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Spies of No Country
Israel's Secret Agents at the Birth of the Mossad
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Award-winning writer Matti Friedman’s tale of Israel’s first spies has all the tropes of an espionage novel, including duplicity, betrayal, disguise, clandestine meetings, the bluff, and the double bluff—but it’s all true.
The four spies were young, Jewish, and born in Arab countries. In 1948, at the outbreak of war in Palestine, they went undercover in Beirut, spending two years running sabotage operations and sending crucial intelligence back home. It was dangerous work. Of the dozen members of their ragtag unit, five would be caught and executed—but the remainder would emerge as the nucleus of the Mossad, Israel’s vaunted intelligence agency.
Journalist and award-winning author Matti Friedman’s masterfully told and meticulously researched tale of Israel’s first spies reads like an espionage novel—but it’s all true. Spies of No Country is about the slippery identities of these spies, but it’s also about the complicated identity of Israel, a country that presents itself as Western but in fact has more citizens with Middle Eastern roots, just like the spies of this fascinating narrative.
The tropes of espionage—duplicity, betrayal, disguise, clandestinity, secret knowledge, the bluff, the double bluff, unknowingness, bafflement, shifting identity—are no more than the tropes of the life that every human being lives.
Born: Damascus, Syria
Age in January 1948: 25
Alias: Abdul Karim
Born: Aleppo, Syria
Born: Jerusalem, British Palestine
Of the four spies at the center of this story, only Isaac is still alive. The bespectacled fighter from the alleyways of Aleppo is ninety-three as I write these lines. The suggestion that I meet him came from another pensioner of Israel's intelligence services, a man I knew from working on a different story. I went to see Isaac not because I'd heard of him or of the little outfit to which he'd belonged at the creation of the state, and not because I planned to write this book, but only because I've learned over years as a reporter that time spent with old spies is never time wasted.
I ended up spending many hours over several years speaking with him against a backdrop of olive-green wall tiles in his kitchen, which is on the seventh floor of an apartment block in the metropolitan sprawl south of Tel Aviv. Sometimes he crossed slowly to the stove and brewed black coffee in a little metal pot with a long handle, like the ones they used at the famous campfires. His words were measured; chattiness wasn't a quality these men respected. His memory was a sharp blade. Sometimes it seemed as if the Independence War of 1948 had just ended or was still on.
He laughed more than you'd expect, every few sentences, a deep heh-heh-heh accompanied by the shaking of a head that was now mostly ears, nose, and grin. What he laughed at was seldom funny. He wasn't making light of things but expressing wonder at all he'd seen. As he spoke, there were flashes of Isaac as he must have been in those days—watchful, quick, and hungry. He spoke for the others, the ones who survived to old age and died in bed, and the ones who set off with their thin disguises into the storm of events seventy years ago and vanished.
When Isaac first arrived at a vegetable market in Tel Aviv in 1942, a penniless Arabic-speaking teenager squatting on the ground with a crate of peppers, he could have remained there. Many people have arrived at such a market and stayed forever, like my great-grandfather, who sold oranges from a cart on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But that didn't happen to Isaac. A freak tide lifted him up and carried him away. He could have ended his life at twenty-three among dunes with a bullet in his head, like some of his friends, or hanging in a prison yard, leaving the barest memory of a person. But he slipped through. He could have evaded capture only to have the Jewish state destroyed at its birth in 1948. But that didn't happen either, and here we were in that state, our state, sitting at Isaac's kitchen table.
"Espionage," John le Carré once observed, "is the secret theater of our society." Countries have cover stories and hidden selves, just like their spies, and our clandestine basements conceal insights into the world aboveground. Beyond an affinity for tales of secret agents and double identities, this observation is why I was drawn to these men and their strange adventure. Who they are has something important to tell us about the country they helped create.
The years of my acquaintance with Isaac turned out to be the years of the great Arab collapse and the destruction of Aleppo, the city of his birth and childhood, in the Syrian civil war. We watched it happen from interview to interview. At the time of our first meeting in 2011, Aleppo was peaceful and only the synagogues were empty, as they had been since Isaac's family and the city's Jews fled decades before with the great Jewish exodus from the Arab world. But soon Aleppo's churches were empty and many of the mosques, and much of the great Arab metropolis were in ruins.
