My Mother’s Secret

My Mother’s Secret



My mother was a top Middle East analyst for the CIA. On her deathbed, she begged me not to raise my children Jewish. To find out why, I asked her former colleagues. I’m still reeling from their answers.


My mother died on Dec. 4 of last year. On her deathbed, she begged me not to raise my children Jewish. In life, she worked for the CIA, in the Near East Southern Asia Division, for six years as head of the Arab-Israeli Division. She was an expert on Syria and political Islam.

We were watching footage of hostages being paraded around Gaza when she said it. “I worry about them,” she murmured, her eyes fixed on the TV. “It’s too dangerous a religion,” she told me. “I don’t want that target on their backs.” I couldn’t tell what she was asking of me: Did she want me to skip the few traditions my family has held onto? Hanukkah candles and meager Seders? Or was she saying I shouldn’t tell my kids that they were Jewish at all? I didn’t ask. I was too afraid of what she would say.

“I told Dad I didn’t want to raise you Jewish,” she said a few days later. The Gaza war had begun in earnest by then. Moonscapes of leveled buildings and dust: images of military prowess that colored her view and, until Oct. 7, my perception of Israel. “He wanted to, but I was afraid of what might happen to you if you identified that way.”

I was stunned. I’d always thought my secular upbringing had evolved organically, a combination of busy parents, a mixed marriage, and waning traditions. It wasn’t so much that my mother, a 6-foot-tall blonde from the Midwest, was anxious about my dad’s religion. No one felt strongly enough to carve out a space for their faith, so we embraced a smattering of rituals. Christmas trees and Hanukkah prayers, fasting on Yom Kippur and dyeing eggs on Easter. I thought it was a noncommittal melange, not an active choice.

As a choice, it didn’t exactly line up with my mother’s perception of Jews. Sure my dad had had to contend with Jewish quotas back in the day. Come to think of it, there was an anti-Jewish covenant on the deed to our house; and I was only asked to join the big cotillion in D.C. after bad press forced it to invite Jewish and Black kids. But that was ancient history. Jews possessed power now, too much of it to be victimized as they once were, a view that basically worked for my dad, who had no interest in the poverty or bigotry of his youth.

Every intelligence officer I spoke with performed this sleight of hand. Yes, antisemitism exists, and is serious—but only as a right-wing problem, and as a Western phenomenon.

My father died not long before my mother—like her, of a cancer that had spread to his lungs. Aligned almost perfectly in death, they mostly weren’t in life, especially when it came to Israel. My dad flip-flopped: Had Israel mistreated the Palestinians, or was it the victim of their aggression? My mother hardened in her views as the prospects for peace dimmed. But the conversation always centered on power: Was Israel powerful beyond its size? Were Jews powerful beyond their numbers? Or were they vulnerable, exposed in a hostile world?

The deathbed scene was a cosmic insult: same hospice nurses, same case manager—“Oh, I remember you!”—same oxygen machine, whirring cyclically in the background. Oct. 7 receded from view. How could I devote even an iota of brainpower to anything other than standing idly by while my mother slipped away?

And then, after she died, I became obsessed: Had she really believed that antisemitism was so radioactive a force, not only in America, but in the Middle East, that my children’s Jewishness should be hidden from them? After the Holocaust, the family my paternal grandmother left behind, the ones who survived, all moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, and converted to Lutheranism. Was America in 2023 really as bad as Europe in 1945?

To understand where my mother came out on these questions, I spoke to her former CIA colleagues. Their answers only added to my shock. After enough of these interviews, I began to question everything I thought I knew about an institution I’d been close to my whole life.

My mother took her duty to remain impartial seriously. Her job was to analyze intelligence so lawmakers could make informed decisions. She once told Ronald Reagan she thought “we might lose Sadat,” who was then a partner in negotiating peace with Israel.

“Lose him?” Reagan asked, stunned. Not long after that, Anwar Sadat was assassinated.

