Hiding in plain sight

Matti Friedman’s latest work delves into the history of the Mizrahi Jewish immigrants who infiltrated Arab communities to spy and gather intelligence.

SPIES YAAKOV BOKAI (right), Moshe Saadi and Moshe Negbi (left) pose for a photo in 1948. (photo credit: THE PALMAH MUSEUM)
SPIES YAAKOV BOKAI (right), Moshe Saadi and Moshe Negbi (left) pose for a photo in 1948.
(photo credit: THE PALMAH MUSEUM)
Journalist and author Matti Friedman is a chronicler of Israel’s untold and neglected stories, never content to allow the wonderful oddities and rarities of this little country slip through the cracks in favor of more familiar story lines.

When Israelis were celebrating the inauguration of the long-awaited electric high-speed train from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion Airport, Friedman wrote a dispatch for The New York Times, celebrating the soon-to-be defunct old train line – an ambling, picturesque ride that winds through the Judean valleys and hills. In 2017, Friedman profiled the overlooked Indian Cemetery in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, the final resting place of scores of Indian troops who fought and died for the British crown against the Ottomans during the First World War.

It is no surprise then, that Friedman, master of the forgotten, chose to write to his third book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, about the Arab Section – the group of Mizrachi Jews who were recruited by the Palmah to gather intelligence in Haifa and Beirut before, during, and after the birth of the State of Israel.

Based on memoirs, documents from the IDF archives declassified for the first time at the author’s request, and years of interviews with the last living member of the group, Friedman has constructed a spy story that reads like an epic – though it’s just over 200 pages long.

Even Friedman’s work in tracking down his sources is a story in and of itself. Finding the memoir of Muhammad Nimr el-Khatib – a Muslim Brotherhood leader during the war – was no easy feat. In his notes on sources, Friedman writes, “I obtained the only copy of the memoir that I could find in a public collection anywhere in the world – at the library of the Palestinian university An-Najah in the West Bank city of Nablus – with the help of two Palestinian journalists who brought the book to Jaffa for a few hours to allow me to photograph it.”

Though the members of the Arab Section shared a language with the Lebanese and Palestinian Arabs they were spying on, Friedman reminds readers that the task was much more daunting than it seems.

“An urban American from Chicago... sent to rural Kentucky to pass as a local, would probably find that despite sharing a language and a nationality, he wouldn’t fool people for long,” Friedman writes. Here was the challenge for the spies – termed mista’aravim in the book, ones who become like Arabs.

“The different dialects of Arabic, which give away a speaker’s sect, class, and region, were one pitfall.... You had to remember that if you didn’t want something in Syrian dialect you’d say ma biddi, but here in Palestine you said biddish. You had to remember the names of spices, tools, and cuts of meat in butcher’s shops, all of which varied from place to place,” Friedman explains. The section’s work, however, didn’t go unrecognized, with Palmah officer Benny Marshak, once telling the spies that “each of them was worth a ‘battalion of infantry.’”

Though much of their work was intelligence gathering – in the years before Israel was able to bug conversations, intercept calls, or even easily monitor Lebanese news reports – they also engaged in daring sabotage missions (one of which involved blowing up a yacht built for Hitler that had been purchased by a Lebanese family). Friedman notes that while such missions became commonplace – and even a trademark of Israeli intelligence services – in the following decades, they were haphazard and new at the time. At least one escapade that Friedman records was shelved for fear of reprisals against native Jews in the Arab world. He reminds us that 70 years after the establishment of the state, we’ve come to terms with the fact that the Arab Jewish communities have ceased to exist. But in 1948, it was far from a given.

“In... Aleppo, for example, the Jews had survived the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE, the birth of Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, the birth of Islam and the Arab conquest, dynasties of Arabs, Turks and Mongols, and at least one devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the city,” he writes. “Why wouldn’t it survive the birth of the State of Israel?”


THE MYTHOLOGY of Israel, especially in the early years of the state, revolves around the kibbutz movement and the Ashkenazi pioneers whose predecessors, in the capitals and salons of Europe, declared the need for a Jewish state. Friedman takes care to remind readers multiple times that today, more than half of the country is populated by Jews who came from the Arab world.

“Facing the Arabs in 1948,” he writes, “the Zionist leaders understood it was us or them, and their astute and ruthless decisions ensured it would be us. But they didn’t understand who ‘us’ was, or that it would end up being closer to ‘them’ than they thought.”

The author ponders what this means for the country today and concludes: “Trying to navigate today’s Israel with stories about Ben-Gurion and pioneers will work only marginally better than trying to navigate today’s Manhattan with stories about Thomas Jefferson and Pilgrims. New stories are needed to better explain this place.”

He also doesn’t shy away from illustrating the unsympathetic domination of the Ashkenazim during the British Mandate and early years of the state. One of the spies recalls two groups of refugee children – one from Syria and one from Europe – arriving at a kibbutz where he was staying. All of the European children were adopted quickly, whereas the Syrian children were begrudgingly taken in. Even so, he “never doubted the cause,” writes Friedman, “then or afterward. He knew the Jews needed their own state, and knew better than the arrivals from Europe what they’d have to face to get one.”

Friedman interweaves his white-knuckle spy stories with moments of levity and humor, not afraid to poke fun at the serious endeavors.

“Because Gamliel [Cohen] was in Lebanon, he was given the code name ‘Cedar,’ in keeping with the Jews’ occasional practice of using code names vulnerable to third graders of average intelligence,” Friedman writes. Later, when recalling how two of the spies were briefly jailed by the Hagana to improve their cover – without their true identities being known by their captors – and were suspected of lying during their questioning, Friedman muses, “The Jews may have been better interrogators than spies.”

This anecdote also serves to further reinforce how the entire program was unbelievably slapdash, and liable to fall apart at any moment. Many times it did, with some spies being tortured and executed by the forces of the surrounding Arab countries after their cover stories crumbled. 

The cherry on the top of this scintillating read is the three photos at the end of the book, recently taken portraits of the last living spy Friedman writes about in the first pages of the book, as having “a head that was now mostly ears, nose, and grin.” Comparing them to the photos of the youthful spy we encounter peppered throughout the book is a delight.

With breathtaking ease in this latest work, Friedman exhibits his unique ability to condense the enormity of the Israeli experience – the exquisite and the dreadful – into a few pithy and beautiful sentences. Spies of No Country provides a succinct and exhilarating history with an unflinching look at what it means to be Israeli, and the true nature of a Jewish country in the Middle East. 

ISRAELI SPIES Isaac Shoshan (right) and Balfour Anavi of the Arab section wash their laundry.


SPIES YAAKOV BOKAI (right), Moshe Saadi and Moshe Negbi (left) pose for a photo in 1948.

(Photos: Palmah Museum)


By Matti Friedman

Algonquin Books

272 pages; $27.95


‘The different dialects of Arabic, which give away a speaker’s sect, class, and region, were one pitfall.... You had to remember the names of spices, tools, and cuts of meat in butcher’s shops, all of which varied from place to place’