We saw people making desperate escapes across the Mediterranean, washing up on Greek beaches, trudging inland with their packs and babies. Throughout the Middle East, the Christians, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, and Yazidis were going or gone, as well as Sunni Muslims who once lived among Shiites, and Shiites who once lived among Sunnis, and people who think or act differently and don't have a tribe that can protect them. The hatred of people who aren't like you, the idea that something will be solved if only such people can be made to disappear—this sometimes starts with Jews but tends not to end there.
One of my conversations with Isaac took place not in his kitchen but at a mall in his neighborhood, where much of the population has roots in the Islamic world, like Isaac, and like half of the Jews in Israel. On the top floor was a video arcade with flashing blue lights, electronic explosions, and crazed parents driven here by summer vacation and the unbearable stickiness outside. The McDonald's was full, and so was a plastic playground in the atrium. At a shop called Aphrodite, scarlet bras were on sale. A woman in orange-rimmed glasses contemplated a lotto form.
The children of the Jewish quarters of Tunis and Algiers were here in Ray-Bans and running shoes. The Jews of Mosul in northern Iraq were also here—not in Islamic State ditches with their neighbors the Yazidis, but drinking lattes in the air-conditioning, eating kosher McNuggets as their kids howled in Hebrew on the trampolines. These were Israelis, but not the kibbutz pioneers of the old Zionist imagination, orphaned children of Europe. These were people from the Islamic world, in the Islamic world, their lives entwined with the fate of the Islamic world, like the lives of their grandparents' grandparents. This was Israel, but an Israel not visible in the way the country is usually described.
At a chain café by the escalators sat the spy Isaac Shoshan, formerly Zaki Shasho of Aleppo, also known as Abdul Karim Muhammad Sidki of Beirut. When he recounted how he saw Israel born, the story had none of the usual characters and sounded unlike any I'd heard, but explained more about the present than any I'd heard. It was a Middle Eastern story. When I left the mall, the streets themselves seemed different. That's when I decided this was a story whose time had come.
In telling it I've relied on my interviews with Isaac and others; on files from Israel's military archive, including many declassified for the first time at my request; on documents from the archive of the Hagana, the Jewish underground army before the creation of the state; and on unpublished testimonies from participants who died before I could speak with them. Two published histories of the Arab Section—both in Hebrew, never translated, and now out of print—proved especially useful. The first, by the historian Zvika Dror, was published in 1986 by Israel's Defense Ministry, and for simplicity's sake I'll call it the official history. The second was written by one of our four agents, Gamliel Cohen, at the end of his life, and published in 2001. Quotes from documents, recordings, or my own interviews appear in quotation marks. Quotes summoned from memory appear without quotation marks. Notes on sources appear at the end.
The unwritten rules of espionage writing seem to require a claim that the subjects altered the very course of history, or at least of their war. This is tempting but rarely true, I suspect, and it isn't true in the case of our spies, though their contribution to the war was significant. Their mission didn't culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle. Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be—the embryo of one of the world's most formidable intelligence services, "a modest beginning for a long and fruitful tradition," in the words of the historians Benny Morris and Ian Black, "a direct link between the amateurish, small-scale beginnings of Zionist intelligence work and the larger, more professional efforts made after 1948."
In Israeli intelligence, as Dror wrote in his official history, "they learn that the nucleus of the way we conduct espionage begins with 'The Dawn,' the unit that served as the foundation for great operations and from which grew all that became known worldwide years later as the 'exploits of the Mossad.'" Those exploits are useful myths for a small country in a precarious position, because they conceal the frailty of the people behind the curtain. But in our story we have only the people and their frailty, and no curtain.
This isn't a comprehensive history of the birth of Israel or Israeli intelligence, or even of the unit in question. It centers on a period of twenty pivotal months, from January 1948 through August of the following year; on two Levantine port cities eighty miles apart, Haifa and Beirut; and on four young people drawn from the margins into the center of events. I was looking less for the sweep of history than for its human heart, and found it at these coordinates.
1: The Scout
A young man in a new suit crossed a street with a real passport and a fake name. This was in the first month of 1948, the rainy season in Haifa—Mount Carmel rising behind the port in one shade of green, the Mediterranean stretching off in another, the sky low and gray above them both. The man carried a suitcase and moved with intent. His flight left shortly. His dress and manner suggested he wasn't a worker, but was no professor either, perhaps the son of a shopkeeper in an Arab city, which indeed he was. He was calling himself Yussef, so let's call him that for now.
