Jewish World Review March 5, 2003/ 1 Adar II 5763

Isser Harel: A personal memoir

By Neal M. Sher

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | The people of Israel indeed, Jews the world over have lost a genuine hero. Last month, Isser Harel, the world-renowned spymaster and one of the founders of the Mossad, died in Tel Aviv.

Best known for planning and executing the extraordinary capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 a feat which made the whole world take notice of Israel's ingenuity and capabilities Harel's contribution to the security of the fledgling State of Israel cannot be overstated.

As anyone who knew him or worked with him will attest, he was, despite his diminutive size, a giant.

I am among the privileged who had an opportunity to work with or, to be accurate, be counseled by the legendary Harel. In 1985, as the director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, I headed the US team charged with searching for the infamous Josef Mengele (in concert with the Israelis and Germans.)

My first order of business was to seek the advice of the man who had orchestrated the most daring of Nazi hunts. He was quite blunt with me: If Mengele was still alive, he doubted that the high-visibility search which had been announced with great fanfare in a press conference by the attorney-general would be successful. What was needed, he said, was a quiet intelligence operation.

As it turned out, it didn't matter: We were able to determine that Mengele had drowned in Brazil six years earlier. However, for me it was the beginning of an inspiring friendship.

I MADE a point of meeting with Harel whenever I visited Israel; he was as interested in the work of OSI as I was to soak up his insights on the current state of affairs. During our regular lunches at the Triana restaurant in Tel Aviv, I realized that I was in the company of a larger-than-life hero of our people.

Although extraordinarily proud of the Eichmann capture even in advanced age he remembered every detail of the operation and his other famous cases, he did not dwell on his past exploits; he had strong and lucid views on matters of national security. He spoke of the unavoidable tensions between safeguarding the nation and preserving the democratic values upon which Israel had been founded.

Although he spent his life in the rough-and-tumble world of espionage, Harel always impressed me as having been driven by an overwhelming devotion to the security of the Jewish people in Israel as well as in the Diaspora.

He recounted to me with great satisfaction letters he received in response to his book The House on Garibaldi Street; Jews the world over took pride in Israelis relying on themselves to secure justice for the Holocaust.

This was part of Harel's philosophy that Israel and we Jews are responsible for our own destiny; while relationships with others are important it was Harel who forged close contacts with the American intelligence community in the 1950s, a relationship strengthened when his Mossad obtained the famous Khrushchev anti-Stalin speech and presented it to the CIA in the final analysis Israel could not contract out of her security obligations.

When I think of Isser Harel, I often remember one particular lunch at Triana in 1994. I was in Israel to attend the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement, and there was much to discuss.

Seated at a long table in the restaurant was a group of IDF soldiers who seemed to be celebrating a birthday, or perhaps a promotion. I could not help but wonder whether these new guardians of Israel realized that they were in the presence of a legend.

My question was answered when, as we made our way to the door, every soldier at the table rose and reached out to shake the hand of a surprised and genuinely touched Isser Harel. It was an extraordinary moment.

Rest in peace, my friend. You have served your nation and people well.

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JWR contributor Neal Sher is a Washington attorney and former director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department. He is also a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Neal Sher