Operation Volozhyn

Return to a vanished world.

Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
BELARUS – At the age of nearly 80, after a long and distinguished career in the service of his country, Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, embarks on his life’s next task; injecting life into the “Jewish Acropolis,” the famous Volozhyn Yeshiva, established by his great-grandfather in Belorussia (now Belarus), and subsequently closed by the Nazis. Yossi Aloni and I returned with him to the source.
In September 1904, Sigmund Freud visited the Acropolis. He was 48 years old.
Thirty-two years later at the age of 80, he wrote in an article on amnesia, “A mixed feeling of astonishment and joy enveloped me. I told myself that all this indeed exists exactly as we had learnt in school.”
If the Acropolis in Athens is the acme of Western civilization, Volozhyn is the acropolis of Jewish learning. But Halevy, always the spy, keeps his emotions locked up inside. It was clear to me that he was glad to be at the yeshiva, but his countenance reveals nothing. Freudian astonishment was certainly not present here. If the father of psychoanalysis learnt about the Acropolis in school, the ex-head of the Mossad knew about Volozhyn from his home.
His mother was the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (known by the Hebrew acronym Natziv) one of the yeshiva’s founders.
But Halevy will learn in Volozhyn what Freud learnt after his visit to the Acropolis: with no dialogue with the past, we lack values. “The chains that link us through many previous generations have to be recreated,” he says, as we pace the halls of the desolate yeshiva building.
Yeshivat Volozhyn is not only a part of the Halevy family tree. Shimon Peres’s grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meltzer, was a graduate of the yeshiva and was murdered during the Holocaust. Natan Milikovsky, grandfather of Benjamin Netanyahu, studied in the yeshiva for eight years and was ordained there as a rabbi.
It was there that he delivered lectures, a central theme of which was Eretz Yisrael.
Other prominent students included Kalonimus Wolf Wissotzky, the “Tea King” of Russia, and the writers Micha Josef Berdyczewski and Haim Nahman Bialik.
Some six months after he arrived in Volozhyn, Bialik wrote Kitvei Hamishtageya (Writings of a Madman) his first work in prose, and it was here that he refined his famous poem, To a Bird.
When Bialik realized that Volozhyn was “nothing but Gemara, Gemara, Gemara,” he decided to leave.
Ephraim Halevy was born in 1934, the year Bialik died. Even after he retired as head of the Mossad he continues to spy.
This time on immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have difficulty in proving they are Jewish.
The Shorashim (Roots) Center is a type of international investigations office based in Jerusalem. Each year it helps hundreds of men and women to discover vital documents to convince the Israeli rabbinical courts of their Jewishness.
The Jewish-Australian land developer and millionaire Harry Triguboff set up the center, and Halevy is chairman of its foundation. Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, has tried to persuade Halevy to serve as chairman of a public committee to be established to renovate the Volozhyn Yeshiva. The concept is not to restore the yeshiva as a place of study, but rather as a center of Jewish culture, in an attempt to show Jewish life as it was prior to the Holocaust.
The Volozhyn Yeshiva ceased to exist after the Nazi invasion and its students were deported to ghettos and then slaughtered. Israeli Ambassador to Belarus Yosef Shagal surmises that the restoration will cost some $2 million. He says the Belarusians want the place to become a tourism attraction for visiting Israelis.
Grigori Haitovitch, one of the leaders of the local Jewish community, would like the yeshiva to be restored, not for regular studies, but for study periods of a few days each. Halevy is not enthusiastic about the idea of a yeshiva. He thinks it should serve as a center that will preserve and memorialize the tradition of Jewish learning that was destroyed here.
The next meeting takes place with the governor of Minsk province. Semen Shapiro was a member of a kolkhoz (collective farm) until another farm member, Aleksander Lukashenko, now president of Belarus, took him off his tractor. “I need you to help me change the people,” said Lukashenko. “For how long?” asked Shapiro.
“For 40 years,” Lukashenko replied.
We are seated under a picture of Lenin.
When the former head of the Mossad is presented to him, Shapiro comments “there is no ‘former’ in such a job.” As the son of a Jewish father, he is open to suggestions from the delegation. “Tell me what it is you want,” he asks, coming straight to the point.
Chesler replies equally bluntly – “We mean business. Maybe after this visit we can do something about the Volozhyn Yeshiva.” Shapiro: “We are ready to talk about it – but give me some concrete ideas.” Chesler replies, “First of all we want to take Mr. Halevy to Volozhyn, so that he can become involved. Volozhyn was a center of Jewish life that was brutally terminated by the Holocaust.”
This remark leads Shapiro to talk about his father’s family who perished in the Holocaust. “But all this is past history” he adds. “Now things are different. You should go to Volozhyn.” Evidently it is important to him to accede to the delegation’s request.
