Rise and Kill First: The Secret His­to­ry of Israel’s Tar­get­ed Assassinations

Ronen Bergman

By – July 5, 2018

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.

Discussion Questions

In Rise and Kill First, Ronen Bergman has writ­ten a defin­i­tive his­to­ry of the tar­get­ed assas­si­na­tions car­ried out by Israel’s secu­ri­ty ser­vices— the Mossad, Shin Bet, and IDF. How, one won­ders, was Bergman able to pen­e­trate the opac­i­ty that per­vades the Israeli defense and intel­li­gence estab­lish­ments — which active­ly sought to block his efforts — to an extent enabling him to tell this sto­ry in such aston­ish­ing detail? It is a repor­to­r­i­al feat of daz­zling proportions.

The result is a nar­ra­tive both riv­et­ing and rev­e­la­to­ry. Read­ers will be amazed at the scale and tac­ti­cal genius of the killings car­ried out by the Israeli secu­ri­ty ser­vices, while being appalled at oper­a­tions gone wrong. They will also be con­front­ed with moral ambiguity.

Loss of inno­cent life is the inevitable byprod­uct of assas­si­na­tions car­ried out from the air or by explo­sives. Although Israel has abort­ed count­less oper­a­tions to avoid unac­cept­able col­lat­er­al dam­age,” many oper­a­tions could not be car­ried out if no harm to inno­cents were deemed tol­er­a­ble. And that would not be with­out con­se­quence to inno­cent Israelis. It is a dilem­ma at the heart of this impor­tant book.