Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Green Prince

Like many of you, I like spy novels. Over the years I’ve read, I think, most of John le Carré, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum, and I know I’ve read all of Ian Fleming’s books. I’ve read lots of others too, and, although I haven’t gotten yet to Daniel Silva (which is particularly strange given that Joan has read every one of his Gabriel Alon books and is a huge fan), I certainly hope to one of these days. But saying wherein exactly lies the appeal of the genre itself—that is a more complicated thing to attempt. Partially, of course, spy novels—particularly when they’re well written—are engaging because they’re so exciting: just (I’m supposing) as in the real world of espionage, the characters in these novels are always changing identities. Loyalties are always shifting, never fixed, always at least slightly flexible. Even bravery itself is a negotiable commodity in that it can characterize people who themselves are admirable but who are in the service of pernicious, even evil, governments…and so can thus be both a negative and a positive trait depending on circumstance: to be good, it is hardly ever enough “just” to be brave!

When I force myself to consider the issue thoughtfully, however, I think that what I like the most about the genre is precisely the flimsiness of the foundation on which the whole storyline almost inevitably rests, the way that “nothing is as it seems” becomes not a strange variation on reality, but how reality itself functions…so that even towards the end of the book, you are still not entirely sure which team some of the characters in the novel, even occasionally including the most important ones, are playing on or for. In that, these books feel as though they mirror an aspect of life we mostly like to ignore in favor of a much more secure sense that we can say easily who’s who in the world, and where all the people around us stand. I understand that preference. I feel that way myself—that security comes specifically from knowing how everybody feels about every conceivable issue—but I also know that in the real world, just like in the world of literary fiction, people are often not quite (or not at all) as they seem.

Outside the literary framework, however, it’s hard to know how to feel about espionage….and particularly when it involves an individual choosing to aid his own nation’s enemy. How we think about such cases usually depends entirely on which nation we ourselves belong to. We think of Germans who chose to assist the Allies during the Second World War to be moral heroes, for example, by conceptualizing them as men and women who were able to overcome their own natural inclination to support the state of which they were citizens to serve the cause of justice and liberty precisely by working to destroy Nazism. Americans, on the other hand, who betrayed our nation during the Cold War by passing secret information to the Soviet Union, we think of as criminals and worse than criminals…and we do not much care if they themselves felt that they were behaving nobly or serving the finer, more just cause.  But it really is more complicated than that makes it sound: Benedict Arnold, after all, is recalled as a traitor not because he betrayed the king to whom he had sworn his allegiance, but because he found himself ultimately unable, or at least unwilling, to abandon his sworn allegiance to that king.

The reasonability of betraying one’s country will therefore depend fully on who is doing the evaluating—a citizen of the country harmed or helped by the treachery.  But what if right and wrong were not relative concepts at all but absolute ones…and there were therefore causes that were just and good, and others that were wrong absolutely? How could it not be morally right to serve the cause of good…and how could that moral obligation possibly be contingent on the circumstances of one’s birth or the color of one’s passport? But if that is the case, then who exactly gets to serve as the ultimate moral arbiter, thus as the final decision-maker regarding right and wrong (let alone good and evil) in the world of international politics? And so we come full-circle back to the obligation of individuals to identify the path of decency and take it…regardless of the opinions of others who see things entirely differently.

All this by way of telling you about a remarkable experience I had in Washington two months ago when I attended a pre-chag AIPAC summit for rabbis from all over the U.S. and had the opportunity to hear Mosab Hassan Yousef speak about his life and his book, Son of Hamas, which was published in 2011 by Tyndale Momentum. Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas and one of its West Bank leaders. Raised to consider his father a hero, Mosab slowly grew away from his father’s politics. And, as he did, he concomitantly became aware of something else as well: that his position in the Palestinian world as his father’s son gave him an opportunity not only to know about all sorts of secret things, but—far more to the point—to prevent innocents from being killed in terrorist attacks, and lots of them. That awareness grew slowly, however. His first arrest by Israel came at age ten, when he was found throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada. That incident in 1988, however, was only the first time he was arrested and imprisoned, and he was in and out of Israeli prisons for almost a full decade. What happened during those years is the least clear part of the story. He was arrested, then released, then re-arrested. In the course of his various incarcerations, it became clear to the Israelis who exactly he was…and, more to the point, that he was considered by many to be, as the oldest child in his family, his father’s most likely successor.

