April 23, 2009
In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict
By Kobi Ben-Simhon
He stuffs a pouch of tobacco into his shirt pocket and then pauses to light a brown pipe. “I have brain damage,” he says, almost shouting to make himself heard above the traffic. “Otherwise I don’t understand why I write. I have no logical explanation for why people write. I am certain that everyone who writes is responding to a deep need – some sort of release from personal, inner, emotional distress. At least, that’s how it is with me. Some of my distress and fears come out in the therapy I undergo occasionally, and some come out when I write.”
Dr. Zvi Sela, a former senior police officer and a psychological consultant at present, is sitting in a sidewalk cafe on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. Sweetly scented smoke wafts from his pipe. On the table, amid cups of coffee and glasses of water, lies his newly published novel, “Al Ima Zona Veyeled Me’umatz” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, in Hebrew).
“The book is packed with intense psychological and sexual stories,” Sela explains. “I have been treating people for a long time, more than 20 years. I am buffeted by the turbulence, the pain, the anger and the suicidal thoughts of my patients. You can’t avoid it. Writing this book is my ‘ventilation.'” He sips his coffee. It is midday and buses roar by.
“This is not some kind of literary stunt,” he adds. “There are a lot of epidemics and contagion in psychological work, and there is no way to emerge sane from it if you are not aware of the accumulated fears and anxieties of your patients. Giving vent to these – to the highly primitive and frustrating elements that arise during treatment – allows me to restore mental equilibrium. For example, when I hear a 15-year-old girl from a good home tell me offhandedly that she slept with three men and got good money, or when I am told about boys from an arts school who turned a girl into a sex slave, I can’t sleep afterward. Writing liberates me from the pathology of the patients. There are a lot of my own tears in the book, not only of my characters.”
Sela lives in the exclusive community of Bitan Aharon, near Netanya. He hardly remembers the streets of Tel Aviv, with which he was familiar in the 1970s, when he first joined the Israel Police and dealt with juvenile delinquency in the city. The protagonist of his book is just such a marginal youth – staggering drunk through the streets and immersed in loneliness near Dizengoff Square. Sela, who holds a doctoral degree in educational psychology from Newport University in California, has written a book about the tangled relationships between a wayward youngster, an adoptive mother and a biological mother. The relations between the three gradually intertwine in the course of treatment by a father-figure psychologist.
Sela drew the inspiration for this unusual triangle from his work. “In prison I met a former Mossad [espionage agency] man, who spied for Russia, was caught in the early 1990s and released a few years ago. In the Israel Prison Service he was known as ‘Mr. X.’ One of the ways they drove him crazy was to put him into solitary confinement, without a television or radio, completely alone. Not even the warder spoke to him; he just threw him his food tray. I found the man touching. My conversations with him were very personal, and through him things surfaced in me.”
The encounter with “Mr. X” opened new worlds for Sela. “The story I wrote is not entirely fictional. It contains a great many true elements,” he explains. “That spy set loose all the unhealthy parts within me; the conversations with him produced the grim atmosphere of the book. In addition to my sessions with him then, I also met with a group of adopted children, and with an association of battered women and women who engaged in prostitution. The characters in the book sprang from those meetings. It was the extreme encounters and the experiences of my patients that gave rise to very extreme characters, such as a boy who becomes addicted to violence and drugs, an abusive adoptive mother and a mother who gave her son up for adoption and engaged in prostitution, and in this way found a certain freedom.”
Writing is a lifetime journey for him, says Sela. “I started to write when I was 20. I am now 65 and am still writing. Actually, I started to publish when I was a soldier. My first poems and stories appeared in Shdemot, a monthly magazine of the kibbutz movement … But afterward I pulled back: I stopped publishing and wrote only for myself. It wasn’t until I retired from the police force, 10 years ago, that I decided to take the material out of the drawer.”
