Is Israel Morally Bound to Fight Anti-Semitism? : Bigotry: When Jewish communities were attacked, the Mossad stepped in to defend them. With racism reviving, should the practice be resumed?

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is author of "The New Israelis: An Intimate View of a Changing People" (Birch Lane Press)

Cottbus is a medium-sized German town close to the Polish and Czech borders. It is riddled with the problems of many German cities: unemployment, economic hardship and racial hatred. Yet, Cottbus has gained a certain notoriety. In its mayoral elections, scheduled for next month, the city has a prominent neo-Nazi candidate. No serious political observer gives the neo-Nazis a chance to win, but their participation illustrates a sobering reality in the new, united Germany: Anti-Semitism refuses to die and hate crimes and bigotry are on the rise.

Last year, an unprecedented surge in anti-Jewish incidents occurred not just in Germany but throughout the world. The project for the study of contemporary anti-Semitism at Tel Aviv University reports 150 serious anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in Europe alone. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Anti-Defamation League recorded thousands of anti-Semitic incidents in 1992.

The worst incidents included burning synagogues, vandalism against Jewish institutions and desecration of Jewish cemeteries in France, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Poland and Sweden. In addition, murder and systematic harassment of Jews have been reported in Russia and in other former republics of the Soviet Union. Nearly 60 Holocaust memorials were destroyed in Germany. Synagogues in Britain have been damaged and, in Argentina, shots were fired at a school bus carrying Jewish children. This new wave of violent anti-Semitism is largely related to and rooted in the European resurgence of racism and nationalism.

Many Israelis are not consoled by such academic explanations. They are now posing a challenging question to their government: Should the government seek to crush the phenomenon not just through diplomatic protest, but also through the active defense of Jewish communities? Israel, after all, perceives itself as a Jewish state with a strong commitment to protect every Jew. Israel sees itself as a nation with a powerful moral obligation to fight racism.

Isser Harel, former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, has no doubts about the matter. "The government of Israel must act to root out the evil of racism and the monster of anti-Semitism and to come to the defense of the Jewish communities under threat and in danger." If this cannot be achieved diplomatically, he believes, it must be done in other ways--including "the secret services, as was the case in my times."

Harel's term as head of the Mossad, from 1952-63, was characterized by the special emphasis the Israeli intelligence community gave to protecting all Jewish communities; to hunting for Nazi criminals, and to monitoring neo-Nazism. There was, says Harel, a simple logic: If Israel is the Jewish state, then Israel's intelligence is also a Jewish intelligence service. And since Israel saw itself as the legal heir of the Jews destroyed in the Holocaust, it took upon itself the task of tracking down the perpetrators. Harel's Mossad compiled a list of the 10 most wanted Nazi criminals and conducted a worldwide search for them. The most celebrated cases were the capture of Adolf Eichmann, in 1960, and the failed hunt for Martin Borman, Adolf Hitler's deputy, and Josef Mengele, the "death doctor."

At the same time, the Mossad archivists collected information on thousands of lesser-known junior Nazi officials, SS officers and their local collaborators. This intelligence gathering resulted in some successes that have never been publicized. In February, 1965, in Montevideo, Uruguay, a special Mossad hit squad executed Herberts Cukurs, a leader of the Nazi movement in Latvia. There are at least three additional cases of Mossad agents, or their hirelings, killing Eastern Europeans suspected of murdering Jews and collaborating Nazis. The Israeli government, however, has never accepted responsibility for these actions.

In the early 1950s, the Mossad also set up special units for what it called the "self-defense" and illegal emigration of Jews to Israel. From 1954-62, the Mossad dispatched agents to Morocco to train young Jews to defend their communities against Arab attacks. They were also taught how to facilitate the clandestine emigration of their people to Israel. A similar defense organization was developed in Algeria, where it engaged in some violent clashes with young Muslims who tried to injure Jews.

By the late '50s, Harel decided that Jewish life was threatened not only in countries with regimes hostile to Israel--like those in North Africa--but also in several European states. "In 1959," he recalls, "anti-Semitic incidents were on the increase, and a 'swastika epidemic' broke out." Swastikas were painted on the walls of synagogues and other Jewish institutions in Germany, and Jewish graves were desecrated. The Mossad took action on two different levels: It would support the self-defense of Jewish communities--even if, says Harel, there was no formal request to do so--and would operate against neo-Nazi organizations.

South America was another focus of activity by the Israeli intelligence community. Some governments there not only gave refuge to Nazi war criminals but went so far as to encourage neo-Nazi organizations. Anti-Semitic incidents increased following the 1960 kidnaping of Eichmann by Mossad agents. The lives of Jews in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico were not safe.

Shmuel Toledano was in charge of the Mossad-sponsored Jewish self-defense. Self-defense activities were accelerated after an incident in Argentina sent shock waves throughout Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. Members of the proto-fascist Tacuara group--including many children of senior police and army officers--kidnaped a Jewish student, Gracia Sirotta, in July, 1962. Before she was released, they carved a swastika into her chest. Following this incident, South American Jewish youth were taken to Israel to be militarily trained. As part of the secret scheme, dozens of former Israeli army officers were sent to South America to supervise self-defense activities in the local Jewish communities.

Such operations were scaled back in the mid-'60s because the wave of neo-Nazism subsided, and the number of anti-Semitic incidents declined. Also, Harel had run into trouble with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. His successor, Gen. Meir Amit, changed Mossad's priorities: Its supreme task became collecting intelligence on the military capabilities of the Arab world. The hunt for Nazi war criminals and self-defense training for Jewish communities stopped.

Despite the recent rise of anti-Semitism, it is hard to believe that Israel will revive its old practices. Harel's calls for a more assertive response are unlikely to shift policy. Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, has said that "the ideas (of Harel) are not worth responding to. We are not in the assassination business." "The situation today," stress other senior government officials, "is totally different from that in the past. The German government and others are aware of the problem of racism and anti-Semitism. They respect Israel's sensitivity and feelings, and they listen to us. Only if things were different, if the governments concerned were not doing anything about these phenomena--then we would have to react in a different way, and only then, perhaps, there would be room for a more covert involvement on Israel's part."

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