The Death of Civilisation

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Darkening AgeNixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 2017. 352 pp.

“The destroyers came from out of the desert. Palmyra’s Temple of Athena must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots…had been terrorising the region. Their attacks were primitive, thuggish, and very effective.” Utter destruction followed in their wake. “Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues that had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated in a moment; temples that had seen the rise of the Roman Empire fell in a single day. This was violent work, but it was by no means solemn. The zealots roared with laughter as they smashed the ‘evil, ‘idolatrous’ statues; the faithful jeered as they tore down temples, stripped roofs and defaced tombs. Chants appeared, immortalizing these glorious moments.”

“When the men entered the temple they took a weapon and smashed the back of Athena’s head with a single blow so hard that it decapitated the goddess. The head fell to the floor, slicing off that nose, crushing the once-smooth cheeks. Athena’s eyes, untouched, looked out over a now-disfigured face. Mere decapitation wasn’t enough. More blows fell, scalping Athena, striking the helmet from the goddess’s head, smashing it into pieces. Further blows followed. The statue fell from its pedestal, then the arms and shoulders were chopped off. The body was left on its front in the dirt; the nearby altar was sliced off just above its base… On the floor, the head of Athena slowly started to be covered by the sands of the Syrian desert.”

You might be thinking that I am describing ISIS’ destruction of classical era structures in Syria in February 2017 but you would be mistaken. This was the destruction wrought by Christians in circa 385. For over half a millennium since the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the Edict of Milan in 312, Christianity aggressively destroyed all signs of paganism as it spread across Europe. Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World does not quite chronicle the tragedy – that would be too long a book – but gives an excellent glimpse into the tumultuous years of Late Antiquity and the savage birth of Christian Europe.

The Darkening Age jumps back and forth as it weaves its narrative – with each chapter and theme, the historical era is begun afresh. After a historical overview of Late Antiquity, Nixey elaborates on the brutal influence of Christianity on the law, the fine arts, and religion. In doing so, she dispels several powerful myths in the Christian tradition that have survived for centuries and are now cemented in the mainstream historical memory. In doing so, the reputations of several Church leaders are severely tarnished – by 21st century sensitivities, we might call them terrorists and mass murderers. Yet Nixey is too good a scholar to allow such crude, ahistorical judgments to creep in. Instead, she lets the values and mores of the era serve as a template and allows contemporaries of these Christian saints and martyrs evaluate their vandalism and philosophy – or lack thereof.

The rise of Christianity spelled not just the death of pluralism and tolerance around the Mediterranean but also a fundamental reworking of epistemic categories. Before the ascendance of Christianity, despite the long presence of Judaism, few people considered religion to be a marker of identity. The fluidity of primary religions maintained an easy permeability between the various sects and the state did not care to interfere as long as these cults did not upset the law and order. It was Christianity that introduced a rigidity that plagues the world to this day – Christians were correct, and others were not just wrong but sick, insane, evil, damned, disgusting, and inferior.

The new cult observed its difference aggressively: in a letter to one of his faithful, Augustine advised the man that even if a Christian is starving and on the point of death, food that had been contaminated by pagan sacrifice was to be rejected with fortitude. In a pattern that is now all too familiar to those who have observed the effects of exclusivist monotheism on societies, Christians first held themselves apart and then assaulted others.

For a faction with a humble founder, Christians saw themselves as soldiers in an army (of Christ) and applied the word “pagan” – which had originally meant civilian – to the pluralistic religions of the region. To these militants, allowing someone to remain outside the Christian faith was not to show tolerance but to damn them. As Augustine railed, to allow someone to continue in an alternative form of worship or a heretical form of Christianity was not to allow religious freedom; it was to allow Satan to thrive.

Constantine saw the sign of the cross in October 312, and his soldiers, their shields painted with Chi-Ro, defeated Maxentius shortly. One of the new emperor’s first edicts was to give Christianity official recognition as equal to the faiths of Rome. It would prove to be a tipping point in world history: in less than a century, Christianity would ruthlessly root out Rome’s indigenous religions and destroy its temples, libraries, and customs. Before Constantine had come to power, Rome had 28 public libraries and many private ones; by the end of the 4th century, there were none.

In 325, a law was passed to restrict the “pollutions of idolatry” and December 25, until then celebrated the birth of the Mesopotamian god of shepherds, Dumuzid, became the birthday of Jesus. Similarly, other pagan rituals and festivals were either banned or usurped. In 341, Constantine’s son, Constantius, banned sacrifices; by 356, it had become illegal – on pain of death – to worship images. A law passed in 388 forbade any discussion of religion in public, and in 399, pagan temples were all ordered to be torn down.

A law in 407 banned the old merry ceremonies and in 529, the year the Academy finally closed its doors, the Christian State decreed that “every single person in the empire who had not yet been baptized now had to come forward immediately, go to the holy churches and ‘entirely abandon the former error [and] receive saving baptism’. ‘We forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism’ so that they might not ‘corrupt the souls of their disciples.’”

