Even before there was a State of Israel, the Jews living there were surrounded by Arab enemies. Which is why the Palmach, the special forces branch of the Haganah, the “underground army” of the Israeli liberation movement, decided to create an “Arab Section” to penetrate behind enemy lines to gather intelligence to defeat those enemies and protect the lives of Jewish citizens of a country that did not yet exist.
Israeli journalist and author Matti Friedman’s book Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel focuses on one team of pre-Israeli spies sent to Beirut, Lebanon to learn what they could about the military preparations and civilian attitudes of the Arab world at the dawn of a war that would determine the fate, the survival of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Friedman’s fine book tells of the activities “behind enemy lines” of Gamliel Cohen (alias Yussef), Isaac Shoshan (alias Abdul Karim), Havakuk Cohen (a.k.a Ibrahim) and Yakuba Cohen (called Jamil). The Cohens were not only not related, each came from different places and different backgrounds, and although they proved to be a very effective team, they did not always agree on tactics or strategy.
In his preface, Friedman quotes the grand master of spying and writing about it, John Lecarre’, who called espionage, “the secret theatre of our society.” Shoshan and the three Cohens are fascinating characters, portrayed with sympathy, but Spies of No Country is about more than their exploits. It sees The Arab Section as emblematic of the Mizrahis, the Israeli Jews “from the East,” Arabic-speakers from the Islamic-majority states of – in this case Syria, Yemen and the British Mandate of Palestine – but also Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iraq and the farther flung regions of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
His adventure, Friedman says, tells a lot about Israeli society and the Mossad, the legendary intelligence service of which the Arab section is but one ancestor. The rise of the Mizrahis from decades of condescension and discrimination from the Ashkenazis, Jews of European descent who dominated Israel’s first 50 years, to positions of growing respect and political significance, in many ways defines the development of the State of Israel from the “no country” of 1947 to the powerful, if imperfect, democracy of today.
Matti Friedman Is the author of the recently-released investigative history Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel. His 2016 book Pumpkinflowers was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as one of Amazon’s 10 Best Books of the Year. It was selected as one of the year’s best by Booklist, Mother Jones, Foreign Affairs, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. His first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. A contributor to the New York Times’ opinion page, Friedman has reported from Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, the Caucasus, and Washington, DC, and his writing has appeared in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. Friedman grew up in Toronto and now lives with his family in Jerusalem.