In her words, she was “paid to intuit things.” Passing along her biases would not only have been a violation of her professional ethics, it would’ve been a poor way to go about her job, since assassins in Egypt don’t care what analysts in Langley think. And yet, she always carried a strain of sympathy for the Palestinians. She told me once she was considered by her colleagues to be an “Arabist,” someone who overly identified with the Arab players in the region and was, at some level, hostile to Israel. “Checks out,” I thought to myself.

At the funeral, her colleagues extolled her career: She could read the late Syrian dictator Hafez Assad’s mind, she’d been instrumental in the Madrid and Oslo peace talks. She always said that shedding light on the interests of the Arab players in the region was her contribution to the peace process. I spoke to John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, a few days after the funeral. When I asked him whether my mother was an Arabist, he quickly shot that idea down. He acknowledged there was a need for “greater evenhandedness towards the region among some in the CIA,” but, he said, she was not among them. And anyway, that was more of an issue on the political side than it was with analysts, the lion’s share of whom remained unbiased.

I asked Brennan about my mother’s mentor, Bob Ames, who had an infamously close relationship with Ali Hasan Salameh, the leader of the “Black September” PLO terrorist command and architect of the Munich Olympics massacre. He laughed. Ames was, he admitted, “very close to the Palestinians” and “played it very close to the edge.” But after his death in the Beirut embassy bombing of 1983, Brennan said, the culture within the CIA changed from being operationally driven to being driven by the analysts. Spies who cultivated terrorist assets no longer set the tone. The baton had passed to the wonks in Langley.

Bob Ames’ biographer, Kai Bird, had a different view of whether Bob Ames was an Arabist. Unequivocally, yes, he told me, but there were “true reasons for it.” As with journalists, Ames and his colleagues were “merely reporting what they saw.” When I asked what he meant, he told me that Israel is the only reason for antisemitism in the Arab world. Before 1948, the antisemitism in Cairo and Beirut was “on a par with what you would see in New York and Los Angeles.”

I didn’t mention the scores of pogroms across the Arab world before 1948, nor the absence of similar pogroms in New York and Los Angeles. Bird went on to say that antisemitism does exist “globally in its European and German forms,” but that it has never played much of a role in the politics of the Middle East. He sees Oct. 7, as so many of the former intelligence officers I spoke to do, as nothing more than another round in a geopolitical tit for tat. The savagery Hamas showed that day came, in their view, from a political place rather than a cultural one.

When I pressed him, Brennan pointed out that Hamas is a movement that encompasses a ‘range of attitudes, and includes teachers, hospital workers, and other professionals.’

I assumed that Bird would be the only person I spoke to with these views. He’s not an intelligence officer, merely a biographer. He’s free to hold whatever views he likes. But as it turned out, my faith in the impartiality of the CIA was misplaced.

When I spoke to my mother’s former colleagues, I consistently encountered a tendency to attribute every event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the conflict itself. It’s not that Palestinian textbooks have, since the 1990s, contained material that is “openly antisemitic and encourages violence, jihad and martyrdom,” or that “peace itself is not taught as preferable or even possible.” Nor is it, as a 2019 review discovered, the “complete removal of all pre-existing content discussing peace agreements, summits, negotiations, and proposals supporting a two-state solution, acknowledgment of historical Jewish presence in the land of Israel and labeling the name ‘Israel’ on a map” from those textbooks. To retired intelligence officers with long and distinguished careers, these facts are incidental. If children were actually set on fire on Oct. 7, that was a guerrilla tactic, not the result of a culture of murderous hatred. Some expressed these views with dispassion and others, with a disturbing degree of passion, but they all expressed them.

When I asked Brennan about the most sordid details to come out of Oct. 7—the terrorist who bragged on the phone to his parents about killing Jews, the head of an IDF soldier sold as a trophy in Gaza—he told me that day reminded him of what he’d seen with ISIS, “how many of those individuals were high on drugs,” making them that much more “frenzied and murderous.”

The terrorists were on drugs, to be sure, and yet. It may be that facing the role that long-standing and unreasoning racial animus played on Oct. 7 is too much of a stretch for someone like John Brennan, who has spent his life immersed in the hard facts of power. Undercurrents of hatred percolate around dinner tables. They don’t rise to the level of a presidential brief.