Although it was Constantine himself who first and publicly moved against the pagan temples, it was not just the new Christian state that perpetrated this cultural genocide – Christian mobs went about in an orgy of vandalism. Moreover, the men leading these campaigns of violence were not the over-zealous fringe elements of a new faith. St Benedict, St Martin, St John Chrysostom, St Marcellus – these were figures at the very heart of the Church.

The statues in the public parks and temples were the first to go; the beautiful statue of Athena at the Acropolis, for example, was mutilated, beheaded, and finally placed face down in the courtyard to be trampled upon by Christians for eternity. It was clearly not enough to pull down a statue: the tradition it represented had to be humiliated, disgraced, and tortured. The destruction did not stop at public property. Christian mobs began to enter houses to remove any signs of pagan culture from them which, when found, would be publicly burned. As Nixey insightfully comments, today, the destruction of Michelangelo’s Pietà would be considered a terrible act of cultural vandalism – but it wouldn’t be sacrilege because Christians do not hold the statue to be sacred. Statues in pagan temples, on the other hand, were.

It is not that there were no contemporary critiques of Christianity, and many modern ones echo the same objections. Have the rules of an allegedly omniscient god changed over time? many wondered. If so, then who is wrong – Moses or Jesus? Or when the Father sent Jesus, had he forgotten what commands he gave to Moses? Celsus, for example, found the new cult stupid, pernicious and vulgar; he worried that it would spread and bring ruin to Rome. Pliny the Elder described Christianity as nothing more than a “degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” What the philosophers could not understand is how anyone could revel in their own ignorance. “Wisdom in this life is evil, but foolishness is good,” taught Corinthians. Critics’ arguments were usually replied with clubs, quietly at first and then more boldly after Constantine.

Priests were frequently attacked and beaten. Christians took to throwing a concoction of caustic lime powder and vinegar – the earliest acid attacks – into the eyes of unsuspecting prominent pagans in the marketplace, thereby blinding them. Judges who dared to uphold the law against Christians were also beaten and killed. So severe was the Christian reign of terror that even the very Christian emperor, Theodosius, had to quietly admit that his monks commit many crimes. The Church, however, defended these acts, comparing them to a gangrene that had to be cut away or cauterised, advising people to turn a deaf ear, like surgeons, to the cries, out of compassion.

People watched in stunned inaction as the culture which they had followed for over a thousand years was dismantled. The Empire suffered far more at the hands of Christians than it did in all the waves of barbarian invasions. Libraries closed, books were severely censored or burned, and the entire edifice of academia was suspect. As Tertullian was fond of saying, What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”” implying that Christians did not need philosophy because they had God. Philosophy went from having different schools of thought to having the wrong view and the correct, Christian view.

Literature suffered similarly – works that praised the old gods or were considered too prurient were destroyed. What little survived was because the iota of civilisation in some of the Church leaders won out and a few works were imaginatively reinterpreted in service of Christ rather than burned. Even then, translations were deliberately timid and their authority accrued the weight of the ages – some poems had to wait until the late 20th century to be accurately translated! It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.

In an attempt to divert attention from their own crimes and justify their actions, Christians have also claimed victimhood at the hands of Romans. Nixey demolishes these claims, arguing that of the three waves of repression in which Christians found themselves caught, not one was directed exclusively at Christians. “we know of no government-led persecution for the first 250 years of Christianity,” Nixey claims. “There were simply not that many years of imperially ordered persecution in the Roman Empire. Fewer than thirteen – in three whole centuries of Roman rule.” Furthermore, The Darkening Age delves into contemporary sources to argue that Rome’s only problem with Christianity was one of law and order. Many of the Christians who found themselves afoul of the law were actively seeking martyrdom rather than being oppressed for their faith.

Again reminiscent of jihadists, tempting celestial terms were offered to martyrs: scripture was supposed to have promised them “multiplication, even to a hundred times, of brothers, children, parents, land and homes.” The emperor Trajan explicitly ordered, conquirendi non sunt – these people must not be hunted out. When Emperor Julian refused to execute Christians for their crimes, he was begrudged by the Church for denying Christian ‘combatants’ martyrdom! Even Origen had to admit, the numbers of martyrs were few enough to be easily countable and Christians had died for their faith only occasionally. George Bernard Shaw is said to have acidly observed over a millennium later, martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability! As the author remarks, Rome clearly did not wish to exterminate Christianity; if it did, it would have succeeded without much effort.

Rome wanted obedience, not martyrs. Nixey cites several documents in which Romans are shown pleading with Christians to make just the token gesture to escape punishment. In one tale a Roman prefect named Probus asks the Christian on trial before him no fewer than nine times to even lie to escape execution; the prefect begs the Christian to think of his weeping family, to spare himself pain, to go free. Such grace and liberalism would never be on offer to pagans in Christian courts barely a century later.

Of particular importance in The Darkening Age is Nixey’s argument that the establishment of Christianity in all spheres of Western existence is so complete that Western views cannot help but be biased without even the realisation. For over a millennium and a half, theologians and scholars packaged and repackaged Christian values, smoothing its edges each time, that the Church could eventually speak in a secular accent. Silvio Ferrari, of the University of Milan, has argued that the modern secular state owes its origins to Christianity and is not culturally neutral but rather draws inspiration from Christian theology; Ferrari even warns against its transplantation to cultures with different intellectual development.

