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The Cross of Bethlehem

The Cross of Bethlehem II

On an Israeli Art Student: Arik Caspi

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Tel Aviv Downtown | Heart of Darkness

The text of this page has been adapted from a chapter of The Cross of Bethlehem.

During all these years at the university, I spent every evening teaching and supervising the students at the multimedia center in the Green Village. The pupils living at school were free to attend classes and could choose what they wanted to do. Those wishing to learn graphic design did so, and those interested in editing their musical productions could do that as well. However our baby was computerized animation. We were the first school in Israel to offer such a program and to have adequate equipment. Back in 1991, that meant the best available personal computers.

The center's manager was the son of the school’s director. His position was not a result of merit, but of the nepotism typical in Israel. Soon we called enough attention to our program to be awarded a visit by the Ministry of Education. They wanted a course in computerized animation, and if pleased, they would award our center recognition as the first “National Multimedia Center.” That meant a significant budget increase.

The manager asked me to teach the critical course. “You decide the topic and format,” he added in a deep panic. Any failure would be mine, but victory would be his.

After thinking for a while, I accepted the challenge and decided to offer a very basic course designed to show how animation could help in teaching physics. The use of a pendulum was perfect way for presenting the benefits of animation. Its physics were simple and offered attractive options for graphical representation. The inspectors from the Education Ministry came, enjoyed the course and awarded us the desired title. For me, that meant that my place there was secure for as long as I wished.

Being a national center, we received visits from educators belonging to rural, peripheral and city schools. One day a large, heavyset man named Arik arrived. I’m using a pseudonym here which reflects the essence of the nickname he used. It was a strange one; befitting more a member of a right-wing, military organization than an artist living in Tel Aviv, the archetypal left-wing city in Israel. Arik, the nickname used by Ariel Sharon – even after he became Prime Minister – seems appropriate; the original name “Ariel” means “God’s Lion.”

He offered to teach art with computers. He had impressive qualifications and, while speaking, used long, complicated words meant to frighten anyone willing to challenge him. Soon we developed a working relationship and sometime later he invited me to see his study, placed in a very expensive part of downtown Tel Aviv. He never explained his arrival at the Green Village, where I taught at the time. Although it was near his house – on Tel Aviv’s northern edge – the place was little known. The institution posted jobs for teachers only through the Tel Aviv University. Arik worked at an academic institution in Jerusalem and had no links with Tel Aviv University. “A friend told me,” he answered when I asked. However, until he arrived we never employed any art students, or students from Jerusalem, among us. It was difficult to imagine who could have told him. There was no point in pressuring him on the issue.

When we arrived at Arik’s study, he told me that he owned the place and after a few cups of good coffee, prepared with an Italian machinetta, I failed to make sense of his life story. The facts were few. He grew up in Tel Aviv as the son of a mythical figure in the Israeli Security Services Pantheon, received a scholarship to study art in Milan, and after he returned, he obtained an exclusive job in one of the best art schools in Israel. Since nepotism is the rule in Israel, I wasn’t surprised by that, but there was something wrong with his basic outlook.

An artist growing up and living in Tel Aviv was bound to be left-wing. He presented himself as such. But when he spoke about other issues, his opinions were different from what one would expect of a left-wing artist. His art touched upon two main topics: women’s genitals and his father. The pictures of women were highly abstract, but once explained were clearly chauvinistic – the genitalia reduced to a psychedelic hole. His father was already dead, but Arik obviously loved and cherished him. He was the biggest influence in his life and Arik mentioned him on every occasion.

His father had been a terrorist. He was part of the “Warring Family,” the inner-circle name used by the members of Lehi and Etzel, two branches of Israeli freedom fighters from the 1940’s. These two right-wing organizations preceded the State of Israel and organized attacks against the British, which at the time had the League of Nations mandate over Palestine. "Etzel" is the Hebrew acronym for "HaIrgun HaTzvai HaLeumi BeEretz Israel," or the "National Military Organization in the Land of Israel." However, usually it is referred to in Hebrew as "HaMishpaha HaLohemet," meaning the "Warring Family." Known for its violent attacks against innocents, like the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (1946) and the Dir Yassin Massacre (1948), it became the predecessor of the Herut (now Likud) party. The first right-wing Prime Minister – Menahem Begin – was a former leader of the Etzel. The Lehi (Lohmei Herut Israel – the Warriors for the Freedom of Israel), led in those days by Stern, was incorporated as a whole into the Mossad and one of its leaders – Yitzhak Shamir – became Prime Minister in the 1980s.

Arik liked to tell the story of how his father put the bombs in Jerusalem's King David Hotel. He had many relics in his possession, including different fake identity cards his father used to fool the English. I had no reason to doubt him. The unexplained wealth and opportunities he had were a silent testimony to the story’s truth. Among the terrorist attacks performed by Jews in the late forties, the one at the King David Hotel is the best known. Placed in front of Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the hotel was an important British administrative center.

In July 1946 the Irgun blew up the hotel. Ninety-one people were killed and another forty-five were injured. No single terrorist act in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has produced more casualties.

Large parts of the documents dealing with preparations and target selection became public. The perpetrators showed no consideration for the innocent human lives they were to annihilate. Yet, these same people openly claimed – while referring to the Nazi regime – that a goal never justifies the means; yet they were behaving opposite from what they preached. One moral system was forced upon the Nazis, while they adopted a different one. Were they blind to their own acts or just superb propagandists?

Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached about the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jewish religious leaders of the time. While acknowledging their wisdom and experience Jesus refused to accept their blindness to double morality and openly accused the Jewish leadership, especially the Pharisees and Sadducees of immorality. In the King David Hotel attack, the Jewish leadership proved – at least ideologically – to be true descendents of those Pharisees.

