“Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel” by Matti Friedman— Israel’s First Modern Spies

Friedman, Matti. “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel”, Algonquin Books, 2019.

Israel’s First Modern Spies

Amos Lassen

 The founding of both the State of Israel and Israeli identity are explored by Matti Friedman in his new book, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel”. This is the narrative that chronicles the exploits of a unit of Arabic speaking Jewish spies that were put together by the British spies and Jewish militia leaders in Palestine  during the Second World War. These spies  were known as the Arab Section and went undercover in the battle for the physical creation of the State of Israel. They were to collect intelligence, carry out sabotage missions and assassinations and even though they were Jews, they had come from the Arab world and therefore easily take on Arab identities. When the existence of Israel meant the War of Independence, these spies went undercover in Beirut, where they spent the next two years operating out of a kiosk as they collected intelligence and sent messages back to Israel via a radio whose antenna was disguised as a clothesline.

This was very dangerous and the spies did not always know to whom they were sending messages and reporting. There were some twelve spies in the Arab Section at the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence of which five were caught and executed. Eventually, the Arab Section emerged as the nucleus of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
Friedman writes about the identities of the spies which is a reflection of Israel’s own complicated and fascinating identity. Israel sees itself and therefore presents itself as a Western nation, when in fact more than half the country has Middle Eastern roots and traditions, like the spies of this story. This helps to explain the life and politics of the country, and why it often puzzles the West. This true story of real-life spies and the paradoxes of the Middle East is every bit as good if not better than the fictional spy stories that fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. While this is an intimate story, it has global significance. 

Israel was born with complicated identities and as you can well imagine, each story has stories about it. To hear these stories is to go on a journey through history. Matti Friedman is a wonderful storyteller and a wonderful writer so much so that I read this in one sitting. I knew something about the spy situation because a member of my family was involved in a very important sky ring in Israel at the time leading up to the nation’s independence. I did not know anything, however, about the Arab Section.

This is a very good spy story that has all the components of a thriller— we have a very high-stakes war, the birth of a new nation, people with double-identities, lots of suspense and betrayals. The four spies we read about here include Gamaliel Cohen, Isaac Shoshan, Havakuk Cohen and Yakuba Cohen grew up as Jews in Arab lands; came of age in British Palestine as dark-skinned Middle Easterners who were looked down on by their European counterparts; lived undercover as Arabs in hostile territory; and were never publicly acknowledged in Israel as the heroes they were. Finally their stories are told in this brilliant book that keeps you wanting to know more.  We see how a band of Jewish spies from Arab countries helps explain the political and cultural transformation of Israel from its European Jewish origins into the largely Middle Eastern country it is today. Israel is a true melting pot.

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