When I pressed him, Brennan pointed out that Hamas is a movement that encompasses a “range of attitudes, and includes teachers, hospital workers and other professionals.” I tried to imagine an American political movement with a covenant that advocated genocide. Would a call to murder be overlooked because the grievances the movement was pursuing were en vogue, or because it’s simply “rhetoric?” How about if they killed hundreds and then thousands of people, thereby demonstrating that the rhetoric is real? Does Hamas get a free pass because they’re Palestinian, or because it’s Jews specifically that they want to kill?

When I asked Brennan why he thinks my mother begged me not to raise my kids Jewish, he shifted the conversation northward: There’s been a global uptick in right-wing extremism and white supremacy, he said. Orban, Putin, Modi. Anti-democratic forces are on the rise, making Jews a target.

Every intelligence officer I spoke with performed this sleight of hand. Yes, antisemitism exists, and is serious—but only as a right-wing problem, and as a Western phenomenon. The Hamas-loving kids on American college campuses? Overblown, irrelevant. The Palestinian children being given military training by terrorists? Not the issue.

If my mother worried about my safety as a Jew, it never came up on the trips we took to the Middle East. I tagged along while she worked and did tourist stuff. The pyramids. Masada. “If something happens,” she said once, “throw away your bag and don’t speak. And if they talk to you, make sounds like the Swedish chef. They won’t know the difference, and you could be Swedish.” Being American was a liability she prepared me for.

Being Jewish was not.

We didn’t know it then, but we were catching a last, halcyon glimpse of the Middle East my mother studied. The war on terror was about to transform the region—though there were inklings of Islamist violence roiling beneath the surface. The Luxor massacre followed one of our trips. On a visit in 1996, we changed our plans and left Cairo early, after Islamists shot up a hotel full of Greek tourists not far from where we were staying, at the Semiramis Hotel. My mother didn’t say what had happened. When I woke, our bags were packed, and we were booked on an Air Sinai flight to Tel Aviv.

Not long after that, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst was stabbed to death in the lobby of the Semiramis. Her attacker was said to be “mentally ill.” Two Americans and a Frenchman had been murdered at the Semiramis by a “deranged assailant” a few years earlier. “There are a lot of attacks by ‘deranged’ and ‘mentally ill’ people in Egypt these days,” my mother observed in telling me about her colleague at the DIA.

The flavor of these attacks was anti-Western, not anti-Jewish, and they were about to get worse. My mother and I had dinner one night in April 1996 at the CIA station chief’s house in Israel, north of Tel Aviv. There was some kind of minor war underway. Fighter jets kept skidding above us as we ate. The IDF and Hezbollah were trading fire again, which was not that remarkable in itself. This time, the IDF bombed a U.N. compound, killing 106 civilians.

This event might not have made news here, but it rocked the Arab world. Mohamed Atta committed his life to jihad that very day. Osama bin Laden was none too pleased, either. “You supported the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon,” he explained in his “letter to America,” which, since Oct. 7, has gone viral in the TikTok feeds of America’s youth. Anti-Westernism has always been closely entwined with antisemitism in the Arab world; these days it’s closely entwined here, too.

Al-Qaida wasn’t the only one to take issue with the American-Israeli alliance. There was a feeling in the intelligence community in the 1990s that we’d “signed on as Israel’s protector,” as one of my mother’s colleagues put it. The Arabists were just trying to compensate for what they felt was the overrepresentation of Israel’s interests. To me it seems human, the type of accommodation a person might make with the ethics of their job out of a sense of correcting a wrong. It doesn’t have the air of fanaticism about it that colors the intelligence community’s biases these days.

I asked one former intelligence officer, a veteran of the Near East Southern Asia Division, about the antisemitic protests on college campuses, the ones that had been making headlines for weeks. She deflected me with the familiar Karine Jean-Pierre two-step: “I think both ‘antis’ are unseemly.” And so it went every time I asked my mother’s former colleagues whether antisemitism is a major cultural force at work here in America, and in Palestine too.