The young man tried to look purposeful, but his composure was a bluff, like his name. He needed to pick up a ticket and get to the small airport outside town, that was all, but he knew he might not make it. The war was barely six weeks old, but the distance between alive and dead had already become negligible—the length of an incorrect verb, an inconsistent reply to a sharp question. Or it could be a detail of dress—a villager wearing shoes better suited to a clerk, for example, or a worker whose shirt was too clean. There was a new and hazardous electricity on the street, a fear of spies and saboteurs. On the walls that Yussef passed were posters put up by the Arab National Council that began like this:
To the noble Arab public:
Beware the fifth column!
The National Council is sparing no effort to fulfill its obligations to you, and understands the size of the responsibility it carries on the road to saving the homeland and liberating it from all enemies.
In the archives there's a photograph of Yussef that will help us imagine the scene:
Haifa was the main port of British Palestine, half-Jewish and half-Arab and less a coherent whole than a collection of neighborhoods beginning at the docks and climbing up the Carmel slopes, linked by winding roads and stone staircases—Arabs by the water, Jews up the hill. Unlike Jerusalem, which drew most attention and sentiment, Haifa wasn't a city of disputed holy sites but a practical place with a refinery, warehouses, and the hustlers and furtive activities usually found around ports. You heard not only Hebrew, English, and dialects of Arabic but Greek, Turkish, Yiddish, and Russian. The Union Jack still flew over the docks, as it had since the British conquest three decades before. But now everything was breaking down.
As Yussef walked toward the travel agent's shop to collect his ticket out of Haifa and out of the country, the normal bustle was subdued, the Arab streets bleary and tense. There had been sniping all night along the new barbed-wire line dividing the Jewish and Arab sectors, and people were frightened. The preceding weeks had seen a bloody operation by Jewish fighters in a nearby neighborhood of Arab refinery workers, a reprisal for the killing of Jewish refinery workers by their Arab coworkers, triggered by a Jewish bombing at an Arab bus stop outside the refinery, a reprisal for—you could be forgiven for losing track. There had always been free movement between different neighborhoods in Haifa, but now you couldn't be caught on the wrong side of the line.
Looking at these events from our own times, we understand that these are the early weeks of a conflict that will come to be known as Israel's Independence War, or the 1948 war, and that the Arabs will call "the catastrophe." In early 1947 the British had announced their impending withdrawal from Palestine, their energies and coffers sapped by the world war that had just ended, their willpower broken by the impossibility of governing two peoples hostile to Britain and to each other. In a dramatic vote in New York at the end of that year, on November 29, the United Nations resolved that after the British Mandate for Palestine ended the following summer, the country should be partitioned into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The Jews had rejoiced like drowning people thrown a plank, the Arab world responded with the fury of a civilization dealt one humiliation too many, and the morning after the vote the war began.
It might seem that events are flowing inevitably toward the history we've learned and the present that is familiar to us, but on the day Yussef appeared in Haifa in the middle of January 1948, nothing was inevitable, and no one knew anything yet. There was no state called Israel, nor did it seem likely there would be one. The United Nations had no way to enforce the partition plan. British soldiers and police were still in evidence on the streets, and the Royal Navy blockade in the Mediterranean was still keeping out weapons and Jewish refugees to placate the Arab public. But British power was fading as the pullout approached, and it was replaced by a civil war between Jews and Arabs. There had been waves of violence before, but this time the decisive collision had arrived. The result would be a catastrophe—that seemed clear. But it wasn't yet clear for whom.
I have been to Haifa many times, and have walked around the old neighborhoods trying to summon the life of the place as Yussef would have seen it. The Great Mosque, which once drew masses to the carpeted room beneath its Ottoman clock tower, huddles by a vast new tower of curved and gleaming glass. The graceful stone buildings are outdone by the giant cranes of the modern port. The streets where Yussef walked are still there, and still lively, but now they have different names. Photographs from the 1940s show black-and-white rows of shops, workers in caps and baggy slacks, and British soldiers, but that's just what it looked like, not what it felt like. The people who matter in a city, ordinary people going about their daily business, tend not to see themselves or their business as worth documenting, and leave few traces.