The whitewashing of Christianity’s cultural genocide is particularly noticeable in academia. Historians, for example, have recently discarded the term, ‘Dark Ages’ to describe the centuries immediately after the fall of Rome. They argue that there was much development going on if not necessarily of a grand nature. Christopher de Hamel has even gone on to suggest that under pressure from barbarian attack, Rome ‘saved its identity by reinventing itself as a Christian empire’! In what one only hopes was a misjudged sense of humour, the 1965 edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Saints remarks with amusement that Martin of Tours ‘was not averse to the forcible destruction of heathen shrines.’

As Nixey points out, modern histories rarely describe Christian acts violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely zealous, pious, or enthusiastic. John Pollini, from the University of Southern California, agrees that “modern scholarship, influenced by a Judeo-Christian cultural bias has frequently overlooked or downplayed such attacks and even at times sought to present Christian desecration in a positive light.”

But these are not just 20th century sensitivities – one 19th century scholar defended the vicious censorship by Basil of Greek and Latin literature by passing it off as the “educational theory of a cultured man” rather than the “anxious admonition of a bigoted ecclesiastic.” Johannes Geffcken, another influential 19th century scholar, considered it absurd that the rise of Christianity and the destruction of paganism were related in any way. Chrysostom’s condemnation of the Jewish canon was eagerly reprinted by the Nazis.

Not only have Christian excesses been dismissed, many have not even made it into the history books. As Eusebius explained the role of history and historians, it was not to record everything but instead only those things that would do a Christian good to read. These views were then sustained by institutional support – until 1871 the University of Oxford required that all students were members of the Church of England, while in most cases to be given a fellowship in an Oxford college one had to be ordained.

The Darkening Age is not written in the typical turgid academic prose one is accustomed to from scholars, nor do its end notes run for almost as long as the manuscript itself (though the book is well-documented). In fact, there is the uncommon – and evocative – presence of a strand of emotion in the narrative. The purpose of writing this book, the author tells us, is to make more people aware of the history of early Christianity and the damage it wrought to the pagan world that came before it. Nixey makes a strange claim – that much of what transpired in the remaking of Europe in the Christian mould is not well known. At first glance, this comes as a surprise to any lover of the Classics, yet Nixey may well be correct in that the Classics have gone underappreciated or molested by critical theory since the postmodern turn. That is what makes The Darkening Age an even more important work.

It is not just lovers of the Classical World who might not be surprised by Nixey’s arguments: the author’s focus is on Europe when she claims that there are no true pagans left but there are plenty remaining in other parts of the world such as India. The experience of these pagans is not much different, though separated by over a dozen centuries, from those of their Roman brethren. Whenever it came up against a foreign culture, Christianity has found it disturbingly easy to tap into its reservoir of primordial fervour and zealotry to fight it. The Crusades and the Age of Imperialism are the most obvious examples of this but so is the post-Enlightenment secular world order. Though beaten to it by others, some Christian armies did despoil Indian temples and architecture; moreover, rhetoric of conversion still rhymes with the angry frothing at the mouth of Marcellus or the early 5th century Alexandrian bishop Cyril (the one responsible for the murder of the famous mathematician Hypatia).

The Darkening Age is an informative book for those not well versed in the Classics but it is also a gentle goad to inquire epistemologically at the webs of meaning that bind us. It is this second order of thinking that makes this book invaluable to everyone, even those who could not care less for the city of marble that Agrippa left behind. The internet has made it easy to import ideas from one part of the globe to another but without context and a dab of reckless politics, it could be deeply destabilising and extend the cultural genocide begun circa Constantine. Nixey exposes secularism for a simulacrum though in all fairness, that was probably not her intent; regardless, the easiest way to know whom the simulacrum benefits is to challenge it.


July 05, 2018: An addendum as a result of discussions on Twitter.

Hope on the Korean Peninsula

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US President Donald Trump and North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un emerged from their summit meeting in Singapore with smiles and an understanding on the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear programme. After nearly five hours of talks, the two leaders released a joint statement that committed both countries to build a new relationship towards peace and prosperity, joint efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang’s promise to work to achieve a complete denuclearisation of the two Koreas, and the repatriation of the remains of prisoners of war from the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. Interestingly, the joint statement also stated that Trump committed to provide a security guarantee to North Korea.

Trump emerged from the meeting stating that it went “better than expected and no one could’ve expected this” though the statement had no trace of the pre-summit US language of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID).” Both sides promised to begin follow-on negotiations between US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Ri Yong-ho at the earliest possible date.

Before the summit, most experts would have been glad if the conference even took place and the promise of a second meeting would have been taken as a great success. Trump’s ‘unique’ style of diplomacy had worried most observers that the Korean peninsula might be heading towards an expensive and catastrophic confrontation. Indeed, it was barely ten months ago that the president had threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against Pyongyang. Seen against that backdrop, the Singapore summit delivered beyond expectations.

