Spies of No Coun­try: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Mat­ti Friedman
Win­ner of the 2018 Natan Book Award

By – January 21, 2019

Mat­ti Fried­man is one of Israel’s most per­cep­tive con­tem­po­rary chron­i­clers, and his books and arti­cles are quick­ly becom­ing indis­pens­able for under­stand­ing how the Jew­ish State’s past is cre­at­ing its emer­gent future. With an under­stat­ed­ly lumi­nous prose style, Fried­man also has an eye for that which is over­looked, but far from irrel­e­vant. In The Alep­po Codex (2012), he told the ele­giac sto­ry of what was once one of the old­est Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the world. Pump­kin­flow­ers (2016), a his­to­ry-slash-mem­oir of Friedman’s time in the Israel Defense Forces, shone a nec­es­sary spot­light on Israel’s long engage­ment in Lebanon, which has shaped the coun­try and the region even as it hasn’t gar­nered the atten­tion it deserves. His piece An Insider’s Guide to the Most Impor­tant Sto­ry on Earth” (2014) is a defin­ing look at the fraught issue of how Israel is cov­ered in the media.

In an oblique way, Spies of No Coun­try is a return to Friedman’s con­cern from The Alep­po Codex—the enor­mous impact of the dis­solved world of Mizrahi Jew­ry on the State of Israel, and the still unfold­ing impli­ca­tions of Israel’s iden­ti­ty as a Mid­dle East­ern coun­try. The focus here is nar­row, but the can­vas is large. Fried­man tells the sto­ry of four mem­bers of the Arab Sec­tion, the under­cov­er intel­li­gence unit start­ed by the British, devel­oped under the Pal­mach, and insti­tu­tion­al­ized dur­ing the con­sol­i­da­tion of the nascent IDF. The four spies Fried­man focus­es on hailed from mel­lahs and med­i­nas in Dam­as­cus and Alep­po, and veg­etable mar­kets in Jerusalem. They car­ried the res­o­nant appel­la­tion mista’arvim, or the ones who became like Arabs,” because their mis­sion was to merge with the pop­u­la­tions of places like Amman and Beirut and pick up scraps of intel­li­gence while under­cov­er as shop­keep­ers and can­dy sales­men, taxi dri­vers and kiosk venders.

The time cov­ered in Spies of No Coun­try unfolds dur­ing the trou­bled first days of the State, when its sur­vival was far from assured. Fried­man pow­er­ful­ly describes the feel­ing of uncer­tain­ty that the men of the Arab Sec­tion would have felt while on assign­ment. Under this pre­vi­ous tech­no­log­i­cal dis­pen­sa­tion, they would not have known the news of Israel’s sur­vival; being away meant being in the dark. As their iden­ti­ties merged with their sur­round­ings, they watched the Israeli-Arab War from places of geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty but great psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance, at a moment when Israel was a hypoth­e­sis rather than a coun­try, and when Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion in the Arab world had not yet been erased. The per­pet­u­al anx­i­ety of being under­cov­er — the fear that one word or mis­step or ges­ture could mean death — was ampli­fied by these larg­er uncer­tain­ties. These spies were utter­ly, com­plete­ly on their own. There was nev­er an extrac­tion plan if things went wrong. For them, run­ning a lit­tle kiosk in an Arab city was … real life … The Jew­ish state, on the oth­er hand, was just clicks on the radio.” Kiosks, clicks, and a world turned upside down.

Spies of No Coun­try finds its deep­est res­o­nance when Fried­man steps back from the admit­ted­ly com­pelling mis­sions to con­sid­er what this group of spies at the edge of Israel’s birth might mean for the iden­ti­ty of the coun­try they went incog­ni­to to help. At a time when the Pal­mach was staffed by Ashke­nazi Jews, these Jews from Arab lands were periph­er­al to the nation­al mythol­o­gy but cen­tral to the State’s effort to defend itself. That was how,” Fried­man explains, the Ones Who Became Like Arabs end­ed up using their com­pli­cat­ed Jew­ish selves as a weapon to cre­ate a place where their selves could be less com­pli­cat­ed.” Things rarely get less com­pli­cat­ed, but Spies of No Coun­try is a pow­er­ful exam­i­na­tion of a moment of upheaval and foment, when Jews passed as Arabs so that they could be Jews, and when the new state was going to be larg­er than the dream, because it was real. And it would be small­er than the dream, because it was real.” As Fried­man deft­ly shows, this real­i­ty” is indeli­bly defined by the cul­ture, sen­si­bil­i­ty, lan­guage, and his­to­ry of Mizrahi Jews. Soon it began to dawn on some observers that the Jews of Islam weren’t going to be a splash of Ori­en­tal col­or on the state of Theodor Herzl’s Vien­nese imag­i­na­tion. The new­com­ers were going to alter the enter­prise itself.” This obser­va­tion swells into a com­pelling the­sis; as Israel becomes more Mid­dle East­ern, it redis­cov­ers a dif­fer­ent kind of old/​new kinet­ic ener­gy, this one sourced to the expe­ri­ence of Jews from Dam­as­cus rather than Odessa.

Fried­man notes, Israel is more than one thing. It’s a refugee camp for the Jews of Europe. And it’s a minor­i­ty insur­rec­tion inside the world of Islam.” Refuge from his­to­ry and insur­rec­tion against his­to­ry; this dual­i­ty strikes close to the core of Israel’s pur­pose and mis­sion. There is no Fau­da or wild­ly pop­u­lar Mizrahi pop music with­out the com­mu­ni­ties that pop­u­lat­ed the Arab Sec­tion. Even more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Israel and its future would be vast­ly dif­fer­ent. Per­haps Friedman’s great­est insight is that rich­ly dou­bled iden­ti­ties, dis­guis­es smug­gled in under hyphens, is at the core of the Jew­ish per­son­al­i­ty, from Moses to Queen Esther and beyond.

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

Discussion Questions

In pop­u­lar con­cep­tion, Israel was found­ed as a refuge from per­se­cu­tion by Jews who came from Europe. That pop­u­lar view is cer­tain­ly not inac­cu­rate; some nine­ty per­cent of the Yishuv’s pre-state inhab­i­tants were Ashkenazi. 

But it is far from the whole pic­ture, as Mat­ti Fried­man thrilling­ly shows in Spies of No Coun­try: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel. Spies is the true (if less shoot-out packed) ver­sion of the hit Israeli TV series, Fau­da. And notwith­stand­ing the rel­a­tive absence of gun­play, there’s no short­age of ten­sion in the sto­ry of four Mizrahi men, born in Arab lands and native speak­ers of Ara­bic, who were part of a pre-inde­pen­dence Zion­ist intel­li­gence unit, the Arab Sec­tion,” which oper­at­ed in Syr­ia and Lebanon dur­ing the 1948 war. That ten­sion is cap­tured by one member’s reg­u­lar atten­dance at pub­lic hang­ings to pre­pare for what awaits him if he incor­rect­ly uses a bit of Ara­bic slang or makes a mis­take in his obser­vance of Islam­ic custom.

In addi­tion to detail­ing an exam­ple of the con­tri­bu­tion of Mizrahi Jews to Israel’s found­ing, Fried­man stress­es the cul­tur­al influ­ence of the Mizrachim and Sephardim who now make up slight­ly more than half of Israel’s pop­u­la­tion. Spies thus serves the impor­tant pur­pose of pro­vid­ing a more accu­rate por­trait of Israeli diver­si­ty than is com­mon­ly appreciated.