When I asked another former CIA analyst about the protests on campus, I was told there’s been a “marked rise in antisemitism due to Israel’s attack on Gazan civilians and the number of casualties,” which is true. Then again, the number of antisemitic attacks in 2022 (the last year for which data is available) is double the number in 2017 and triple the number in 2016. The rate of increase has been exponential for some time.

There was a ready response to that one, too: We’ve seen an uptick in antisemitism “with the rise of the far right, including the antisemite of the whole world, Trump,” a connection I found perplexing. The Abraham Accords seem nothing if not good for Israel. In response, I was told that Trump said that our blood is being “polluted” by Jews and that the U.S. is a Christian country. I couldn’t corroborate any of this, though when I tried, I discovered a campaign speech in which Trump said: “if you hate America, if you want to abolish Israel, if you don’t like our religion, if you sympathize with the jihadists, then we don’t want you in our country.”

It was almost as if these veteran analysts, whose careers were devoted to impartiality and, above all, neutrality, were reading from a crib sheet supplied by the DNC.

“Is antisemitism a problem in America?”

Well, there’s “also a lot of anti-Islamic stuff” and “white nationalism stuff in Europe too.” So many European countries are “tilting right.”

“Is antisemitism a problem in the Middle East?”

There’s a “variegated set of attitudes.” It’s “not antisemitism, just a lot of “anti-Israel feeling.” 1,200 Jews died on Oct. 7 not because they were Jewish, but because they were Israeli.

I actually was not prepared for any of this. Even at the peak of her Arabist tendencies, I don’t think my mother would have denied the well-documented existence of antisemitism in the Middle East. I found myself needing to seek out other perspectives, if only as at sanity check. After talking to all these intelligence analysts, my trust in an institution I’ve been close to my whole life was shaken, and not just by the certainty with which my questions were shot down, but by the ferocity with which they were shot down. Do the people who slaughtered my people also … hate them? I felt I’d committed a major political faux pas just by asking.

I asked someone who has come at these issues not from the political side of things, but from the academic side, and from the inside too. Hussein Aboubakr Mansour’s brother became an imam whose aspiration it was to inspire young jihadists; Hussein has led a different life. He’s written about the one he left behind: “as a teenager in Egypt, I recall nearly all the adults around me celebrating the murder of Israelis after news of a suicide bombing during the Second Intifada. Egypt’s most prominent religious authorities declared the perpetrators to be martyrs and saints.” Hussein hails from a banking family in Cairo; it’s not as if he grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. So why would middle-class people in another country with a robust economy, firm borders, a different history and tradition, the pyramids protruding in the distance, not to mention a dialect so different that it’s mutually unintelligible to the dialect that most Palestinians speak, cheer the death of Jews 300 miles away?

Because Jewish death is linked to the Arab concept of self-determination on a world stage. If Israel exists, the Arab states don’t, not in their fullest expression.

“Islamists articulate the fantasy of Jewish eradication in the language of jihad, framed in eschatological terms, and imbued with a sense of divine justice and cosmic warfare—what Westerners would ordinarily recognize as a type of religious fascism,” Hussein wrote. “But while the Islamist version of this idea is potent for the purposes of mobilizing the impoverished and uneducated masses, the ‘left-wing’ or secular version—couched in the language of Fanon and Karl Marx, of human emancipation, equality, anti-capitalism, and social justice—is the more effective means of mobilizing opinion among the Western intelligentsia. The point is that they are two sides of the same coin, the value of which is set in Jewish blood.”

The fantasy that Jews stand in the way of Arab self-realization touches atavistic nerves: It’s the same death-as-salvation paradigm that led early Christians to martyr themselves, the same liberatory concept of class struggle that led 20th-century Russians to murder czarists. Blood sacrifice, a practice that humans have been engaging in since time immemorial.

But why would these crazy ideas take hold in America? Because Marxism has slowly but surely crept inward from the far left in this country, most recently in the form of the social justice movement, and Marxism is an elaborate form of Jew-hatred.