Nonetheless, optimism must be tempered and there are several questions the joint statement raises. The first and most obvious is that the joint statement is woefully short on details – there has been no agreement on what denuclearisation would entail, verification regimes, timetables, deadlines, or penalties. Still, the statement might be seen as a preliminary measure before a more concrete treaty is negotiated in much the same way the Joint Plan of Action paved the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.

It may also be argued that Kim did not promise the United States anything more than he did South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration that pledged to strive for a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War and bring about the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Yet Trump conceded the cessation of military exercises with South Korea – apparently without consulting the military or Seoul – and suggested the removal of all US forces from the country. The president thought such activity would be “very provocative” now that negotiations had begun with Pyongyang and that the cancellation of war games would also save “a tremendous amount of money.”

Kim’s promise of denuclearisation is also a big question mark. While it implies the dismantlement of his own nuclear arsenal – which is a notable achievement – it also opens the door to the removal of US nuclear weapons from the peninsula and perhaps even from bases nearby in Guam and Japan. North Korea does not intend to disarm unilaterally as it has learned its lesson from watching how the United States treated Iraq and Libya.

If Washington does talk over the heads of its regional allies in Seoul and Tokyo, both South Korea and Japan may be tempted to seriously consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal of their own. There have long been whispers in both capitals of an independent and reliable nuclear deterrent and these may only get louder if talks between Pyongyang and Washington drag on indefinitely without a North Korean nuclear disarmament.

It must be noted that the arrangement Trump has reached with Kim is far inferior to the agreement Clinton achieved in 1994 or even the progress made by the Six-Party Talks between 2003 and 2009. Yet this reflects not a shortcoming on Trump’s part but the advancements North Korea has made in its nuclear and missile programmes in the intervening years. American myopia in the late 1990s and early 2000s has given Kim Jong-un a better negotiating hand today through no fault of the Trump administration and the concessions Washington can expect will be less or will come at a steeper price, the difference from a quarter century ago echoing the cost of Washington’s folly.

The success of the Singapore summit and any subsequent agreement will ultimately depend upon whether each side delivers on their promises. Both sides have plenty of ammunition to suspect the other of bad faith. Washington, for example, walked out of its agreement with Iran despite the international community’s protestations for no apparent reason; the United States was found wanting also in the case of the Agreed Framework of 1994 that President Bill Clinton had negotiated with Kim Jong-il. The George W Bush administration remained unconvinced of the utility of diplomacy until North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. For its part, Pyongyang has played the role of the madman to perfection with scorching rhetoric and a series of defiant nuclear and missile tests. With so much bad blood between the two countries, it is difficult to ascertain at this juncture how the negotiations and implementation phase will develop.

The only way to confirm whatever nuclear promises North Korea makes would be through an intrusive monitoring and inspection system as the JCPOA had envisaged with Iran. This will be very complicated process in terms of voluntary disclosures and the freedom international inspectors will have to investigate in a controlled country like North Korea will always be suspect. Furthermore, if the International Atomic Energy Agency’s reports do not conform to intelligence estimates, will the international community press for even more intrusive inspections? A first step, experts suggest, is an open skies agreement that will allow the two Koreas to conduct aerial reconnaisance over each other’s territories and monitor from afar.

Some of Trump’s critics have decried the camaraderie shown to Kim – Trump had called Kim a very talented man for taking over the country from his father at just 26. This stands in sharp contrast to the US president’s reaction to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at the recently concluded G-7 meeting in La Malbaie. North Korea’s human rights record is also brought up to emphasise Trump’s gaucheness.

Pace Trump’s relationship with the leaders of America’s long-time allies, it is worth considering, however, if more would have been achieved by the United States had Trump been boorish to dictators and despots to satisfy the moral itch of a certain segment of commentators.

The key factor to comprehend at this juncture in the US-North Korea talks is what each side wants from the other. Washington’s objectives are clear – the elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. As for North Korea’s aims, observers suggest that most of all, Kim seeks the recognition of the international community and the end to his country’s pariah status. An additional ambition of Pyongyang’s might be to improve the health of North Korea’s economy. Kim’s third aspiration might be the eventual reunification of the Koreas – an idea that carries a powerful cultural resonance on the peninsula despite the drifting apart of the two Koreas since World War II.

Each of these goals would profoundly change the geopolitics of East Asia. First and foremost, it would allow Pyongyang to get out from under China’s thumb. While Beijing has sheltered its tiny eastern neighbour for so long, there are indications that the relationship might not be as strong as it once was. A stronger and more independent Korea, or even just North Korea, might seek friends afar – dare I say Uncle Sam yet? – to balance powers nearby.

It is worth remembering that in their first summit in 2000, Kim Jong-il told his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung that he had no objections to the continued presence of American troops on the peninsula even after reunification – “We are surrounded by big powers – Russia, Japan and China – so the United States must continue to stay for stability and peace in East Asia,” southern Kim remembers northern Kim as saying. South Korea’s present president, Moon Jae-in, seems cautiously ready to midwife this old and seemingly strange desire for better relations with the United States if it still exists – Moon met Kim in a historic visit in April this year and was the one who conveyed Kim’s wish to meet Trump.