Chesler’s remarks are made against the background of the rockets falling in the south of Israel as we meet. “We are here because we want life to conquer terrorism and death,” says Halevy, who, during all his time in the Mossad, never told anyone that his ancestors were among the founders of the Volozhyn Yeshiva. He tells me later that “I never wanted it to be thought that I had got to where I was because of some family influence.”
To the governor, Halevy says, “Among the sources of our strength as a nation are places like Volozhyn. If the yeshiva is restored, many Jewish tourists will visit Belarus. If your crews can work together with those of Grigori Haitovitch, we cannot fail.” At the end of the table sits Haitovitch, kippa on his head, his shoulders slumped over. The years pass, revolutions take place, and there will always be the same self-effacing Jew. That is how it was under the czars, that is how it was under the Communists, and apparently still is under post-communism.
PROSPEKT Nezavisisimosti (Independence Boulevard), the street on which my hotel is situated in Minsk, is a Soviet throw-back, preserved in amber. The nearby metro station is decorated with paintings of farmers harvesting in the fields. At night, an enormous statue of Lenin casts a giant shadow on the adjoining government buildings. Not far from his statue and the soldier guarding him are the premises of the KGB. Everyone knows, everyone is aware, everyone takes care.
The van that takes us to Volozhyn has only one door and that is beside the driver.
And who knows if he is indeed just a driver. But everyone is aware of the identity of the driver behind the national wheel. Alexander Lukashenko administers what might be termed “centralized democracy.” It is possible to write and demonstrate opposing the government, but it depends what and how often. One sees Belorusians smiling and their capital shines with cleanliness. There are weekends when Lukashenko mobilizes the population to refurbish public amenities.
Not for nothing do they refer to Lukashenko as Batchka (Little Father).
On the journey from Minsk to Volozhyn the skies are black, the air is heavy and the rain incessant.
In our conversation in the back of the van, Halevy relates how he delved into the writing of the Natziv. “From them I derived ideas concerning national security.” Once the rabbi was asked why it was that the leaders of the Twelve Tribes were asked to scout out the Land of Israel. His answer was that they exuded trustworthiness and that only they could persuade the public to follow them. From this, Halevy extrapolates an important factor in dealing with sources. “How can you know if the information you are being presented with is correct or not? You are entirely dependent on your judgment of the reliability of the person.” “Trustworthiness is the name of the game,” maintains the ex-head of the Mossad. “A person like the Natziv sits in a remote and isolated corner of Russia and comes up with a notion that is totally modern in concept,” he adds.
Even though the Natziv did not permit his students to stray from their holy studies, he knew that the waves of the Enlightenment were encroaching. It was clear to him that in the long nights, the eyes of his students were not glued to traditional sources, but rather to Zionist texts. Nevertheless he did not resort to punishment for he appreciated that for at least a part of the Jewish people, there were those who were consumed by the idea of the return to Eretz Yisrael.
What did you learn from all that?
“I have learned that there are things that can be done one way, and others that can be done in another. But what is important is to be patient and to listen to each opinion.”
Is that the attitude that guided your work in the Mossad?
“I tried, insofar as was possible, to show tolerance. At the beginning I was more combative. I fought for my opinions. I fought for the respect for the job I held – I fought, fought, fought. Not just against the enemy but also internal battles.”
Did you take it to extremes?
“I never wanted to bring the issues to a rupture. You can never be certain that you possess the absolute truth. At the same time, you cannot compromise on discipline.
If I had given in chaos could have consumed the Mossad. I certainly took measures against personnel who did not act according to the rules.”
After 40 years of service, the Natziv asked to be relieved of his responsibilities as head of the yeshiva. In his place, he wished to appoint his son, Rabbi Haim Berlin, who was a distinguished scholar, and heading the yeshiva would be a position he could fulfill admirably. But he was not considered a gaon, a talmudic genius who could excite the sharp minds of Volozhyn. The leading lights of the yeshiva preferred a brilliant scholar, Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik.
Menachem Mendel Slotkin in his Memories of Lithuanian Yeshivot, said that talmidim (students) would try to demean Berlin and even enter his library in order to refuel their verbal assaults from the books filling every corner of the room. Rabbi Berlin did not stop them, although he knew they were not seeking answers. Moreover, anonymous letters were sent to the Natziv and other prominent rabbis. Among them was Bialik, the blue-eyed boy of Volozhyn.
The Natziv stood firmly in support of his son and refused to withdraw his resignation.
“I have already relinquished my robes of office; why should I don them again?” The Natziv objected vehemently to the Czar’s edict that Russian be taught at the institution, and the yeshiva was closed down. It reopened three years later in 1895, only to be finally closed during the Holocaust.
Would you have acted like the Natziv in putting an end to such a revolt?
“Actually I learnt a lot from this story.
I learnt that if you go head to head, you are quite likely to lose – including your own head. That is what happened to the Natziv.”
He should have taken a step back and not demanded the appointment of his son?
“I think so. But I was not part of that period so I would not wish to criticize him or put myself in his place.”
