat. In order to recognize the "heritage" of a politician, there is usually a need for a very active widow. Furthermore, heroes of battles often need "comrades in arms" who will commemorate the glory of their dead friends and, incidentally, also their own. National memory is, in fact, a very political subject. Some governments glorify heroes that are close to them while distancing themselves from others. As the times and the governments pass, there are barely any heroes who have not been intentionally forgotten.

Meir Bineth also received, albeit noticeably late, historical recognition. When he was defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin conferred on Jane Bineth her husband's officer rank (lieutenant colonel ); there are streets named for him in several cities, including Tel Aviv. There are also streets named for the "Cairo Martyrs" and the "Cairo Condemned." Bineth's daughter maintains a website in his memory, which is more than what some other spies have received.