Offered the opportunity to meet a 90-year-old pensioner near Tel Aviv who had been involved in Israel’s earliest intelligence services, journalist Matti Friedman agreed, having learned “that time spent with old spies is never time wasted.”
That meeting with Isaac Shoshan, alias Abdul Karim, led him to the little-known history of the “Arab Section” — the unit of Jews of Arabic backgrounds recruited into intelligence work by the Palmach in the pre-State years. Friedman’s compelling new book, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel” (Algonquin), recounts the true stories of Shoshan and three other colleagues in espionage.
As Friedman tells The Jewish Week, most stories about the founding of the state are about Europeans like Herzl and David Ben Gurion, but these Jews born in Aleppo, Damascus and Jerusalem deserve to be at the center, not the fringes. This is the first book in English to tell the stories of Shoshan, along with Gamliel Cohen (alias Yussef), Havakuk Cohen (Ibrahim) and Yakuba Cohen (Jamil). The three Cohens are not related; only Shoshan was still alive when Friedman did his reporting. Friedman says that initially he focused on Shoshan, but “these three elbowed their way into the narrative.”
The four spies operated decades before digital espionage, before James Bond. Sent on assignment without radios, cameras or any professional training, they were often out of touch with everyone they knew, including their commanders, for long periods of time. Eventually, they jerry-rigged communication systems through clothes lines and sent information, never sure who was listening on the other end.
A former correspondent for the Associated Press and author of “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War” and “The Aleppo Codex,” Friedman says that when he interviewed Isaac, the retired agent wasn’t particularly introspective, as is common of his generation, but that “his memory was a sharp blade. Sometimes it seemed as if the Independence War of 1948 had just ended or was still on.”
Friedman read testimony left by Gamliel and Yakuba who, like Isaac, went on to long and colorful careers in Israeli intelligence; Havakuk died young, killed by a double agent. In addition to interviewing family members, Friedman had access to formerly classified materials, including radio traffic.
Friedman is a skilled storyteller with an eye for detail, and grounded in facts clarified in notes at the back of the book. While he has read all of John le Carré as well as the works of other espionage writers, he says that this story “corresponded to none of the clichés of the spy genre. There’s no diabolical puzzle that is solved. These are guys moving on the edges; they never see the big picture they are a part of.”
Members of the Arab Section were known as “mista’arvim” — the ones who become like Arabs. Veiling their Jewishness, they infiltrated Arab society posing as Arabs. Even though “the world was awash with refugees” at the time, the risk was great. As Friedman writes, the distance between alive and dead could be “the length of an incorrect verb, an inconsistent reply to a sharp question. Or a villager wearing shoes better suited to a clerk, or a worker whose shirt was too clean.”
Isaac’s background is typical of the group. He was born in Aleppo, the son of a janitor, and that might have been his future too had he not escaped. At 16, without telling his father, he paid a smuggler and slipped across the border, later surfacing on a kibbutz with other Syrian boys who saw themselves as pioneers, not refugees. This was a time of condescension toward non-European Jews, but these young men “had found their way into one of the only corners of the Zionist movement where their identity was valued — they were told by a Palmach member that each newcomer from the Arab world was worth ‘a battalion of infantry.’”
Friedman reports on activities between January 1948 and August 1949, when some members of the group perform acts of espionage in Haifa and then leave the city posing as refugees. When all four later meet up in Beirut, they operate a kiosk called Three Moons, selling sandwiches, newspapers and school supplies — the first Israeli intelligence station in the Arab world. In those years, many agents in the field were caught and executed.
Gamliel, a sensitive soul and the only one who finished high school, extracted a promise from the Section commanders that he wouldn’t have to kill anyone. Yakuba was more interested in blowing things up. They carried out serious operations, sent back information and lived simply, in the shadows, “not navigating candlesticks and crystal at dinner parties, or insinuating themselves into the corridors of power. Their position was like that of Russian agents tasked with gleaning intelligence not from Capitol Hill or Wall Street but from the sidewalk outside a public school in Queens.”
In a gentle scene, two of them take dance lessons from an Armenian couple in order to fit into the city’s night clubs, and they learn to dance with each other.
The men were pulled out of Beirut after another one of their agents was hanged in Amman. When they returned, there was no heroes’ welcome. The Palmach that had sent them across the border no longer existed after the founding of the State.
Later on, Isaac helped get Jews out of Damascus, and Gamliel was one of Israel’s longest and best undercover agents. (His cover was so deep that he was married in a secret ceremony somewhere in Europe, and one of his daughters spent her first years with the Arabic name Samira, to become Mira when the mission ended and they were back in Israel.)
“These men were humanists, realists, Zionists, an endearing combination,” Friedman says.
Born in Toronto, Friedman first went to Israel when he was 17 and stayed, he explains, gaining “the tail end of an Israeli childhood,” as he lived on a kibbutz and did his military service with people his age. Married to an Israeli, he says, “I feel like an insider, and am grateful for that.”
He describes contemporary Israel as very Middle Eastern in politics, culture, popular music and behavior.
“This book,” he says, “is about 1948, but helps you understand 2019.”