“The English Teacher” is the story of a Mossad operative written by a former Israeli intelligence officer. It’s not an autobiography but rather a thriller, based loosely on facts, or as its author, Yiftach Reicher Atir, writes in his introductory note, “a true story, of real life operatives that are wholly made up, and actual missions that never happened.”
Atir provides an astonishing look at Middle Eastern spycraft. He alerts readers that “numerous changes and omissions were imposed” by his government’s censors. Because a lot of what got into the novel seems plenty revealing and is often hair-raising, one is left wondering what shockers were left out. Also, how much of what Atir (who participated in the 1976 hostage-rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda) put into the book is actually disinformation meant to throw other Middle Eastern intelligence agencies off track about how the Mossad spy agency actually operates? These are legitimate, intriguing questions that only add to the novel’s overall mysteriousness and to the many pleasures it offers
The book begins with a startling moment: Operative Rachel Ravid — once Rachel Goldschmitt, sometimes Rachel Brooks — is preparing to vanish.
We see her closing up the apartment of her recently deceased father and basking in the freedom his death has finally provided her. Instead of returning to Tel Aviv and her job in biological weapons research, the 41-year-old is headed elsewhere in the Middle East, and she’s not telling anybody where. Impulsively, it seems — though is the act really calculated? — Rachel phones her old case officer, Ehud, now retired from the Mossad, and tells him: “My father died. He died for the second time,” before abruptly hanging up.
Near-panic breaks out in the Israeli intelligence establishment. Falsely announcing the death of her father 15 years earlier was code for Rachel’s fleeing the unnamed Arab country where she had worked as an English teacher for six years while gathering information on that country’s biological weapons program. Most of the invaluable data she had stolen came from her lover, a sweet, hapless man named Rashid, whose family ran a chemical business. Now it appears that Rachel, overcome with guilt and yearning for the return of lost love, may be headed back to the man she abandoned without explanation years earlier when it looked as if she was about to be exposed. The problem for Israel is that she’s carrying a trove of state secrets around inside her head.
The widowed Ehud, brought back to trace and then reason with his renegade former agent, is under terrific pressure. His former colleagues know that he was himself in love with Rachel and may not have been as objective in managing her as he should have been. Nor is it easy for him to accept that Rachel has become such a “loose cannon” that she may have to be framed or even killed by the Mossad. Atir is straightforward and sometimes graphic in his depictions of Mossad assassinations. Rachel herself was once a party to one, staging an encounter with a German scientist who liked to kiss attractive women’s hands and dispatching him with a poisoned glove.
Among the many insights of Atir’s compelling tale is why people are drawn to this patriotic dirty work. It’s not only Zionism that impels men and women to live these highly risky undercover lives. Ehud admits that “there’s something intoxicating in our work; suddenly it’s permissible to lie, you can put on an act, and everything is sanctioned by the state.” Atir seems to be saying that it’s wise to be apprehensive about the personalities who choose to live their lives as liars. The people who do it get very good at it, however, and they have to. Rachel is warned before she takes on her original assignment that in the country where she’ll work “half the population are informers and the other half are intelligence targets who have to be watched.” Any blunders will lead to her torture and death.
Although Atir never questions Israel’s overall policies with its neighbors — the country’s survival as a Jewish state is an operational given here — he does portray heartbreakingly the moral toll on the individuals who carry out what recent Israeli governments have deemed necessary for the country’s safety. As in the works of John le Carré and Charles McCarry, here we see that in the day-to-day spy business, it’s not so much countries that are in danger but individual human souls.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Yiftach Reicher Atir
Translated by Philip Simpson
Penguin. 260 pp. Paperback, $16