One place that does preserve a record of Arab Haifa is the archive of the Hagana, the Jews' military underground in the years before the Independence War. The Hagana had an intelligence office called the Information Service, whose officers kept tabs on the Arab part of the city, and whose idea of what constituted intelligence seems to have been broad. They collected interesting bits of human detail, organizing the information on pages of typed Hebrew that now occupy dozens of cardboard boxes and brown folders in a lovely old building off Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.
Thanks to these files it is possible to imagine the streets as Yussef would have seen them in January 1948, the grimy workers' hangouts near the port where "the shouts of the waiters and curses of the card-players mix with the ear-curdling song of the radio," the beggars "reading passages from the Quran and bestowing blessings on passers-by," the energetic crush of people in the markets, the beckoning women in their doorways on the street of brothels, the more genteel spots farther inland, away from the docks. If you were looking for a café—if you wanted some political talk, for example, or hashish, or black-market weapons—you could consider these options:
• Kaukab el-Sabah, or "Morning Star," at 28 Kings Street, run by Kassem Jaber, a Muslim, "a regular meeting place for riffraff." Offers music and alcohol.
• Café George, 1 Allenby Street, run by a Christian, Fadul Jamil Kawar. A meeting place for nationalist activists and political movers.
• Windsor Café, owned by Charles Butaji, who donated money to buy weapons during the Arab revolt of the late 1930s.
• Café Farid, 28 Wadi Salib Street, owned by Farid Shaaban el-Haj Ahmad, an avid supporter of the Muslim hardliners led by the Mufti of Jerusalem.
• A café (no name given) owned by one George Schutz, at 28 Carmel Boulevard. Schutz is a Swiss citizen suspected of spying for the Germans and Italians. His wife is a Jewish Hungarian named Rozhitza, a convert to Christianity, and the establishment is "the scene of regular anti-Zionist propaganda."
• An establishment run by a widow named Badiyeh, popular with British policemen and with "veiled women whose qualities and intentions are difficult to discern."
When at last Yussef succeeded in reaching the travel agent's shop without attracting notice, the day's first twist awaited him: No one was there, and the shop was shuttered and dark. Many of the nearby stores were closed, he saw, the proprietors too scared to leave home after the shooting of the previous night. He needed the plane ticket, so there was nothing to do but wait. But as he did, standing by his suitcase on the sidewalk, a young man strode up and confronted him in Arabic: Where are you from?
From Jerusalem, Yussef replied, using the Arabic name for the city: Al-Quds. He said he was waiting for the travel agency to open.
No, said the other man, staring at him. I don't think you are.
Something about Yussef was off. He was affecting the accent of a Jerusalem Arab and maybe his native dialect was showing through. Or maybe it was the way he looked. But the most dangerous move would be to run, so he parried the questions as best he could until the suspicious man stalked off around a corner, unsatisfied.
That man was quickly replaced by a second, one of the vendors who roamed the streets of Arab Haifa selling little glasses of black coffee. The peddler seemed friendly. Listen, he whispered to Yussef. There are people plotting to kill you. Leave.
The store behind Yussef was still closed. There was no sign of the travel agent.
You have no idea what's going on here, said the peddler. Everyone is his own master, the judge, the hangman. They do whatever they want and there's nothing to stop them.
This was how things turned against you, as if you were a swimmer whose leg is gripped by an anklet of current that tightens the more you fight until it pulls you down. You had to stay calm and believe your lie. The stakes were newly clear to Yussef. They existed in his mind in human form—faces he'd recently seen speaking and laughing, but whose nature had now changed, assuming an ominous cast, becoming illustrations of his fate if he slipped.
Three weeks earlier a Hagana team tapping Arab phone lines recorded an urgent conversation between two members of the Arab militia in the city of Jaffa. This was December 20, 1947, the twenty-first day of the war, at 3:15 p.m.:
Fayad: I'm sending you two young men suspected of being Iraqi Jews. Question them and decide what to do.
Abdul Malek: They've already reached me. It's hard to say whether they're Jews—they speak good Arabic. I particularly suspect the skinny one. I told them to confess, and he washed his face incorrectly. They'll remain here until we clarify their identity.
The militia had seized two suspects, a pair of young men dressed like laborers. They spoke Arabic with Iraqi accents, but that wasn't rare; British Palestine was full of workers from elsewhere in the Arab world. They looked like hundreds of others on the street. Their mistake seems to have been placing a call from a local Arab post office to a number in the adjacent Jewish city of Tel Aviv, an unusual communication across the ethnic line. The call drew the attention of an Arab spy at the telephone exchange, the spy tipped off the militia, and by midafternoon they were under interrogation.