It used to be that Marxism’s division of the universe into a dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed was common only on college campuses. The Marxists were such downers when I was in grad school, playing at solidarity, dumpster-diving, decrying things. But their ideas have percolated upwards via a grassroots osmosis such that now even the Biden administration traffics in them: Jews are bad, bad, bad, Netanyahu’s an asshole, Israel’s military actions are over the top, and the whole country is bent on a genocide of babies. There’s no yin and yang here. It’s ideology as theology: a matrix of good and evil that paints Jews as murderers and Palestinians as martyrs.

We hear all the time in America about how bad whiteness is. The whites are fragile. They center themselves. They marginalize others. They think punctuality is good. But with Jews, it’s a little more complicated: The activist set complains about how white they are, what brutal colonizers. Never mind that the majority of Israeli Jews are indigenous to the region, and that the rest were refugees. And please don’t bring up the discrimination and violence that Mizrahi Jews experienced at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. Arguing over these facts is pointless because activist hatred of Israel is really just a dog whistle.

The problem with Jews is that they’re Jews. Marx hated them, and his hatred of them is baked into his ideology. “Emancipation from Judaism would be the emancipation of our time,” he wrote in an essay he published 20 years before Capital. “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” Ilhan Omar was a lot more succinct. It’s all about the Benjamins, baby, and always has been, though even she knows better than to call for the “emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Inject a little racial ideology in there, and you’re well on your way to genocide. Antisemitism lurks in the groundwater of the left. Any Jew who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves.

My mother may have seen these things. She predicted the banlieues, studying urban European demographics in the 1990s, seeing in them the tinder that would light the fires to come. Not a single European leader would listen to her.

Maybe for her, that was just about identifying the violent anti-Western strain that was simmering to a boil in those communities. Antisemitism was merely incidental. Her duty was to America, and she did it with pride. She was a second-generation CIA analyst with an aunt in the OSS and a long family tradition of public service. She was also the model for the blond bombshell analyst in the pulp thriller The Fifth Horseman.

And, as I found out at the end, she worried about antisemitism, too. It was a fact that she chose to keep to herself, at least until there was no point in hiding it any longer. She would have called that a “need to know,” a thought that almost makes me laugh.

My mother took one last trip to Israel the year before she died. It was her last trip anywhere. She didn’t know she was dying, though she was well on her way. The cold that never went away, the fatigue. We all chalked it up to stress, grief. My father had just died, so she made this pilgrimage for him, to the place she had devoted her life to. Never mind that my father hated visiting Israel. The story he told me was that he’d talked to a woman in a bar when he was there in his 20s, a “working girl.” When he found out she was Jewish, that was it. The dream of a Jewish homeland was done. He never wanted to go back, not that he wasn’t an ardent Zionist, capable of alienating entire dinner parties with his flourishes of fanaticism. “At least I can say of your strategy that it’s subnuclear,” my mother’s friend, a military strategist, said to my father once, during a heated discussion of the Second Intifada. She went to Israel, paradoxically, for him and to see Jerusalem one last time.

When the undertakers come, one of them pulls me aside: “wasn’t I just here?” “Yeah, for my dad,” I tell him. “That doesn’t seem fair,” he says.

It’s true. In the last two years I’ve watched the only people who can answer any lingering questions I might have about myself be carried feet first down the staircase I’ve been bounding up for years. “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means,” Joan Didion wrote. It hasn’t helped me much either.

It’s sunny on the day my mother makes her final journey. Heavy oblongs of light fall from the skylights. I know that this is the moment. The body leaves, and it’s over. The person is gone. The conversation, the one you’ve been having your entire life, is over. I still don’t know why my mother left me with this burden: Don’t raise your kids Jewish, don’t honor the past, don’t remember your great-grandparents, don’t tell their stories, don’t, don’t, don’t …

One thing I do know, as I watch her carried down on the stretcher, sunlight hitting her face: Now there’s no way of knowing what she thought about Israel, about antisemitism, about us. I can interview every last colleague, every friend, and no one will have the answer, least of all me.

Justine el-Khazen is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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