The Israeli author on a mission
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Book Review

The Israeli author on a mission

Matti Friedman brings to life the critical role, often overlooked, that Mizrachi Jews played in early espionage for Israel

Illustrative photo: 4th January 1947: British Paratroopers patrolling the streets of Tel Aviv after one of their officers, Major Brett, was captured and flogged by Jewish armed groups. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Illustrative photo: 4th January 1947: British Paratroopers patrolling the streets of Tel Aviv after one of their officers, Major Brett, was captured and flogged by Jewish armed groups. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Lebanese schoolchildren buying pencils and sandwiches from the kiosk across from school had no idea that their small change was supporting an intelligence operation for the Jewish state. Running a local business was one of several subterfuges for the four operatives profiled in Matti Friedman’s “Spies of No Country” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019).

These brave young men, all native speakers of Arabic, had to carefully orchestrate every aspect of their lives from their cover stories to the way they spoke, dressed, and behaved in public. Even their bathroom habits could become a foil.

“The founding of the State of Israel has a lot of clichés so I hope that the characters in this book stand out as real humans,” Friedman told NJJN in a phone interview from his Jerusalem home. “They’re not comic heroes or caricatures, these were very real, young, flawed people. If you get their humanity then what they accomplished seems so much bigger.”

Some of that humanity came through in blunders that could’ve jeopardized their mission, such as taking photographs of each other at the beach or in their choice of women to date.

Matti Friedman and his book cover. Courtesy

Havakuk Cohen and Isaac Shoshan were two of the spies; they posed as Muslim workers named Ibrahim and Abdul Karim and rented a room in the Beirut home of a Christian woman. The toilet was communal and Shoshan’s use was followed by that of a nosy woman who asked Cohen about his roommate’s use of toilet paper (the working class only used water to clean themselves). Cohen came up with an excuse about a medical condition and doctor’s orders. In spite of the plausible story, the two men feared further suspicions and immediately packed up and moved to another location.

Friedman is a former Associate Press correspondent and prize-winning author of two previous non-fiction books. “Spies of No Country” is meticulously sourced and well-researched from books, archival materials, and years of interviews with Shoshan, the only living member of the group, who was in his 90s when Friedman met him.

“I’ve learned over years as a reporter that time spent with old spies is never time wasted,” Friedman writes in the preface.

Shoshan, who left his native Syria when he was a young teen, and the three others highlighted in the book were members of the Arab Section, a subset of the Palmach, the fighting unit of the Jewish underground.

“These guys really toiled in anonymity and never got the respect they deserved,” he said about the approximately 12 members of the Arab Section in the late 1940s; half of that group died in action.

“This was one of the seeds that grew into the Mossad and it’s so amateurish that it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic in some cases,” said Friedman about the Section’s exploits, which included being sent out with no professional training or communications equipment.

Most members of the group were native to Arab countries and were expelled or fled to British Mandate Palestine for their safety. Their bravery was driven by “their positions as Jews inside the Islamic world,” which Friedman described as “untenable.”

While facing discrimination from European settlers, including other Palmach members, those in the Arab Section “managed to become important in a national effort that isn’t
really designed for people like them but has given them this role.”

One of the takeaways from Friedman’s book is a narrative about the founding of the State of Israel that is shaped by the experience of Jews from Arab countries whose histories, he said, have been “erased.” He said the population in Israel is nearly evenly split between Jews from the Middle East and those from Europe, yet the malicious lie that Israel is a “white colonialist project” persists.

“The book isn’t a polemic and it’s not intended as a shot in a political battle, but I think that Israel is subject to both a character assassination and a kind of very malevolent fictionalization by the country’s opponents.”

The author said that perhaps the experiences of these four brave men from Syria, Yemen, and British Palestine could rectify current disinformation about history. 

“What we need is to move our understanding of what this country is to the Middle East and think less about the Warsaw Ghetto and more about the Jews of Baghdad,” he told NJJN. “Then the State of Israel in 2019 is much easier to understand.”

So far Friedman’s audience has been limited to English speakers. What will be interesting to follow is the Israeli reaction to his book. He said “Spies of No Country” should be translated into Hebrew by the end of 2019.

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