Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First retells a joke that goes like this: when a person passes away, he stands before God, who is sitting on the divine throne in Heaven. God asks each person waiting in line whether that individual should go to Heaven or Hell. God pronounces his judgement, and the next person in line then steps forward. One day, the last person in line is an intelligence officer whose job when he was alive was to determine the targets of assassination. “And where should you go?” God asks the officer. “Nowhere,” comes the reply. “You’re sitting in my chair.”
In Rise and Kill First, so named because of the Talmudic principle that should someone seek to kill you, you should rise up and kill him first, military and intelligence reporter Ronen Bergman uncovers and wrestles with Israel’s targeted assassinations. Working around the inherent secrecy of these operations and their main actors and victims, Bergman documents their historical, political, and moral implications. Showing the unique mentality of Israelis when it comes to dealing with their violent neighbors, Bergman presents a range of viewpoints on the impact assassinating terrorists has had on the entire history of the State of Israel. After all, the scope of such activity includes Jewish infighting (the Irgun vs. the Haganah), responding to numerous plane hijackings (most famously in the renowned Entebbe Rescue), chasing down the murderers of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the birth of Hamas and Hezbollah, dealing with suicide bombings, targeting Iranian scientists working on nuclear projects, and the development of drones as weapons in the war on terror. While Israel has had major strategic successes, they have been accompanied by failures, including the deaths of innocent civilians, which Bergman does not hesitate to expose and investigate.
In its presentation of new information regarding previously known hits and misses, gleaned through meticulous research and interviews with key players on both sides of the continual military struggle, Bergman’s work is unquestionably authoritative. He succeeds masterfully in telling the tale of a nation reborn just seventy years ago, whose constant need to defend itself often brings it into conflict with principles of morality and democracy. The consciousness of this tension, and the extensive thought, negotiation, and effort by Israel’s leaders and elite soldiers to navigate it, make up the heart of this eye-opening account.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.