Trump’s meeting with Kim holds great potential for shuffling the East Asian geopolitical deck. However, the hurdles are many too – primarily the mistrust built over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War. The Singapore summit was a first step in a long journey towards reconciliation but as Ronald Reagan advised during the Soviet glasnost and perestroika, trust but verify; for now, the stringent economic sanctions on North Korea will remain.


This post appeared on FirstPost on June 13, 2018.

Diminishing the Heathens

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Ronen Bergman

Bergman, Ronen. Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. New York: Random House, 2018. 784 pp.

“If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first,” said the Talmudist Shila of Kefar Tamarta. This spirit has suffused Israeli security policy even since its pre-independence days, argues Ronen Bergman in his latest book that has conveniently – and appropriately – borrowed the amora’s words for its title – Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. In an impressive survey of assassinations from the days of the Bar Giora brigades through the Hashomer, Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, and eventually the modern apparatus of state – Mossad, Shin Bet, AMAN, and the Israeli Defence Forces along with the various special operations units associated with it, Bergman argues that the tactical brilliance and spectacular successes of Israel’s security forces has obscured its strategic failure to bring peace to the country. If decades of targeted assassinations have not worked, is it perhaps time for Israel to look to other methods?

Rise and Kill First has admirably steered clear of two pitfalls that ensnare books like this – the first is to get side-tracked into a brief history of the Israeli conflict with the Arabs, and the second is to slip into either a jingoistic, chest-thumping defence of whatever Israel has done or an ingratiating, Muharram-esque mea culpa for the country’s “misdeeds.” Bergman, the senior political and military analyst for Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, has remained a critical yet understanding observer of Israeli security politics over a vagarious century and presented a fair and balanced analysis by any standards.

It is tempting to delve into some of the dozens of missions discussed in Rise and Kill First, the stunning successes, the indomitable courage, the mind-boggling oversights, and the fatigued callousness. Indeed, the book reads like a thriller and is hard to put down despite its heft. What is important, however, is the framework of Israeli security thinking – its assumptions, its resources, and its goals – that Bergman creates for the reader. Naturally, this framework evolves from the pre-state days to through that of the fledgling Jewish republic to the contemporary system challenged as much by religious terror as Arab nationalism.

Although Bergman’s story starts in the first decade of the 20th century, he spends a scant few pages on Zionist activities during the Mandate period. That period is better covered in Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel but Bergman distills a picture of monstrous Arab hatred for the Jews. Operation Atlas, for example, was a joint Nazi-Arab mission to parachute near Tel Aviv and poison the city’s water supply to kill all the Jews. Later, during the War of Independence, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, declared before invading Israel, “This will be a war of great destruction and slaughter that will be remembered like the massacres carried out by the Mongols and the Crusaders.” Bergman only briefly alludes to this extreme malevolence with which Arabs held Jews but this dimension is elaborated upon in Klaus Gensicke’s Der Mufti von Jerusalem und die Nationalsozialisten and David Motadel’s Islam and Nazi Germany’s War.

From the outset, it was clear that Jews could expect no quarter from the Arabs. This informed Israeli policy towards its neighbours in the early decades after independence: it did not see itself as committed to the borders laid out in United Nations Resolution 181 in November 1947 because it was evident that the Arabs did not accept the partition plan either. Israel’s security agencies were pushed to the limit in performing traditional roles of intelligence gathering on its Arab neighbours and preventing marauding attacks by wandering fedayeen. David Ben Gurion was also pressed by recalcitrant Jews belonging to the Irgun and Lehi unsure of living in a socialistic Israel. One of the ironclad principles Israeli agencies have followed until this day, without exception, was forged in this climate – we don’t kill Jews, Isser Harel, the first director of Shin Bet (Sherut ha-Bitahon haKlali – General Security Service) and later of Mossad (HaMossad leModi’in uleTafkidim Meyuhadim – Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations), declared with finality.

The Mossad, established in 1949, set for itself the role of protecting Jews not just in Israel but all over the world. This may seem like a trivial detail or hubristic overreach to most but as the only Jewish state in the world, so soon after the Shoah, the First Generation decided to take upon themselves the defence of Jewish civilisation. With dozens of Christian and Muslim states whose narratives and interactions form the mainstream, the notion of a civilisational state may seem quaint to many but it held vital importance to the early Israelis.

The early targets of Israel’s “negative treatment,” as the professional lingo goes, were former Nazi scientists continuing their wartime research on advanced weapons for new, Arab masters. Nazis in hiding were also a matter of importance but it was clearly understood that these were symbolic and emotional targets rather than threats to Israel’s security. As a result, the hunt for Nazis petered out and the Mossad, ever pragmatic, was willing to recruit one former Nazi – Otto Skorzeny – to acquire a vital and recurring source of inside information about Egypt’s missile programme; in exchange, Israel promised not to come after him for his crimes during World War II and even attempted – unsuccessfully – to get him off Simon Wiesenthal’s list of most wanted Nazi war criminals.

