Bruce Brill’s song of duty - opinion

Veteran Jerusalem resident writes book detailing his years in the US National Security Agency

 BRUCE BRILL today (photo credit: BRUCE BRILL)
BRUCE BRILL today
(photo credit: BRUCE BRILL)

At 75 years old, Bruce Brill has seen quite a lot in his days. Long a well-known figure in the English-speaking Jerusalem community for his lanky build and his fiddle playing which has graced many a stage, the veteran American oleh had another life before moving to Israel, working for National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.

Brill chronicles those days in his new book, Deceit of an Ally, in which he makes some bold claims of how the US failed to warn Israel of impending Arab attacks in the Yom Kippur War.

Brill’s stint in the NSA was in the Mideast division, focusing primarily on Israel and its Arab neighbors. Having taken Hebrew and Arab courses, he was acutely aware of the comings and goings in the region.

That is why what he heard in the days preceding the Yom Kippur War was so troubling. According to the book, it was clear from the NSA’s intelligence that Israel would be attacked, “A-val” as he put it, the NSA’s term for a near certainty.

As Israel faced attacks from all angles on the holiest day of the calendar, Brill was awestruck by the fact that the news was hidden from Israel – never mind the fact that Israel was one of America’s strongest allies.

 BRUCE BRILL under a huppa while living in the US and working for the NSA. (credit: BRUCE BRILL) BRUCE BRILL under a huppa while living in the US and working for the NSA. (credit: BRUCE BRILL)

He said that it was then that he decided to make Aliyah, at age 26.

He arrived in the country without many foundations - his sister was studying but he was for the most part on his own. Brill’s first stop was Jerusalem where he was a part of the Greenberg Institute, studying for six months to become an English and math teacher. At the conclusion of the course, he went to a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz where he taught for six months, though it wasn’t for him.

Disillusioned by the lifestyle and ideology of the socialist and anti-religious kibbutz, he headed back to Jerusalem, this time studying at Ohr Somayach yeshiva. As Brill puts it, he went “from Hashomer Hatzair to shomer mitzvot.” This lasted for just six months, as well.

It was after this, in 1975, that Bruce settled in with a friend and started an old-time traditional American music club. Brill grew up playing traditional American music and he wanted to bring it to Israel. Interestingly enough, not long after starting the club, he was approached by a US air force colonel to arrange the celebrations for the bicentennial anniversary of US independence on July 4, 1976, and he happily complied.

Around this time, Brill met his wife – the teacher of his teacher at the Greenberg Institute – courting her for a couple of years before marrying her. This had its own troubles, which brought the young newlyweds to America, where they lived for five years, during which Brill got a degree from the University of Maryland. His studies focused on wind energy and led him to develop a wind energy device that later became the first domestic wind energy source in the history of Israel that integrated with the grid.

UPON RETURNING to Israel, now with children, the family settled into the Gush Etzion community of Tekoa. Brill wore many hats in his professional career, mainly in home repair and improvement. In the mid-1980s, he was drafted into the IDF shortly after the First Lebanon War, doing guard duty. Primarily serving in reserves, he spent the majority of his time focusing on his music career.

With his then-wife Vivian and a few others from Tekoa, they started a band called Gush Egozim, meaning a glob of peanut butter. They performed all across the country, treating their audiences to traditional American music. The band still performs today, though with fewer members and not as often. Brill mentioned, “we played at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Thanksgiving events for years.”

Brill has written for a number of publications, including The Jerusalem Post, where he wrote about his time in the NSA and other Israel-related stories. He was also extremely active in the movement to have former Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard released from prison.

“I was at a rally for Pollard and happened to be standing next to Geula Cohen (former Israeli freedom fighter, politician and activist). People were saying that we can’t trust US intelligence reports and I told Geula my story of the Yom Kippur War. She pushed me onto the stage and had me speak. That started everything,” he recalled

What Brill told the audience was that just 12 hours before the war, the US sent a message to then-defense minister Moshe Dayan that no attack was coming, contrary to intelligence reports that showed massive troop buildups.

In the book, Brill traces the reader back to his earliest days in the US and his movement from basic training to finding himself in the rooms where some of America’s most deeply kept national security issues were discussed. Brill makes clear that throughout his journey he felt unique in that he was Jewish, whereas most of the soldiers were not. This was most evident in his requests for kosher food, which he fought hard to receive.

The stories in the book had to go through two read-throughs by the US Department of Defense – readers will see in the book a number of redactions that the Pentagon made – which puts into perspective the type of information Brill was privy to.

Despite the omissions, Brill is still able to bring the reader into the rooms where sensitive topics were discussed. Brill even discusses his correspondence with Dayan, where he recounted to Dayan the story of David and Goliath, offering words of encouragement as Israel found itself falling behind in the early days of the war – Dayan replied thanking him for the note.

THE LATTER part of the book focuses on what Brill calls the “Jew Room,” or a room in which decisions pertaining to Israel and the Jewish people were discussed, of which Jews could not enter. Brill brings his experiences in the NSA to prove its existence, with other service members also telling him of its work.

Knowing when to hold back

Brill wonders out loud whether it was this room that decided to hold back the information to Israel. He concludes that some of these forces are still at work, though Israel is in a much better position to act on its own against any nefarious acts they might engage in.

In assessing the reasons for publishing his book now, years later, Brill said that the messages he hopes it gives to readers and Israelis are that of a forward-thinking society.

“Israelis think in hubris and it can lead to mistakes,” he said. “I was a witness, maybe the only, to the deceit prior to the Yom Kippur War... God put me in the right place at the right time to tell a story that can make Israeli security personnel – the people responsible for keeping Israelis safe – know that they can’t rely on anyone but themselves.”

Brill points out that while the US threatened Israel not to pre-empt, they were nevertheless attacked. “This agonized me... and it resulted in thousands of dead Israelis.”

Even pointing to today and the military aid that America gives to Israel yearly, he does not believe it has the benefit many seem to make it out to. “Brill Shoe Industries (not related to Bruce Brill) went out of business because US aid stipulated that army boots must be purchased in America, ultimately putting an Israeli company out of business... the aid can handcuff Israel from making sovereign decisions.” To Brill, his mission is to make sure Israel is safe.

Brill’s book, Deceit of an Ally, is available on Amazon and where books are sold in both English and Hebrew.