All Honor to Our Shin Bet

In 1951 I was a student at the Chavat Halimud in southern Jerusalem’s East Talpiot section. The school was originally founded in 1928 as an agricultural training farm for girls by Rahel Yanait Ben-Tzvi, wife of Israel’s second president. When I attended, classes were for both young men and young women.

The school was situated near the Arab Muslim village of Sur Bahir, surrounded by high wire fences and patrolled by soldiers of the Jordanian Legion who had conquered the eastern section of Jerusalem in the 1948 war. From our windows we could see the magnificent building of Armon Hanatziv, the Governor’s Palace. It had been the headquarters of the British Mandatory government from 1918-1948 and after our War of Independence it became the headquarters for the United Nations observers.

In order to leave and to return to our campus and dormitories we were required to show a pass issued by the military authorities. My classmate, Moshe Jamchy (Netanel), an immigrant from Iraq, and I , used our passes every afternoon to walk down into central Jerusalem under Israeli control. We varied our walks, going down Derech Hebron and returning by Derech Betlehem, always curious to see what the other side of the fence looked like.

I especially enjoyed walking along Julian’s Way, now known as King David Street. The architecture was amazing and the sun shining on Jerusalem stone highlighted the details of the buildings. On one side was the famous King David Hotel where aristocracy stayed while visiting the city. During his exile from Ethiopia, the former Emperor Haile Selassie, was a frequent guest.

It was considered the highlight of a visit to take high tea in the afternoon on the terrace where we could see the walls of the Old City, the Dormition Abbey, and all the historic ancient places forbidden to us now under Jordanian military occupation.

Across the street from the King David Hotel was the Jerusalem YMCA, the most magnificent of all the YMCA’s in the world. It was the only place in all of Israeli Jerusalem where Jews, Muslims and Christians could meet and mingle.

I became a member of the Jerusalem Y and soon became friendly with the building superintendent, an Arab Christian named Raffoul Ghawi. He had been born in Jerusalem, attended the Schneller school, once an orphanage for Arab children, and was a member of the Lutheran Protestant church.

On several occasions Raffoul and his wife Widad would invite me upstairs for tea in their apartment. Widad was usually surrounded by a few older Arab Christian women, sipping tea, talking, enjoying baklawa, and crocheting. Raffoul and I sat in a corner discussing life in Jerusalem but he constantly avoided any political discussion.

In 1948 a Military Government was established for Jerusalem led by Dov Joseph, the Military Governor. It controlled the movement and activities of every Arab living in Israeli Jerusalem who had to show a military pass for travel from one place to another. Fortunately, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion abolished the Military Government on January 30, 1949 and by a decree he replaced it with a civilian administration.

On a number of my visits to the Ghawi’s apartment for tea, there was also a visit from an Israeli military officer (I don’t remember if his name was HaCohen or HaLevi) and he and Raffoul spoke in English. I did not feel comfortable in his presence. He was a stern-looking man, hardly ever smiling, and lacking courtesies which was a common trait among many non-European born Israelis in those days.

Once he asked me if I had other Arab friends or did I know any other Arabs. I replied that I had no Arab friends at all, and that I was acquainted with Mr. Ghawi solely via my membership in the Y.

After a few visits when his presence was visible, I thankfully never saw him again. I disliked his demeanor, his abruptness, and his lack of manners. Maybe he might have been a member of the nascent Shin Bet Security Services seeking information about local Arabs from Mr. Ghawi. At least that thought occurred to me then.

But I have immense respect for our Shin Bet. I have had only one brief meeting with them in 1969 and it was a pleasant and cordial one.

I had just returned to Israel from a visit in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. My visit to Poland had been an invitation from the Polish government Ministry of Culture and Education. I had written a number of articles about the rise of anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews in Poland in 1968. While in Poland I had been interviewed by several newspapers and had made responses to questions on Polish television.

One day, back in Israel, there was a knock at the door of my home in Tel-Aviv and a pleasant-looking older man asked me to accompany him to a brief meeting with a Mr. B. in his office at the Kiriya in the former building of the German Templars. I was invited to sit down, Mr. B. shook my hand and asked me how I had enjoyed my visit in Poland.

I was amazed and wondered how he knew that I had been in Poland. He handed me several sheets of paper, some containing clippings of my interviews with the Polish press and asked me a few questions about what I had said and what were my general observations and impressions. When the meeting ended, he shook my hand warmly and thanked me for coming.

It was my only encounter with the Shin Bet and at once I admired them for their knowledge and vast information. They are the guardians of the security of every Israeli citizen and are deserving of our pride and our respect.

For that reason I was offended by a recent article criticizing the Shin Bet and accusing them of “torturing” the young Jewish terrorists responsible for the murder of a 15 month old Arab baby boy and the death of his parents in the village of Duma.

There was no water-boarding such as Americans used to gain information from Guantanamo prisoners, there was no solitary confinement, no chains or shackles, no deprivation of food or water. In fact, there was no “torture” of any kind, as the assailants’ lawyers have alleged.

In questioning suspects and alleged criminals, it is frequently necessary to use some degree of force or threat of force in order to obtain important information. Maybe twisting an arm a bit too tight can help to open sealed lips. After all,vital information is never gained over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

The Jewish terrorists who committed the massacre in Duma are known to our police and to the Shin Bet. Some important evidence appears to be lacking for a conviction. But they can be held under administrative detention for as long as necessary, unless the courts rule otherwise.

Our Shin Bet is the pride of every citizen of Israel. They act in accordance with the rules and regulations under which they operate. Torture is not a part of their procedures. Limited force is perfectly acceptable. In comparison to the police and security services of other countries, ours ranks at the top of the list for humaneness.

Jews who are convicted of crimes of murder and terrorism deserve the same treatment and same punishment which is handed out to Arabs convicted of similar crimes. We cannot and we must not have two sets of justice…one for Jews and one for Arabs. Our courts and our Justices are wise enough in the law to know that equal punishment for equal crimes is the law of the land.

Instead of criticizing our Shin Bet Security personnel, we should praise them and honor them for the services which they faithfully follow in guaranteeing safety and security for us all. As a proud Israeli citizen I am immensely grateful to the men and women of our Shabak who often place their own lives in danger while attempting to save all of us from unnecessary danger. They deserve our gratitude, not our criticism. Kol hakavod. All honor to them.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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