Yiftach Reicher-Atir, the former head of the army’s special ops directorate, a onetime commando and general who led a force into the terminal in Entebbe, has written a spy novel that is blessedly free of technological wizardry and a fish-tailing plot. Instead, it is long on what counts: the soul of the spy.
Reicher-Atir, in “The English Teacher,” which will soon be translated into English, probes how leading a double life can erode the foundations of a spy’s former existence; how all of the lies are rooted in truth, and the truth, especially when it comes to love, is often coated in a mere patina of lies.
“This is a true story that didn’t really happen,” Reicher-Atir said during a recent interview.
The tale, which was painfully edited by the censors of the intelligence agencies, revolves around a young woman named Rachel. She is an English teacher. She was born and raised in Britain. Her father was overbearing. Her mother was distant. She was pretty but not noticeably so. She wore her manners like armor. She had daddy issues. She grappled with love. These facts are true of both Rachel Goldsmith – the real Rachel – and Rachel Brooks, the spy.
When she disappears, after sitting shivah for her father in England, and many years after her service in the Mossad, Ehud, her now retired former case officer, is called back to the office in Tel Aviv. A diligent gardener and widower, he stifles a smile when he learns that she has left England via the Chunnel, that she managed to convince her Israeli bank to wire her $100,000 cash, and that nobody at the Western Union booth in Leicester Square remembers seeing her. “She still knows the trade,” he says approvingly.
The assessment in the office is that her decision to flee, with a considerable trove of secrets in her head, is rooted in the past, in her service in the place Reicher-Atir was forced to call the “Arab capital.”
The story of her service is told through a series of conversations between Ehud and a legendary commander named Joe. These begin with a creak. Ehud, who seems aware of the truth throughout, asks to speak to Joe, to submit himself to the old man’s probing mind. Had he been forced to do so, I felt, the reluctant delivery would have concealed the fact that the story is being unspooled for our benefit.
But the contrived mechanism is quickly forgotten. Rachel’s life, and the artful way the grinding strain of her routine is depicted, is too riveting.
Reicher-Atir, who is writing an MA dissertation on the literary depiction of the killing of Arab POWs in Israeli War of Independence fiction, said he was interested in exploring the life of a female Mossad combatant on enemy soil, the mark left by the service, and the nature of the debt incurred by the state.
“There is very little surveillance of a combatant’s life,” he said, using the term preferred by Israeli intelligence officers. Fighter pilots, by contrast, are watched constantly – through cameras in the cockpit and radars on the base. “They know the speed at which they travel, the altitude, the duration, practically everything. What’s hidden during those 40 minutes of flight time?”
Additionally, he said, while fighter pilots are often rewarded for short bursts of danger with long stretches of tranquility, a Mossad combatant, living in an enemy country without any sort of diplomatic immunity, is forced to return to her routine – to a fabricated existence, to lovers that have to be lied to and to friends that have to be kept at an arm’s length.
In setting out the initial framework of the novel, Reicher-Atir drew inspiration from intelligence agents he knew personally and from the lives of two Mossad combatants – Erika Chambers and Sylvia Rafael.
Rafael, born in South Africa to a Jewish father and Christian mother, moved to a kibbutz in the sixties and, like the protagonist in the book, taught English before being drafted into the Mossad. She operated for years, playing an active role in the post-Munich Mossad operations in Europe, before being arrested in July 1973, in Lillehammer, Norway. Mossad assassins had killed Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter they mistakenly believed to be Ali Hassan Salame, the man thought to have masterminded the Munich Olympics massacre. A Mossad non-combatant, Dan Arbel, was arrested and led the police to Rafael. Her Norwegian lawyer, not inured to her charms, defended her in court – she was sentenced to five years, but served only 15 months – and then married her. Yet for Reicher-Atir, it was Rafael’s sadness late in life, she died in 2005 and is buried on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, which drew him to the character.
Chambers intrigued him, he said, because of “the extent of her sacrifice — of her true identity.” A graduate of a British University with a tailor-made back story of involvement in German-based Palestinian aid organizations, she flew to Beirut in late 1978, just as the net around the real Ali Hassan Salame began to close. It seems she did so with her real name and passport.
She arrived in Beirut, ostensibly for philanthropic work, and rented a high rise apartment. She painted daily on the balcony and built up a persona as a cat woman, feeding the neighborhood strays. Several months later, on January 22, 1979, Salameh’s convoy, traveling past Chambers’ apartment on Verdun Street, was stopped by a powerful blast: Chambers, who had gotten to know Salameh and become acquainted with his daily routine, allegedly hit the detonator. Later she told neighbors she had to rest and recuperate after the commotion and, after asking them to watch over the cats, slipped out of the country.
There are similar events depicted in “The English Teacher.” But they are peripheral. The focus of the book is on what is not known – the internal life of such a woman, the grinding toll of constant vigilance, the limitations on love while operating clandestinely, and the complex but ameliorating relationship between a combatant in an enemy country and his or her handler or case officer.
And Reicher-Atir, who said he was not hobbled by the secrets he holds – “they are facts; they have nothing to do with literary affairs” – is masterful in his depiction of this inner world and the scars it leaves over time.