To test their identity, the militiaman Abdul Malek had ordered the suspects to perform the ritual washing before Islamic prayer, something any Muslim would know: hands, mouth, nostrils, face. One of them couldn't do it properly. But the two were insisting they were Muslims, and speaking native Arabic, and it still wasn't clear whether they were Arabs or Jews. A second conversation was intercepted at 6:45 p.m.:
Abdul Malek: Regarding the two young men—take them to the hotel and put them in separate rooms. There must be someone there who speaks Hebrew. This person should lie down in the same room as one of the young men, and late at night he should begin speaking Hebrew with him. If he's a Jew he'll answer in Hebrew in his sleep. The same should be done with the other one in the second room.
Abdullah: That's a good idea. We'll do it.
Abdul Malek: What are they doing now?
Abdullah: They're crying, and seem hungry.
Abdul Malek: We need to bring them food until we know who they are.
Maybe one of the young Arabs did speak Hebrew in his sleep, or maybe they broke some other way. We don't know what happened next, only what happened last: the militiamen killed one of them with a gunshot and the other with a blow to the head, then buried them together in some dunes outside town. It would be three decades before they were discovered by construction workers, and nearly six before they were identified in 2004 as Gideon and David, both twenty-one years old.
Two days after the pair was seized in Jaffa, on December 22, an itinerant nineteen-year-old peddler was seized in similar circumstances near the town of Lod. His executioners hid the body so well it was never found. Then a fourth imposter was caught near Jaffa, and this time it made the press: On December 24 the Arab newspaper Al-Shaab reported that militiamen had caught a Jew who spoke Arabic and claimed to be a barber, and who tried to prove he was Muslim by reciting the ritual formula known as the shahada, testifying that God is one and that Muhammad is his prophet. They were about to shoot him in a grove of trees, but he was spared when they hesitated and turned him over instead to the British police. Within four days, four had been caught and three killed. Anyone connecting the dots on the Arab side could see the Jews had some kind of ruse afoot.
In Haifa three weeks later, after the suspicious man's questions and the coffee vendor's warning, Yussef knew he needed to get off the street. He was the scout, so he'd been told. They said he was worth a whole battalion of infantry. But he hadn't even managed to get out of Haifa yet. He followed the coffee vendor to a nearby butcher's shop. When he went through the door, he saw the butcher was Christian—there was pork inside, and an icebox with beer, both forbidden by Islam.
Please sit, said the butcher. Tell me who you are.
He showed the passport with the name Yussef el-Hamed. He said he was rushing to catch a flight out of Palestine. Things were disintegrating as the British lost control, and soon all the borders would be closed, but passenger planes were still flying from the city's modest terminal.
The butcher dialed a number on the phone in his shop. Yussef understood that it was the travel agent on the line, that he was at home and wouldn't be coming to work because the streets were too perilous. But the travel agent confirmed Yussef's reservation and suggested he go straight to the airport and collect the ticket there. That seemed to solve the problem, but just as the butcher hung up, the man who had accosted Yussef on the street appeared in the shop with an accomplice. They'd come for him, and they meant him harm.
The accomplice gestured at Yussef. Ah, this guy, he told the first man. Leave him alone, I know him from——. He identified Yussef as being from a certain Arab town.
Yussef spotted the trick. He was supposed to agree in relief, forgetting that it contradicted his story about being from Jerusalem.
I don't know either of you, he said. I'm from Jerusalem, just passing through.
The two men ordered him to come outside, but the butcher interrupted: the young stranger was in his store and under his protection.
He's coming outside even if you don't want him to, by force, said the first man, drawing a pistol. The butcher drew his own pistol and told Yussef to hide behind the icebox. Then more people showed up in the shop, people who didn't want any trouble, and they pulled everyone apart. The two men disappeared, this time for good. Yussef never knew what tipped them off.
The butcher, his savior, called a taxi and waited with him at a nearby café to make sure he got out safely. A third man joined them at the table.
They were his guests, Yussef said, understanding that an act of generosity and gratitude was called for. What would they have to drink?
The new man, who was Muslim, explained that ordinarily he wouldn't drink alcohol. But this morning, he said, he'd make an exception and have a glass of beer because of the thirty-five Jews.