Physical violence against fellow humans cannot be tolerated, I had come to realize after working as a soldier in the mountains of Nablus. Only by adhering to this principle, could we create a better world. Answering violence with violence only creates more victims and an endless cycle of brutality. My fear was that over time, execution permits would be granted for lesser reasons and even for people who hold differing political views. For some leaders, the temptation would be too great.

I had difficulty understanding Arik’s very right-wing beliefs, innocent people had died in the hotel bombing. It was strange for a declared left-wing individual not to condemn the killing of innocents, even if perpetrated by his father.

Slowly I began drawing a different picture of Arik. Some of the pieces took years to put together. Finally, everything was confirmed, once he identified himself as a Mossad agent during events which happened beyond the timeframe of this book. By then I had come to understand that being an art student was a common cover story for Mossad agents. They could be everywhere doing all kinds of damage and remain unnoticed. They could work for years producing low quality work and convincingly claim they were simply misunderstood. At the beginning, our meeting was casual; Arik was not observing me per se. However, the security services had formed a net of agents spanning most organizations throughout Israel. My meeting them in the army, university and workplaces was not unusual.

Years later, I met Arik again after I returned from a trip to Switzerland. Mocking his work as an agent, I debriefed him on my trip but left out everything that would be of interest to an intelligence professional. I spent a few hours describing less than a week of mainly boring business meetings. I listed irrelevant places, people and activities. I spoke about the quality of the food and the service at the hotels; about the schedule of Swiss trains and the Italian airports. I described the oiliness of Swiss rosti, a grated and roasted potato dish typical of that country. At some point he finally understood the subtext of my words, namely that I refused to cooperate, and he shifted in his seat, appearing uneasy, but still he continued the game.

At some point during our several years of meetings he said: “I think that two years from now, you will be doing art.”

“Of course. I plan to write a book,” I said without thinking twice.

It was the most self-destructive sentence I have uttered in my entire life. He had a different type of art in mind.

In our last conversation, he told me: “You never had a father to guide you.”

The irony was clear. I had grown up on a kibbutz, a communist community sponsored by the Israeli government. There, they tried very hard to destroy family bonds. Years later, Arik, representing a different aspect of the same state, saw fit to criticize me for lacking the father they had intentionally taken from me. But in fact I did have a Father, who had faithfully and lovingly guided me through His Word and had never abandoned me. Is the father who guides a son in the Mossad’s “Ways of Deception”+ a positive figure?

During an earlier phone conversation, Arik tried to influence subtly the theme of this book.

“If you will concentrate on the censorship issue instead of talking about persecution techniques, oligarchy and Christian themes, you will be able to publish,” he said out of the blue and left me thinking. I wasn’t considering the proposition but wondered why censorship was an allowed theme. The thoughts took me back to 1983. I remembered studying George Orwell’s 1984 where I found connections to current events taking place in Israel. In both cases the authorities encouraged self-censorship through the dissemination of texts that would frighten anyone attempting to publish material criticizing the system. Dealing with censorship would have been like treating the symptoms of a disease instead of curing its causes. Censorship in Israeli society was the result of an illegal decision by the security services to protect the oligarchy instead of the public. Fighting it would only delay the struggle against the main problems. As such, censorship served as a decoy by the ruling class and its security services. Moreover, concentrating all the critiques on the censorship issue would make the authors who wrote about it easier to control. The security services would probably even help them group into an organization, while – of course – putting a few of their agents there.

If I would have acknowledged Arik’s subtle hint, I would have unwittingly transformed myself into a servant of my persecutors. The use of this technique of advice masquerading as help was a clear reason for the existence of watchers disguised as civilians living normal lives. The Mossad couldn’t get us to do its bidding otherwise. Eventually I came to understand their techniques and the knowledge turned out to be a powerful tool for me, since it allowed me to monitor accurately the security services intentions once the watcher was recognized.

In certain instances, my persecutors knew I was using the watchers for my own goals. They intercepted texts I wrote, which revealed that I understood their attempts to influence me. Their response played again into my hands. To block the transmission of information from the watchers to me, the security services stopped instructing them. They approached me with practically zero information about my case and began randomly fishing for information. Their suspicious behavior became even easier to spot. At the very moment I discovered the watcher possessed no significant information, I cut the contact immediately. If it wasn’t for the profusion of these improbable encounters and their logical connection to the previous and subsequent events, I would have been unable to differentiate them from casual meetings between strangers. Pretty soon the game became clear to all, and the security services opted for semi-open meetings, despite all their obvious disadvantages.

Over the years, people asked me many times why I stayed in contact with the informants. The arguments for keeping or rejecting them were many, but the crux of the matter was simple. Arik was my model case for explaining that, I would never have gained the insights he provided by ignoring his contact attempts.

———

+ Mossad's former motto was taken from Proverbs 24:6 "For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety." The new one is from Proverbs 11:14 "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety." In the English translation of the Hebrew text it is difficult to realize that only one word is repeated in both verses: "tahbulot" (the "h" is pronounced like the "ch" in "loch"). This means the people of that organization consider it the heart and soul of the motto and—consequently—of their organization. How is that soul? most Hebrew words are constructed upon a root of three consonants. In the case of "tahbulot" the root is H.B.L. which roughly means "disrupt." The emphasis is on a bad disruption; not "Please sir, stop for ten minutes and have a coffee with me," but the dropping of hot coffee on someone in order to force a break. "Tahbulot" may be translated as "disrupting tricks." "With disrupting tricks you shall make war" is a good translation of the first motto, while the new one begins with “without disrupting tricks the people shall fall…" Moreover, words derived from the same root are used for the Hebrew word for "terrorist," namely "mehabel" (note the appearance of the same root H.B.L in the word). In other words, the Mossad defines itself as a terrorist organization specializing in disrupting tricks.

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