Like any good thing, Israel was established on the highest moral principles and its security agencies were no different. Revenge is not a Jewish trait and is explicitly forbidden in Vayikra 19:18. Indeed, as Bergman notes about Natan Rotberg, an innovative bomb-maker in the Shayetet 13 (naval commando force), he did not act with hatred in his heart. “You need to know how to forgive,” Rotberg had told the author in an interview in 2015. This principle finds its way also into the legal opinion of the military advocate general written many years later that sets the parameters of an assassination operation as one in which harm is imminent and is not for revenge or punishment for a past act. The IDF’s Human Resources Directorate has even consulted with philosophers in academia to define the scope of some of their policies. Admittedly, like all things human and corruptible, these noble principles and well-intentioned guidelines have not strictly been followed over the years, especially in the heat of battle.

One of Israel’s early methods of assassination, parcel bombs, such as the ones used to eliminate the head of Egyptian intelligence, Col Mustafa Hafez, and Salah Mustafa, the Egyptian military attaché in Jordan stirred up some debate. Although this method presented the least danger for operatives, particularly in hostile territories, it also left to chance the success of the mission – parcels could be intercepted; someone else could open it; the target might only be injured or maimed and killed. Agents refrained from sending parcel bombs to their targets except in the most necessary of conditions; despite the risks and uncertainty involved, the method had quite a high success rate particularly in Gaza. Nevertheless, Mossad and its sister organisations moved away from using parcel bombs as soon as technology allowed them something more accurate and certain.

Bergman’s work also reveals how little counter-terrorism cooperation Israel has received from Europe and the United States. Although Washington entered into an information sharing agreement with Jerusalem after the Suez Crisis in 1956 and began selling military equipment and extending aid after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli intelligence always found their Western counterparts unresponsive to security alerts and generally dismissive of Jewish concerns. For its part, Israel, too, hesitated to operate in friendly countries without the permission of the local authorities: Jerusalem had decided that it might need European help in other arenas and it was not worth antagonising them.

That all changed after the massacre of the Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972. German security was criminally negligent and incompetent from the beginning to end and the result was the death of 11 Israelis. Then prime minister Golda Meir rescinded her orders to Mossad not to operate in Europe, though they have always been cautious about doing so. Interestingly, former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir reaffirmed Rotberg’s view in a February 2006 interview to the Israeli daily Haaretz that Mivtza Za’am Ha’el was not motivated by revenge but by the desire to ensure that such a tragedy never repeats itself.

The United States outdid the sluggish Europeans by maintaining close relations to the Palestinian movement through Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of operations for Black September – the group that had carried out the Munich massacre. Langley frequently helped move Salameh around, tipped him off about Israeli surveillance, and even paid for his honeymoon (to Hawaii and Disneyland). Similar courtesies were extended to Atef Bseiso, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) head of intelligence; both were eventually dispatched by Israel.

When Israeli intelligence did manage to carry out a successful execution, Western nations severely criticised the Jewish state if the operation was carried out on their soil, for even the slightest collateral damage, and a general appeal to abjure from violence. It was blatant hypocrisy but became more apparent when all condemnation fell silent after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Israel, long used to being counter-terrorism’s Cassandra, suddenly found itself in large crowds and asked to train foreign services in their methods.

Israeli security agencies have obviously evolved over the years to counter new threats and take into account the latest technologies. One periodisation that Rise and Kill First offers divides the history of independent Israel into four eras. The first was an era of material weakness of the Jewish state and largely inter-state conflict with its neighbours. Even the fedayeen terrorism was strongly controlled by the security services of neighbouring Arab states and dropped off as Israel hit back directly at them.

The Six-Day War marks the beginning of the second period, when Palestinians realised that their dream of creating an Arab state in the remaining 23 percent of Mandatory Palestine – the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan had been created with 77 percent in April 1921 – could not be achieved by relying on Arab strength of arms. Despite its inferiority in numbers, the Jewish state had repeatedly prevailed over Arab armies and irregulars time and again. The second period marks the mushrooming of terrorist groups and an exponential expansion in the scope and range of their activities. Although state support had lessened, it had not vanished entirely. Furthermore, as with any organisation, there had been some institutionalisation of knowledge and a new generation of terrorists had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. The new profile characteristically led to a greater diversity of targets that were not all strictly restricted to the boundaries of Israel. International airlines were hijacked on routes that carried a greater number of Jews and Israelis were targeted for assassination.

After the initial surprise had worn off, Israeli intelligence quickly adapted and struck harder with the help of in-house special teams such as Caesarea and the military’s commando forces like the Sayeret Matkal, the Shayetet 13, and Shaldag to reach far beyond the Greater Levant and strike terrorist leaders. However, Palestinian groups had developed elaborate funding networks and become better armed over the years that Israel was forced to use increasingly greater force against terrorist targets. Collateral damage and brutality correspondingly increased on both sides and the war in Lebanon saw a particularly dark chapter in the history of Israeli targetted assassinations.

Until Lebanon, Israel’s covert operations had taken exceptional care to avoid collateral damage. Missions were scrubbed repeatedly over the sudden appearance of family and were never planned in crowded public areas. This is not to say that there were no unintended casualties but great efforts were taken to keep them to a minimum. Even Meir Dagan’s innovative methods with the Zikit squads of rooting out terrorists in Gaza in the early 1970s did not ratchet up a civilian body count.

