Rise and Kill First by Ronen Bergman

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations
by Ronen Bergman
Random House, 2018

Rise and Kill First The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman

At one point in the long litany of horrors related in Ronen Bergman's new book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations,  Ariel Sharon angrily confronts Shimon Peres at a closed-door session of the Knesset in 1982 about an atrocity that took place while Peres was running the country in 1976 in which Maronites rolled into the Tel al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp and carried out a brutal massacre of everybody they encountered. To which Peres responded with a phlegmatic “Who knew?” And Sharon answered right back, enumerating all the ways Peres and his government couldn't possibly not have known and saying, “You, Mr. Peres, after Tel al-Zaatar, have no monopoly on morality.”

Reading Bergman's prodigiously researched book prompts many conclusions, but foremost of them is this: nobody anywhere in this huge, bristling story has any monopoly on morality. The title Rise and Kill First comes from a line in the Talmud: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” But what that reference gains in pleasing portentousness, it loses in accuracy – the key of the line isn't the preemptive killing, it's the word “comes.” There's visible, imminent danger. The point of the line is that once you've seen that danger coming, you would be foolish to sit around waiting for it. The line doesn't say “If you think someone is thinking about coming to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”

It's a mile-wide moral distinction, but it's irrelevant junk on the roadside throughout Bergman's book, which relates in unprecedented detail the decades-long history of Israel's Mossad and intelligence agencies at identifying suspected threats to the state, stalking them in countries all over the world, and killing them, often in public, often with innocent collateral homicides. Bergman's reporting in these pages is nothing less than stunning; time and again while reading, you'll be so thrilled by his crisp narrative line that you'll only later think to marvel that he was ever able to sit and talk with some of these people in the first place, much less come back alive to tell the story.

Many of these particular stories have never been told before, and virtually none of them have been told this well, in this much detail. Bergman's skill at sketching characters extends from all the various heads of Mossad to a batch of US Presidents and their advisors to some of the assassins themselves, speaking on the record for the first time.

Most of these people are concerned, perhaps necessarily, mainly with what Bergman refers to as the various tactical successes and strategic failures of Israel's targeted assassinations program over the decades. The morality of targeted assassination itself is not the subject here; whether or not the practice is ethical is consistently ranked secondary to whether or not it's effective, and Bergman tries to strike an even-handed tone:

Some, euphemistically, call it “liquidation.” The American intelligence community calls it, for legal reasons, “targeted killings.” In practice, these terms amount to the same thing: killing a specific individual in order to achieve a specific goal – saving the lives of people the target intends to kill, averting a dangerous act that he is about to perpetrate, and sometimes removing a leader in order to change the course of history.

The why of this hardly needs elaborating. You are not saving the lives of people a “target” intends to kill. No one's life needs saving from an intention. Killing someone because you think they may do something bad in a week or a month or a year is simply the universally-acknowledged crime of murder, no more defensible when conducted by a state-sponsored wing of a government than when conducted by a paranoid drug addict who thinks his old school gym coach is secretly plotting to kill him. The drug addict may be correct, but if he kills his gym coach before his gym coach even tries to kill him, he gets arrested and thrown in jail regardless. As mentioned, we're not talking about monopolies on morality.

Rise and Kill First mainly just gets about the task of describing the how of all this – the men and women who have been its architects, the people who have been its enablers and defenders and critics, and of course the people who have been its victims. Bergman is exceedingly skilled at all this, and his book ranks with Steve Coll's Directorate S as one of the most impressive feats of sustained reporting to appear so far in 2018. As a work of contemporary scholarship, it's an almost incredible achievement. As a picture of what decades of persecution will do to the moral fiber of a nation surrounded by enemies, it's equally illuminating.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.