Yussef hadn't heard the news and wasn't sure what this man meant. There had been a new Arab victory, or so people were saying, near a besieged Jewish enclave south of Jerusalem. Of thirty-five Jewish fighters, not one survived, said the man, grinning, and Yussef made sure to seem as happy as everyone else, though he didn't believe it. Later he discovered it was true. A platoon trying to relieve the enclave had walked into an ambush. One of the fighters was Sabari, a seventeen-year-old Yemeni kid who'd trained with him and the others but hadn't lasted, and transferred to a regular unit.
2019 National Jewish Book Awards finalist
“Wondrous . . . compelling . . . In unadorned yet piercing prose, Friedman captures what it was like to be part of the Arab Section . . . Friedman succeeds in portraying the ‘stories beneath the stories’ that acted as a bedrock to the rise of the Mossad and serve still as a window into Israel’s troubled soul.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Spies of No Country is an important book . . . Americans are not accustomed to hearing about Israel's complexity, or its diversity. We are rarely asked to consider Israel as a country that is, as Friedman says, 'more than one thing.' Any serious defender or critic of Israeli politics should consider this a serious problem. Meaningful opinions require nuanced understanding, and Spies of No Country offers that.”
“In Spies of No Country, Matti Friedman, a Canadian-Israeli journalist, resurrects early operations of the intelligence service of the Palmach, the nascent military that ultimately grew into the mighty Israel Defense Forces. The book is a slim but intriguing string of anecdotes in which members of the unit risk their lives under cover in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as Jewish settlers and refugees fought to preserve their foothold in Palestine.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Engaging . . . Illuminating . . . Friedman seems to be telling this story for larger purposes. He wants to shine a light on a band of Arab-born operatives often overlooked in the stories of Israel’s founding as a Holocaust refuge led by Europeans in the Zionist movement. When I was done, I couldn’t stop thinking about the men inside the Beirut kiosk, selling candy and pencils to schoolchildren while secretly listening to a transistor radio tucked in the back, trying to pick up news from home.”
—The Washington Post
“One of the most compelling, compulsively readable histories I've read in a long while. Matti Friedman is a lyrical writer and a master of suspenseful storytelling. His gripping spy story doesn’t just narrate Israel’s heroic founding—it illuminates its tortured present.”
—Franklin Foer, author of World Without Mind
“Spies of No Country is thrilling, moving, and, like everything that Matti Friedman writes, deeply humane.”
—Nicole Krauss, author of Forest Dark
"A thrilling Israeli spy story . . . Matti Friedman tells this story with great style. Not only is Spies of No Country good on such sophisticated, tangled questions of identity; it also just tells a fun story. As a literary document, Spies of No Country is exquisite . . . beautiful and exciting.”
“Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country is a compelling tale of Israeli espionage. But more than that, it is a meditation on Israel’s national origin story . . . compelling . . . like the best le Carré . . . Friedman’s superb storytelling skills are such that he employs the devices of fiction, most notably the use of dramatic irony, which gives the narrative a particular poignancy.”
—The American Interest
“Matti Friedman’s enthralling new book, Spies of No Country, tells the story of a Palmach unit called the Arab Section. The Palmach was the underground Jewish army that fought in British Palestine.”
“On the surface, it’s an engaging spy saga. Beneath that, though, lies an examination of identity and the humanity behind both sides of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Ultimately, Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk, and Yakuba were unknown until now because they were not caught and thus escaped greater renown. Matti Friedman does us, his readers, a great service not just in bringing their exploits to light, but in sharing with us insights into how they impacted history and the region.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Excellent . . . compelling . . . [the spies’] stories are an unjustly forgotten—and fascinating—aspect of Israel’s founding. [Friedman’s] deeply researched book is not only enjoyable but groundbreaking.”
—Jewish Review of Books
“A noteworthy and authentic spy story. Spies of No Country tells the story of the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 through the accounts of a small group of Jewish heroes, the Arab Section, who spied for the new state in surrounding Arab countries . . . filled with riveting vignettes. This is rather a splendid retelling of one small part of the effort to create a Jewish homeland. Friedman’s account of the Arab Section is an eye-opening narrative of the early days of the State of Israel. It is not an optimistic story, but a genuine and sorrowful one.”
