In 1990, Victor Ostrovsky, a Canadian-Israeli, published a book called By Way of Deception, disclosing damaging information from his time in the Mossad, the legendary Israeli spy agency. Four years later, he published another one, The Other Side of Deception, making even more inflammatory claims about the intelligence organization. Not only did these books result in accusations that he was motivated mostly by spite, but also that he was actually lying about his own knowledge and experiences. In addition, they resulted in threats of both death and economic destruction from figures connected with the Israeli government.
Now another Canadian, Michael Ross, has - with the assistance of the National Post's Jonathan Kay - written a book describing his own experiences as a Mossad officer. It is inevitable that publication of The Volunteer will recall the Ostrovsky episode, but Ross's book is no fabrication, and not really a betrayal, either - and Ross is a far cry from another Ostrovsky.
For one thing, at the outset of the book he's not even Jewish, let alone Israeli. Instead, he's a 21-year-old Canadian gentile from Victoria, B.C. Straight out of a stint in the Canadian Armed Forces, he is backpacking around Europe without much direction when he hears that he could work in an Israeli kibbutz in exchange for room and board. With winter coming, he decides that "Israel might be a practical choice" to escape the cold.
Heading there immediately, he anticipates his Middle Eastern sojourn being a short one, but winds up meeting an Israeli woman and falling in love with both her and her country. Soon Ross is converting to Judaism, taking Israeli citizenship and being drafted into the Israeli army. He is deployed to Lebanon and battles the Hezbollah during the time that the terrorist group was effectively inventing the strategy of suicide bombing. After his army service, probably because of his native English, his experience in both the Canadian and Israeli militaries, and perhaps also because of his Canadian passport, he is recruited by the Mossad.
And so begins Ross's gripping story, filled with the stuff of spy thrillers. At various times, his remarkable tale has him racing down Germany's Autobahn with an explosive-filled compartment attached to the underside of his car, holding covert meetings with Mossad sources all over Southeast Asia, and going undercover to Mumbai to stop an Indian scientist from selling missile technology to Libya.
One particularly interesting - and, today, relevant - part of the story is Ross's involvement in the Israeli struggle against Iran's nuclear program, long before this issue was making daily front-page news. At one point, he is dispatched to Iran itself under the cover of exploring the possibility of doing business with the Islamic Republic, in order to investigate the ayatollahs' progress toward realizing their nuclear aspirations. Pretending to be on a casual day trip from Tehran, he secretly gathers soil samples from a location near one of Iran's nuclear complexes so that Israeli scientists can analyze them.
Later, he takes an even more active role when, on a mission in South Africa, he pretends to be from South African security and kidnaps two Iranian agents who are in the country trying to procure weapon technology. Taking them to an empty warehouse, he beats them savagely and tells them that they are not wanted in South Africa, before dropping them off at the airport. Afterward, he admits to himself that he was so violent not only because that was his assignment, but also because of his own frustration at "suicide bombings" and "anti-Semitism." He then goes on a tour of South Africa's wine farms to get "soundly drunk."
This scene is described very skillfully, with detail and complexity. If the book has a major weakness, though, it is that the rest of it is not always written with this same narrative depth. Unlike, say, a magazine article, to be truly successful a memoir should be written with many of the same conventions as a novel, including three-dimensional characters, vivid scenes and even, perhaps, the sense of an underlying moral universe.
Ross doesn't make quite enough of an attempt at these elements, and it often seems as if he is just listing all the things that happened to him rather than inviting readers to share in them. It is a bit unfortunate, for example, that we don't often get a real sense of his own emotions during his many adventures, let alone of his relationship with his Israeli wife and children, who hover in the background.
When Victor Ostrovsky published his books in the 1990s, they were criticized as being too much like a novel - including in veracity - while Ross's book could stand to be a little more like one, in terms of characters, dialogue and storytelling.
But because its subject matter is so compelling and so pertinent, The Volunteer is still very successful, even if it is tantalizing to wonder how good it could have been had Ross shared his remarkable experiences in a more engaging manner.
Readers interested in Ross's book might also consider thoroughly informative works like Gordon Thomas's Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad and Ian Black and Benny Morris's Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services.
But even without the background provided by these books, The Volunteer certainly stands well on both its considerable merits and its timeliness. Just a few months ago, Egyptian agents captured Mohamed Essam Ghoneim el-Attar, an Egyptian-Canadian they claim was a Mossad agent operating here in Canada. At a time when international intrigue has come even to our own shores, and when the Middle East seems once again to be on the precipice of disaster, this book provides a unique glimpse into a shadowy world not many of us will ever see - even if it is actually all around us.