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The founding fathers of the Jewish state believed that those projects were an almost mystical calling: important steps toward reversing the ancient exile that had turned a once united people into a diaspora.
This may sound wholly altruistic, but Israel was also acting out of self-interest — with a powerful strategic motive. Immigration represented the most rapid way to make the new state stronger and, in population terms, bigger. Because having more people, including soldiers and scientists, meant greater national security, the intelligence community was sure to be involved.
These, however, were highly sensitive missions. Jews scattered around the world were not Israeli citizens; their home countries could object very strongly to interference in the lives of their nationals. The Jews receiving uninvited aid could suffer from accusations of dual loyalty hurled by the non-Jewish majorities all around them.
After the biggest immigration projects undertaken in the name of Jewish intelligence — bringing Jews out of the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia — were complete, the parts of the clandestine community dedicated to “Jewish intelligence” rapidly shrunk.
Yet the Mossad did decide to keep one part of its overseas efforts, Bitzur, open as a small unit — as two intelligence operatives put it in simple terms, “just in case” and “for a rainy day.” Unpleasant precipitation arrived after 9/11, when Israel noticed an upsurge of anti-Semitism in many countries. A historic synagogue in Tunisia was bombed, and other Jewish sites were targeted by terrorists who seemed to believe that Jews and Americans all constituted the same enemy, which Islam needed to wipe out.
Bitzur operatives were assigned to perform their traditional task of helping to organize self-defense for Jewish communities around the globe. This time, however, the task was almost always performed in conjunction with local police forces.
A fact that may be surprising — considering how tough, realistic and mission-oriented they need to be — is that Mossad officers have a soft spot for their sense of responsibility toward the Jewish people. Mossad men and women do not forget that they are defending and fighting for the one and only homeland for Jews.
Even in Iran, they sincerely believe that they are defending Jewish interests by trying feverishly to sabotage that nation’s nuclear ambitions. But for their own good, the Mossad carefully avoids involving the Jews in Iran.
Dan Raviv of CBS News and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman are co-authors of the best-seller “Every Spy a Prince” (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) and of a new history of the Mossad and other secret agencies, “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars” (Levant Books). They blog at IsraelSpy.com.