One thing led to another. By 1997, Yousef had become a full-fledged informant for the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency that is Israel’s CIA. And he remained in place, feeding the Israelis information that saved uncountable numbers of innocent lives, for a full decade. Called the Green Prince by his Israeli handlers, he claims personally to have provided Israel with enough advance notice to save Shimon Peres himself from an assassination attempt in 2001. And then, in 2007, he no longer felt he could maintain his cover and he left the Middle East to settle in San Diego, breaking permanently with his family and his people. Making the story even more complex, he also converted to Christianity in 2005, which faith remains even now as the framework for his decision-making in life and his sense of his place in the world. And even the end of the story to date is fraught with exciting, yet wholly unlikely, details. The United States, recognizing that he had been arrested multiple times as a Hamas operative, attempted to deport him. And he would surely have been sent back to Ramallah, where he would almost certainly have been killed, had not his Israeli handler, one Gonen Ben-Itzhak, come forward to defy protocol and risk his own arrest by publicly revealing his own identity and testifying on Yousef’s behalf.

The book is remarkable. The movie based on the book, called The Green Prince and directed by Nadav Schirman, is scheduled for release in a few weeks and promises to be incredibly exciting. (To see the preview, click here.) But reading the book was nothing like meeting the author. I could hardly believe he “just” walks around like a regular person with a bodyguard and without any obvious way to defend himself against a universe of people who must think of him as the ultimate traitor. But there he was…wearing torn blue jeans and a t-shirt like any American twenty-something—he’s actually thirty-six years old—and sitting on a folding chair right in front of me with Gonen Ben-Itzhak by his side.
He looked, to say the least, unassuming. He spoke quietly in accented, but fully understandable English. He chose his words carefully, but it was also obvious that he must have given the speech we heard a thousand times. Nor did he appear to be even slightly surprised by any of the questions that were put to him after his talk ended. And yet he couldn’t have seemed more genuine or less interested in saying what he could easily have guessed his audience wished to hear. The fact that he came dressed in torn blue jeans, which struck me at first as an odd, possibly even disrespectful, way to come dressed to address 300+ rabbis, later on affected me less negatively: here was someone who has lived through so many iterations of himself, I think I thought, that he simply has no more energy to present himself other than as he actually is. And who he is, is what we saw: a man who turned his back on his family and his people for the sake of doing good in the world. We talk glibly, all of us, about being opposed to terrorism, about being appalled by the concept of murdering innocents to make political hay. But here, it struck me, is a man who did far more than talk about being opposed to terror, but who risked (and surely continues to risk) his life for the sake of fighting terror and saving the lives of countless innocents.  Ben-Itzhak said that in so many words, actually, that the world is filled with people who owe Yousef their lives and don’t even know it.

So who is this Yousef? Is he a traitor to his people or a hero who saw an opportunity to do good in the world and took it? Is allegiance to one’s people by definition moral? We surely don’t think that...except when it is our own country that the person turning his back on his country is turning his back on. But I see things differently. I admire Yousef neither because he chose to aid Israel in its war against terror nor because he found the courage to break with his father. I admire him because he saw himself at a crossroads and chose what appeared to him to be the path of justice and decency despite the price he obviously knew perfectly well he would end up paying…if he survived long enough to pay any price at all. That kind of moral excellence is sorely wanting in our world. It manifests itself here and there, often surfacing in the least likely contexts. But it surfaced in Mosab Hassan Yousef. I felt honored to meet him and to hear him speak. And inspired by what I heard to recommend his book to you all. It is difficult reading in parts—he does not hold back at all when he describes his experiences in Israeli prisons—but also exhilarating and encouraging. There are, it turns out, people prepared to pay whatever price is exacted from them for doing good in the world. And we live in a better world because of them.

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