“I actually first met Zvika in his capacity as a child psychologist,” says Prof. Uzi Shavit, director general of the Hakibbutz Hameuchad – Sifriat Hapoalim Publishing Group. “I knew him when he was responsible for the anti-drug project in the kibbutz movement. He also worked with young people on my kibbutz, Sdot Yam. I rediscovered him when I received his literary material, this time as a talented writer. I think what makes the book so powerful and credible is the combination of his literary skill and his experience as a therapist. The literary technique he chose is that of a dialogue between therapist and patient, which requires very dramatic dialogue. It reminded me of the television series ‘In Treatment.'”
Sela, who is married (it’s his second marriage) to Haifa District Court Judge Diana Sela, works at home as a private therapist and is a consultant to the municipalities of Netanya, Or Akiva and Ramat Hasharon. From the mid-1970s until the end of the 1990s, he held a variety of positions at the Israel Police, including chief of detectives in the Sharon District, head of intelligence-gathering at national headquarters, commander of an intelligence officers’ course, drugs and intelligence advisor to the minister of police, and chief of police in Hadera. His last position with the police (1995-1998) was as chief intelligence officer of the Israel Prisons Service, in which capacity Sela was in charge of collecting criminal and security information. He held two-hour weekly meetings over a three-year period with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin when the Hamas founder was incarcerated in Israel.
“It was riveting,” he says, adding, “There was no terrorist attack or abduction in those years that was not planned, managed and commanded from within the prisons. That is where the senior figures were, including Sheikh Yassin. He was paralyzed in the legs and arms, and was capable only of moving his head, but he was a very powerful figure. He exercised tremendous control over what went on in the prison and outside, too.”
Adding that this was a turbulent period of terror attacks, Sela explains that his goal in the encounters was “to collect information about the Palestinian cells and organizations, to thwart the attacks outside. In that capacity I met with Yassin. We held him in Hadarim Prison [near Netanya] on the third floor in harsh conditions. We gave him a very hard time. He was not allowed visits and we kept him tightly locked up for almost five years. He was held in a narrow room where the temperature was 45 degrees [Celsius] in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. His blankets were dirty and smelled. That’s how he lived. I found him to be a very smart man, and also very decent. We engaged in a war of minds. We knew that after every battle between us someone would die, either on my side or on his side.”
What did you talk about?
Sela: “Business – intelligence. When the biggest adversaries sit down to talk face to face, it’s a different ball game. I always told him, ‘Stop blowing up buses, stop murdering women and children.’ He replied: ‘Tzvika, listen, we had good teachers: You established a state thanks to your military power. The dead I take from you are for the sake of establishing a state, but you are killing women and children for the sake of the occupation. You already have a state. You are dirty and hypocritical. I have no interest in destroying you – all I want is a state.”
So the father of the Hamas movement told you he recognized the State of Israel?
“Yes. He was smart and brave. Cruel, but credible. He gave his life in the war for the freedom of his people. I tend to think that if we had tried for an agreement with him, we would have succeeded. He thought the reason the Israelis were dealing with [then PLO leader] Yasser Arafat is that they were very smart, because we knew we would get nowhere with him. In his opinion, Arafat was thoroughly corrupt.”
Did your conversations produce anything concrete? Did he ever provide you with vital intelligence?
“After I held conversations with him for two years, the powers-that-be told me: ‘Go to Yassin and ask for the body of the missing Israeli soldier Ilan Sa’adon. In return Israel is ready to release him.’ Yassin knew where the body was. He told me, ‘There is no Jew in the world who knows about my grandchildren, my children, my yearning for freedom. You, Zvika, are the only one who knows the truth about how I live and how much I want freedom. But to offer me freedom in exchange for a body is humiliating. I will give you the body because you are asking, I understand the family’s pain, but promise me you will not release me in return for it. Promise me that if I die in prison, you will be sure to tell my family how much I loved them, how much I dreamed of being able to smell their scent.'”
Until now it was thought that the information about the location of Sa’adon’s body came from Arafat.
“That is not true.”
