Espionage and the Jews

Whence this shocked preciousness about Washington's wiretaps? Spying goes back millennia, as perusal of the Bible itself shows.

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One of the more surprising aspects of the Snowden affair, in addition to the sheer extent of the American wiretapping program, is the surprise and indignation that world leaders have expressed at the fact that the United States was tapping their leaders' phones. But could they really have been surprised?

Spying has been called “the second oldest profession”, apparently first in Miles Copeland’s 1975 “Beyond cloak and dagger: Inside the CIA.” It most likely isn't the actual second oldest profession, but it does have ancient antecedents, with references in ancient Chinese, Indian and Egyptian sources, and of course - the Hebrew Bible.

The first Biblical recount of spying is when Moses not only sent his minions to spy on the neighbors, but gave them detailed instructions that would have done the CIA proud. “And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain: And see the land, what it is, and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; And what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds; And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not.” (Numbers 13:17-20)

The report the 12 spies gave upon their return wasn’t consistent - 10 said it would be impossible to take the land from the giants dwelling there, while two - Caleb and Joshua – thought it could be done.

Moses chose the latter version, which led to a popular revolt against the ancient Israelite leader. The disheartened people refused to go on the offensive, which led to divine punishment and 40 years of further wandering in the desert.

Enter the first profession

After Moses died it was left to Joshua to take the land, and since he had a background in espionage - before pushing forward and taking Jericho, he sent in a team of spies. “And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into a harlot's house, named Rahab, and lodged there.” (Joshua 2:1)

But evidently the king of Jericho had counter-espionage measures in place. “And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, there came men in hither to night of the children of Israel to search out the country.” (2:2)

However, Rahab had hidden Joshua's two spies in her attic and the search party rummaged through her house fruitlessly. When they were done searching, she told them that the people of Jericho were dispirited by the news of what the Israelites had done to the Amorites and that they had no fighting spirit in them.

Joshua's spies promised to spare Rahab and her family, then made their way cross the Jordan River and told Joshua what they had learned. That led to the destruction of Jericho and the gaining of the Holy Land for the Jews.

Another case of Biblical-era explicit spying is the case of Bethel's conquest by the House of Joseph, though the detail there is scant. “And the spies saw a man come forth out of the city, and they said unto him, Shew us, we pray thee, the entrance into the city, and we will shew thee mercy." (Judges 1:23)

Absalom's spies blow it

In the conflict with King Saul, David used spies to learn his adversary’s location. “And Saul pitched in the hill of Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon, by the way. But David abode in the wilderness, and he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness. David therefore sent out spies, and understood that Saul was come in very deed.” (1 Samuel 26:3-5)

Absalom, son of King David, also employed spies in his rebellion against his father, though not with satisfactory results. “Absalom sent spies throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, As soon as ye hear the sound of the trumpet, then ye shall say, Absalom reigneth in Hebron.” (Samuel 2 15:10)

Absalom’s forces were later routed at the Battle of the Wood of Ephraim, while making his escape his hair was caught in the boughs of an oak. The rebellious son was found dangling by David's forces and killed, to his father's anguish.

Our sources within the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids do not explicitly tell us that spies were employed in the campaign, but it is implied. The Israelite leader Judah Maccabee is extremely well informed about the movements of enemy forces, which allows him to ambush his enemy’s forces and destroy them. This can only have been accomplished by way of an extensive intelligence-gathering network.

The lovely Judith decapitates the enemy

The Book of Judith, though almost certainly a work of fiction and not historical, tells the story of what can be seen a Jewish spy - Judith. The book did not make it into the Hebrew Bible but it is a part of the Septuagint.

According to the story, Judith, a wise and beautiful widow, is annoyed with her townsfolks’ despair over the imminent attack by an Assyrian army camped nearby. She leaves the city and goes on a daring mission inside the enemy camp. She ingratiates herself with the enemy general Holofernes, with her charms and promise of information. After gaining his trust she is allowed access to his tent during the night - and beheads him.

In the morning, when the Assyrian army awakes, they find their commander is dead and flee.

During the several rebellions of the Jews against the Romans, the rebel forces probably used military intelligence, but the scant sources we have, as with the case with the rebellion against the Seleucid Empire, are mute on this subject.

In later generations, through late antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, history didn't record Jewish spies. This is somewhat surprising since the international network of kinship would have provided a great basis for a spy network, but we just don’t know if it was ever employed.

Moving on to modern times we find the "Dreyfus affair," in which the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of spying for the Germans, and was dishonored and imprisoned. Years later the charges were found to be false.

This wasn’t the case with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were caught spying on the Americans for the Soviet Union. They were both executed in 1953. Though there was some public debate regarding their guilt, documents released by the government in 1995 proved that Julius Rosenberg at least was definitely a Soviet spy.

This brings us to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and with it the establishment of an Israeli spy network later called "The Mossad," but this we shall leave for another day.

So, foreign leaders, don’t be surprised that the U.S. is tapping your phones. Espionage is as ancient as civilization itself. The only thing that has changed is the technology. So for future reference, take you example from 65 percent of Israelis, who according to a recent survey by the Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, assumed all along the U.S. was spying on their leaders.

Caravaggio's Judith Beheading HolofernesCredit: Wikimedia Commons
Edward Snowden, whistleblower on American espionage efforts, sails down the Moscow River, September 2013.Credit: AP

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