Would you accept the statement of the governor of Minsk that there is no “former” in connection with work at the Mossad?
“Not exactly. When I finished my term of office, I disconnected myself. I never get up in the morning and think what I would have done in this or that situation. It is impossible to think like that.”
Ephraim Halevy’s appearance is misleading.
One does not discern a person at whose orders people were assassinated, but rather a pallid-faced scholastic gentleman.
It is conceivable that the nature of his position in the world of concealment and deception taught him to adopt a character that was not really his. Halevy is a person who listens. It is probable that this ability was essential in the critical missions that were assigned to him. One of these was finalizing the peace accord with Jordan. Halevy emphasizes, “An emissary must always remember that he is just an emissary. He does not make the decisions, nor does he have the authority to apply pressure.”
So an emissary is simply a channel of communication?
“No. He is certainly not absolved from making suggestions, some of which might or might not be accepted. An emissary should not fight for his suggestions, but he could and should return to them time and time again. Sometimes it might well happen that they are eventually seen to be correct.”
HALEVY TOOK over the Mossad in 1998 after the failed poisoning attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. I ask Halevy if Mashaal should still be a target for assassination. He refuses to be drawn into a discussion on the reasoning for assassinations.
He does not want to express an opinion and obviously today has no influence on the decision-making process.
In some of the operations he directed he was unable to extricate his agents. He always insisted on pointing out to his operatives before they embarked on an operation that under certain circumstances his hands would be tied. He always spoke to them personally and not through someone else. I said that must have been difficult.
He agreed that it was not simple and called for a great deal of understanding and strength.
Halevy served under five prime ministers, three as head of the Mossad and two as deputy director. I asked him to characterize them. He agreed but stressed that he would only say positive things. He described Yitzhak Shamir as a rock, very stable, very stalwart in his world outlook, who gave enormous support to those serving under him. Yitzhak Rabin knew how to exploit opportunities and allowed Halevy to maintain contact with King Hussein, even when he had little faith in the Jordanian option. When something very substantive changed in the attitude of the kingdom, Rabin radically changed his attitude to Jordan although he was deeply involved with Syria at the time.
Ariel Sharon was razor-sharp and knew how to accept responsibility. Once, before a major operation, Halevy outlined to him a potential security risk. “What will really happen if there is a mishap like that?” mused Sharon. Halevy suggested that it could be announced that the head of the Mossad had operated on his own authority and that the prime minister was not apprised of the situation. There was silence in the room. The tape-recorder was running and the stenographer had her finger on the keyboard when Sharon gave his verdict, “I approve of the operation but not including the proviso presented by the head of the Mossad.”
Ehud Barak demonstrated a rapid global grasp and gave wide license to act. Halevy is appreciative that he was asked to stay on after Barak’s election in 1999. Benjamin Netanyahu is brilliant, and in minutes can pull together the threads of any subject.
When the Mashaal operation collapsed, he realized immediately that the repercussions had to be minimized. He immediately gave instructions that the antidote to the poison should be transferred to the Jordanians, thus saving Mashaal’s life.
Later on, we pass the village of Vishniyeva where Peres was born. When we approach Volozhyn, the sun’s rays manage to penetrate through the clouds and illuminate the bus stops that had been painted blue and white a year before in honor of a Limmud FSU conference. When Bialik had lived there, most of the inhabitants of Volozhyn worked in the forests, others were traders, craftsmen – poverty-stricken and the butt of jokes.
The yeshiva building is known as the “White House,” as it is built of white bricks. The house is still white but there are no students. The incessant rain makes the red roof shine. A heavy smell of wood smoke from the houses hangs in the air.
The mayor, Pyotr Bibik, ceremoniously presents Halevy with a silver key. Halevy attempts to open the red iron door but to no avail. He tries turning the key in the other direction but the door has a will of its own. All of which makes our story rather Agnonesque. “On his return, he found the door locked” wrote S.Y. Agnon in “Fernheim,” a short story in his book Thus Far.
Halevy tries again but with no more luck.
Chesler tries to enter through a window but fails. Nothing works until Bibik takes the key again and in a gargantuan effort, it turns at last and the door creaks open.
Halevy is the first to penetrate the darkness.
The windows are sealed up with bricks, the shutters immovable, the neon lights rusted to the walls, there is black mildew between the doors and the ceiling.
Will you come back?
“Yes. I really hope that a Jewish cultural center will be established here. A link that will join us with the past that was so brutally interrupted by the Holocaust.”
What has this visit meant to you?
With all the great personalities on the walls, I feel as if I have gone back decades.
Let us go slightly forward. When exactly will you be 80?
Assuming I get that far, the end of the year – near Hanukka.
Can you tell me the exact date?
Near Hanukka.
But what is the date? I just want to be able to wish you ‘mazal tov.’
Don’t wish me it.
Are you superstitious?
No. But don’t say so.
Translated by Asher Weill