Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Assassinations

  • Published

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Assassinations by Ronen Bergman. Penguin, 2019, 784 pp. 

Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations depicts Israel’s state-sponsored assassination program in riveting detail. Bergman interviewed more than a thousand state officials regarding the formation and operation of Israel’s clandestine services.

Bergman’s fast-paced operational and sometimes gruesome perspectives build a strong case for the utility of targeted assassinations when dealing with terrorist organizations. Bergman’s experience as a journalist shines through with details gleaned from more than eight years of gathering data and conducting interviews while researching the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli Defense Force assassination programs. Despite all the nitty gritty details of success and failure, Rise and Kill First is an absolute page-turner that is hard to put down.

Bergman lays bare Israel’s state secrets and has candid access to Israeli agents at all levels of the assassination enterprise. The ability to speak with so many former Israeli state spies allows Bergman to step through the formation of Israel’s clandestine services in a chronologically comprehensive manner. He weaves operational examples throughout the book to highlight key failures or successes that forced the Mossad to evolve their use of targeted assassinations. Bergman begins with the nascent period during the 1940s as desperate movements came together and formed a cohesive unit to perform rudimentary assassinations.

The author then steps through more than 75 years of assassination tactics and changes in political will. The moral dilemmas of Israel’s political leadership are particularly poignant, the most salient being the Israeli Olympians killed during the 1972 Munich games. Despite political will constantly changing over the years, Israel’s assassination program has persisted, as Bergman illustrates with the recent assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists. The utility of targeted assassinations is discussed at length and will undoubtedly continue to be a staple of Israeli statecraft.

Rise and Kill First really shines in the first-hand accounts Bergman accesses through interviews. He did not just interview mid-level spies. Bergman interviewed former Mossad chiefs, low-level spies, and everything in between. This unparalleled access and interaction with former spies give extreme credibility to accounts given in the book. All this access was not without serious risk to Bergman. The Israeli Defense Force chief of staff asked Shin Bet to take aggressive steps against the author for what he called “aggravated espionage” and “using classified information.” No other medium has so comprehensively covered the Israeli clandestine services.

Bergman’s lone flaw in this fascinating account of the Israeli clandestine services and their use of assassinations is his neutral stance on the assassination program itself. While he brings up numerous positive and negative aspects of the assassination program, Bergman never takes a position on if the program is overall good or bad. He also does not take this opportunity to lay a more ideal path forward for the assassination program’s place within the Israeli statecraft.

The phrase “Rise and Kill First” comes from The Babylonian Talmud, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Just like the Talmud is used to learn and study, Rise and Kill First should be a tool to learn and study from and contemplate the moral implications of state-sponsored assassination.

Rise and Kill First will appeal to historians, the intelligence community, and civil and military leaders. Targeted assassinations are still used today. The implications and aftermath of such actions should be studied for their use as effective statecraft tools.

Major William Borges, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."