Ariel Sharon had sold Israel’s political leaders a bill of goods on Lebanon and Israel’s increasing frustration at the lack of (mis)anticipated success in the conflict caused the IDF to hit harder. Additionally, Israel’s allies in Lebanon, the Maronite Catholic Phalange led by Pierre Gemayel, were savage barbarians who had their own scores to settle with the Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims. On several occasions, Mossad had refused to work with them and some officers had even resigned in protest but the exigencies of war had a momentum of their own. The brutality between the Christians and Muslims dragged the IDF in and after particularly brutal attack in Nahariya in 1979, IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan ordered the setting up of the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners.

The FLLF operated without the constraints restricting Israeli intelligence. In other words, no heed was given to collateral damage and hundreds of civilians were killed in operations that targetted PLO assets. To conceal Israel’s role, the group set itself up as another of a dozen terrorist groups and even claimed credit for (but never carried out) attacks on Israeli targets and allies. By all standards of international law, Israel’s FLLF indulged in terrorism. IDF General Avigdor Ben-Gal insists that a key difference between the FLLF and Arab terrorist groups, however little consolation it may be to its victims, was that the former ultimately targetted the PLO rather than sow terror with indiscriminate acts of violence. Regardless, many Israelis have come to see Lebanon as Israel’s Vietnam in that the alliance with an unsavoury local outfit propagated a moral contagion among Israeli security agencies as well.

The third era came with the First Intifada in 1987. Decades of failed promises and corruption had eroded the authority of Palestinian leaders on the street. The uprising was sparked off as a spontaneous groundswell after a minor incident – an IDF truck accidentally crashed into a car killing four Palestinians – became a symbol of Israeli callousness towards Palestinian lives. The entirety of Israel’s security services were unprepared and at a loss as to how to deal with the riots and every use of force was projected to the world as state brutality against unarmed civilians in a reversal of the David and Goliath story. The fact of the matter, however, is that much of the deaths during the Intifada were due to intra-Palestinian settling of scores.

Hamas’ introduction of suicide bombing in 1994 again shocked Israel. The very willingness of the suicide bomber to die changed the equation and made the fear of Israeli counter-terrorism less effective in that the terrorists were already prepared to die.

Bergman’s research reveals that Israeli intelligence was not outdone merely by the terrorists’ tactics and technological acquisitions (mainly from Iran and Syria) in the turbulent period between the outbreak of the First Intifada and the end of the Second Intifada in 2005 but were intellectually in the wrong place to understand the evolving threat from their neighbourhood. The head of Shin Bet, Amichay Ayalon, for example, was initially quite pleased with the enervation of the PLO and the rise of Hamas in the early 1990s. In a surprising misreading from a sabra, Bergman relays that Ayalon believed that the Islamism of Hamas was preferable to the nationalism of the PLO. Similarly, the Israelis could not process Hamas co-founder Ahmed Yassin’s quiet admission to Barak Ben-Zur, head of AMAN’s terrorism branch, that “[t]here will never be peace. We will take what you give but we will never give up our armed struggle.” It took much blood to be spilled before Israeli intelligence gained its bearings again.

Early failures against the Intifada had begun a revolution inside the Israeli security establishment. The agencies were relying more and more on modern technology to identify relevant data and collate it in a manner meaningful to operatives on the ground. Israel was among the first countries to track terrorists using their mobile phones and also the first to introduce drones in targetted killings. Computers had also been brought in during the leadership of Ayalon to look for patterns and put everything together. Moshe Yaalon, when made chief of the IDF’s Central Command, together with the head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, created a Joint War Room where information from all sources would be pooled to be analysed. The JWR quickly bore fruit and the intelligence agencies were able to interdict terror operations into Israel. Combined with a high-tech border security fence, access to Israel became much harder for would-be terrorists.

Bergman’s periodisation fits snugly with political and technological developments readers would already be aware of. The unique contribution of Rise and Kill First is the psychological and emotional cost of a grinding war of attrition and its effects on jus in bello. Israeli intelligence had strict guidelines regarding the rules of engagement but the more numerous and bloody terrorist attacks became, the more lax Israeli commandos seemed to be about the rules in return. “Shudder under the wing” was the phrase one commander used to describe how his pilots were supposed to feel about bombing a terrorist target.

Interestingly, the Israeli public at large would not have any of this callous attitude. Errors in Israeli counter-terrorism brought sharp cries from common Israelis, demanding that their government maintain a civility in its response to terrorism. The outrage over extra-judicial killings by the Shin Bet in the Parashat Kav 300 in 1984 nearly toppled a government and ended the career of Avraham Shalom, then head of Shin Bet. Yet while insisting on high moral standards from its armed forces, Israelis were equally unforgiving on their leaders for allowing terrorism to continue unabated. The terms were clear – kill those terrorists without mercy but do so in keeping with civil and moral standards; do not become them.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in Rise and Kill First is the enormous number of mistakes Israel’s intelligence services made in their operations that either failed to kill their prey, allowed him to escape, caused unmanageable collateral damage, or simply was a mess from beginning to end. This is certainly not the Mossad of legend, and Bergman’s telling of the story pulls the most feared and admired intelligence service in the world back down into the realm of ordinary mortals.