You also met with Samir Kuntar of the Palestine Liberation Front, who murdered members of the Haran family in Nahariya and was released as part of the deal with Hezbollah that brought back the bodies of the two abducted soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
“We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl’s head. That’s nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him. I investigated the event within the framework of the next book I am writing, about hostage-taking incidents. As far as I am concerned, it was no more than a newspaper report. I sat with him; he was very intelligent. He was a squad commander at 17. He told me that his motive for infiltrating Nahariya was to take hostages. He said [his organization] knew that would both humiliate Israel and get them media publicity.”
He told me: ‘If I had wanted to kill Danny and his daughter, I would have shot them in the house. I took them to the boat because I wanted hostages. I had no interest in hurting them. After I got them into the boat, wild gunfire started and I went back to help my squad on the shore. Danny, the father, kept shouting, “Stop firing, you crazy people.” He and his daughter were found shot in the boat. I was on a small rise, shooting at your forces, and the boat was 20 meters away in the water, with Danny and the girl.’
So you say that Kuntar did not murder Haran and his daughter?
“That is what he says, and in my opinion there is support for the fact that they were killed by fire from the Israeli rescue forces. You can accuse him all you like, but it was obviously the rescue forces that opened fire. There were all kinds of legends about Kuntar. People also said that he would return to being a terrorist [after his release]. Nonsense. He told me then explicitly that he would not go back to terrorism, that he was too old to execute operations – and that’s also clear. For the same reason, I see no problem in releasing terrorists with blood on their hands in return for [kidnapped soldier] Gilad Shalit. I get the feeling the country is waiting for his body.”
“It is clear to me,” Sela continues, “that there are some battles you have to back away from. There is no reason to kill that kid, to wait for his body. One way or the other, we will not come out the victors in the Shalit story. From my experience, most of the terrorists that we release do not return to terrorist activity. And the prisoners we are quarreling over in connection with Shalit’s release do not constitute a strategic threat to Israel – only a blow to the ego of our leaders.”
Zvi Sela was born and raised on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. The youngest of five siblings, he admits he was an unruly child.
“Until my senior year in high school, I saw classrooms from the outside,” he relates. “I remember that in 11th grade I was given an ultimatum: Either enter the classroom or be expelled. So I took the donkey from the kibbutz petting corner, put him in the classroom instead of me and locked him in the room with my teacher. That was my approach to school. I didn’t give my parents much satisfaction back then.”
His parents came to Palestine from Russia during the Second Aliyah (wave of immigration, 1904-1914) and were among the founders of the kibbutz in 1933. From a young age, he says, “I distinctly remember my father going to the neighboring Arab villages to persuade them not to flee. Dad believed that the land was theirs and that the Jews must not harm them. But the Arabs were terribly afraid and in the end they left. He was deeply frustrated by the fact that he was unable to persuade them.”
One of his classmates was Yair Garbuz, now a well-known artist, who originally came from outside the kibbutz. Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, a “native son” of the kibbutz, was a grade ahead of them.
“I am still in touch with Garbuz, but not with Ehud,” Sela explains. “Ehud was very bright and talented. I remember he had one notebook in his pocket, which he used for all the subjects. He was a gifted pianist and an expert thief. He could break into cars and into the kibbutz refrigeration facilities. He could open any lock. But because he was small and dark, he didn’t fit in and developed feelings of inferiority. Today, when I look at the [luxurious] Akirov Towers where he lives, I interpret this way of life as a defense mechanism. It stems from very great distress – otherwise you don’t need those things. He hasn’t overcome the distress. If you ask me, even if he gets millions more, Ehud will never be a happy person.”
After army service in the reconnaissance unit of the Armored Corps, Sela worked in the kibbutz cotton fields. “I felt how the sun was drying out my brain,” he says with a smile. “I surprised everyone by deciding to enroll in a teachers’ college in Jerusalem, even though I didn’t have a matriculation certificate. In the entrance exam the principal asked me to write the word ahava [love]. I asked him if it was spelled with an aleph or an ayin. He was going to send me home, but I asked him to give me a year – that if I failed the tests, he could send me back to the kibbutz.”
Sela got his chance. After two years of studies, during which he also obtained a matriculation certificate, he returned to the kibbutz as a teacher. Considered an outstanding educator, he received a prestigious scholarship from the Ministry of Education to study educational consultancy and psychology at Tel Aviv University. After completing his degrees, he worked at the mental health clinic of the kibbutz movement in Tel Aviv.