There is a scene in the 2005 movie, The Constant Gardener, in which an Amnesty International activist, Tessa Quayle, says to the resident MI-6 agent in Kenya, “I thought you spies knew everything.” Tim Donohue, the agent, replies, “Only God knows everything and He works for the Mossad.”

Bergman’s work suggests that the Mossad, after a few spectacular successes in the early years, settled back and became an organisation of pencil-pushing bureaucrats whose non-performance was protected by secrecy laws. For many years, most of the counter-terrorism workload had been borne by Shin Bet and AMAN (Agaf HaModi’in – Directorate of Military Intelligence) with firepower assistance from the IDF. It was during the prime ministership of Ariel Sharon that Meir Dagan was appointed the head of Mossad to reconvert the “effete” outfit back into one of spies with “daggers between their teeth.”

By the very nature of the conflicts Israel has found itself in, the legends of its intelligence community are mostly from counter-terrorism operations. Bergman reminds us of the few stunning successes they have had in more conventional activities against their neighbours as well. The exploits of Wolfgang Lotz and Eliyahu Cohen are well-known as are the bombing of the nuclear reactors in Iraq (Osirak, 1981) and Syria (Al-Kibar, 2007) but less known are exploits such as the elimination of Egypt’s entire military supreme command hours before the Suez Crisis began or the assassination of Muhammad Suleimani, the National Security Advisor to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in his house in Tartus. Such missions not only set enemy ambitions back but also paralysed them with fear that Israel was listening in at every moment and they might be the next targets.

Of course, some of Israeli intelligence operations contributed to the Jewish state’s resounding successes in its wars with its Arab neighbours. Just days before the Suez Crisis in 1956, for example, the precursor of AMAN’s (Agaf HaModi’in – Directorate of Military Intelligence) Unit 8200, responsible for signals intelligence, picked up information that placed the entire Egyptian military supreme command on a plane from Damascus to Cairo. On the afternoon of October 28, hours before land operations were to commence, the Israeli Air Force shot down one of the two Ilyushin Il-14s ferrying Egypt’s military leaders and wiped out its senior command. In the capture of Gaza in the subsequent war, Israel uncovered secret files that contained a long list of Palestinian terrorists conducting hit-and-run missions into Israel; over the next year, each of them received a parcel in the mail.

Bergman’s argument that Israel has for long succeeded and brilliantly at the tactical level against her enemies but has not achieved her strategic goals despite a body count that keeps steadily creeping upwards is not a new one. Daniel Byman’s A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism makes a similar point. The author suggests that the only solution is peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and he offers the change in thinking of two fiercely hawkish leaders – Sharon and Dagan – as food for thought in his study. These are not the only warriors turned peacemakers – Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and several other Israeli prime ministers and leaders who have had a distinguished military record have come to feel the nihilism of conflict without end.

Well-intentioned though this position may be, the operational benefits of wearing down experience through assassinations cannot be denied, and the statements of Yassin and dozens like him cannot be dismissed. How do you fight an enemy that will not stop attacking you until you or he is dead?

Rise and Kill First does not try to judge or solve Israel’s imbroglio with the Arabs. Rather, it seeks to focus on the consequences of Israel’s preferred policy of targetted assassinations. Several times, the figure eliminated was replaced by someone far more capable and worse. Even if this were not the case and terror groups have dissolved owing to Israeli strikes, others have sprung up in its place. Bergman sensitively discusses the psychological toll of such never-ending operations in a book packed with detail for the trivia aficionado and historian as well as ethicist and policy wonk.

Despite being trained as a lawyer – with an M.Phil in international relations and a doctorate in history from Cambridge as well – there is little legal analysis in Rise and Kill First. Rather, Bergman leaves as much of the story as possible to participants because it is also a story of a clash of personalities and philosophies – Menachem Begin’s Biblical nostalgia, Efraim Halevy’s concern for diplomatic fallout, Sharon’s Joshua complex (the Israelite commissioned by G-d to conquer the land of Canaan in a milchemet mitzvah – obligatory war), Dagan the scalpel.

Bergman’s seven years of research and over one thousand interviews conducted shines through in the magisterial Rise and Kill First. This book is an invaluable contribution to several fields of study – security studies, ethics, foreign policy, and the history of Israel. Pace the seriousness and complexity of its topic, Rise and Kill First is a captivating read with even a slight emotional roller coaster of a novel.

Violence is a serious affair in Judaism and not something to be taken up lightly. Over their history, Jews have seldom been in a position to engage in wars and hence their thoughts on jus ad bellum and jus in bello – just war and just conduct in war – have not been highly developed. However, the Talmud lays down several conditions that makes it very difficult to go to war. As Bergman quotes in his opening, the scriptures say of defensive wars to rise and kill first. And of preemptive defensive war, the Sages say (Sotah 44b) to diminish the heathen before he comes and wages war against you.