Following five years at the clinic, he received an offer from the Israel Police to work with youth in distress. “It was very intriguing, even though, as an arrogant kibbutznik, the image I had of the police was of a gang of corrupt imbeciles,” he admits, relighting his pipe.
The kibbutz did not like his new career move. “They were adamant at Mishmar Hasharon. For a kibbutz member to work in the police was unheard of. A white Ashkenazi just did not become a cop: It was demeaning and unacceptable,” Sela relates. “‘No one has ever done anything like that,’ they told me, ‘and what if others will want the same thing?’ But my mother told me I should do what I wanted, and I decided to go for it. The executive secretary of the kibbutz movement told me there was lots of drugs and violence on kibbutzim and moshavim, and approved the move to the police if I promised that after work, I would still deal with kibbutz and moshav youth.”
You are still treating youngsters today. Do you think things have changed?
“Today’s youth reach extreme states of destruction and ruination. Only a small fraction of young people achieve their full potential. Israeli society has become very brutal, and I see that brutality in my therapy sessions. There is a constant rise in juvenile delinquency, which is not handled properly by the education system, the family or the law-enforcement agencies. Increasingly large segments of young people are cut off from society.
Violence and an antisocial attitude are far more frequent, and are reflected also in intense distress and in hopelessness when it comes to breaking out of the cycle of poverty and loneliness. I encounter horrific phenomena of teenage prostitution, which is something that is rarely talked about. In Israel today there are youth brothels. These are phenomena we never knew – a black hole in Israeli society that we are ignoring. We have failed to give many young people tools for personal healing and hope, and that’s another big difference between then and now.”
Haunted by memories
This therapeutic tone permeates Sela’s novel, his third book. His previous two books, one of which was a short-story collection, dealt with Israeli security bodies. They described the exploits of security men, who infiltrated the most secret places in international espionage agencies, and ended up acting as double agents, providing services in return for important information, money and other benefits.
A well-known psychologist among personnel in the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the army, Sela says that he, too, is waging a constant struggle with old memories that haunt him.
“The everyday activity in these professions generates anxieties and intense fears,” he admits. “You are always in an unclear world and involved in existential situations. I remember one case I experienced when I was chief of detectives and intelligence in the Sharon District in the 1980s. Benny, a good friend of mine, was a Shin Bet regional commander at the time. At 2 A.M. we received a phone call that a terrorist had been caught after being seriously wounded in a city in the center of the country. He was taken to Meir Hospital [in Kfar Sava]. At 2:45, Benny and I and another Shin Bet interrogator were there. He was about to undergo surgery and was going to be anesthetized in five minutes, so we could not question him. But he was the only source who could tell us whether he had planted bombs in the city, or whether there was a terrorist squad waiting in some school.”
They decided to go ahead with the interrogation, Sela recalls: “We kicked out the doctors, and the Shin Bet interrogator and I started to question the terrorist, even though we knew he might die because of it. He gave us the locations of all the bombs he had planted in the city. You carry a pain like that with you all your life. Questions of morality and legality don’t make much difference. Those are the kinds of materials that security personnel bring to sessions with me. People live in that nightmarish world.”
Asked if this is why he feels a need to fix or heal himself now, Sela says: “I do not consider myself a writer. Dostoyevsky I will never be. I see myself as someone who tries to be a better person from year to year, but finds that it becomes more difficult from year to year. I am not someone who travels all over the place; the farthest I go by choice is the beach at Beit Yanai to the north and Netanya to the south. Even so, I [still] don’t have [enough] time to write, read and work with people.
I would really like people to read the new book,” he adds. “My two previous ones pretty much disappeared. I had expectations that they would stir a bigger response, but that didn’t happen. I have no ambitions to be a great writer, but I do have a fervent desire for people to read the books I write and be affected by them. I want someone to listen to the dialogue I write for the characters in the book – for the letters on the page to do something to people.”