—The New York Journal of Books
“Spies of No Country, the third book by the Israeli journalist, shares the gripping and previously untold stories of four Mizrahi Jews who took part in a spy unit called the Arab Section. Friedman’s approach to this often untold history of Israel is a refreshing one – and has been taboo for many writers. The rich history of Eastern Jews, including the critical role they played in establishing the State of Israel, should not be minimized or erased by the superficial biases of Western scholars. Thankfully, Friedman’s groundbreaking book provides a vital example of how to avoid just that.”
“We learn more about what a real-life espionage agent actually does in Spies of No Country than in any mere thriller . . . so exotic that it sounds like something out of the imagination of Ian Fleming. Friedman’s book is animated by his conviction that respect must be paid to these overlooked heroes. Thus does Friedman rectify a moral and historical wrong when he calls our attention to the four young men whom we come to know so well and admire so much in the pages of Spies of No Country.”
—Jewish Journal (Los Angeles)
“Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country tells the story of four men who became members of the Arab Section and went undercover in Beirut for two years. Readers who know Friedman from his previous books, Pumpkinflowers and The Aleppo Codex, will already appreciate Friedman’s talent in creating dramatic nonfiction. A spy story inherently involves situations that complicate the life of the main character. Friedman enhances his story by defining how his character perceives the situations he encounters, but also how he, the writer, perceives the character perceiving the situation.”
—Jewish Herald-Voice (Houston)
“Refreshing . . . Friedman’s book exposes the complex reality of these loyal Israelis who were challenged, exoticized and vilified again and again by Ashkenazi Jews. The rich history of Eastern Jews, including the critical role they played in establishing the State of Israel, should not be minimized or erased by the superficial biases of Western scholars. Thankfully, Friedman’s groundbreaking book provides a vital example of how to avoid just that.”
“Sometimes we read books that fill in details about a particular moment in the history we care deeply about, and we learn so much. Matti Friedman has written such a book about the Jewish spies who spoke Arabic as their native language because they had grown up in places like Syria, Yemen and Jerusalem during the British mandate before Israel became an embattled state in May 1948. Friedman’s reporting on this moment in the formative time in Israeli history is helpful today as we watch events unfold that give hope for better relations between Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbors.”
—St. Louis Jewish Light
“Veiling their Jewishness, the spies of the ‘Arab Section’ were present at the creation of Israel. Matti Friedman tells their little-known story. Friedman is a skilled storyteller with an eye for detail, and grounded in facts.”
—The New York Jewish Week
“Remarkable . . . a fascinating account . . . a wealth of information and various tidbits that make it so worthwhile to read. With so much anti-Israel bias currently going on, this book serves as a truthful and unbiased account of the founding of the State of Israel. I would definitely recommend Spies of No Country to anybody who wants to learn more about Israel and Zionism in general.”
—Manhattan Book Review
“In his new book, Spies of No Country, Friedman, who is now based in Jerusalem, combines his in-depth knowledge of Israel with a riveting narrative to recount the story of the Arab Section, an Israeli spy operation active from January 1948 to August 1949. Based on both interviews and archives, Friedman drops readers into the complex, shifting and dangerous landscape of the 1948 conflict. Spies of No Country is a fascinating journey into the past that reads like a spy novel—except in this case, it’s all true.”
“Friedman tells the fascinating story of the Arab Section . . . At that time, Israel was many things, and the author deftly navigates the complicated identities and the stories beneath the stories. An exciting historical journey and highly informative look at the Middle East with Israel as the starting point.”
“In evocative prose detailing mid-20th-century life in the dangerous streets of Haifa and Beirut, journalist Friedman recounts the intertwined stories of four underground spies for the Arab Section of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization in Palestine that became part of the Israel Defence Forces after Israel’s founding.”
“[An] absolutely arresting account of espionage at the genesis of the Israeli state.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“At that time, Israel was many things, and the author deftly navigates the complicated identities and the stories beneath the stories . . . An exciting historical journey and highly informative look at the Middle East with Israel as the starting point.”
"A fine, moving piece of writing, told with simplicity and artistry."
—Benny Morris, author of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War
“This book sure looks like a rollicking spy story. It’s got all the necessary parts: a high-stakes war for a new state’s existence, double identities, suspense, betrayal. But it’s more than that. This is a book about being an outsider many times over. The four spies in Spies of No Country grew up as Jews in Arab lands; came of age in British Palestine as dark-skinned Middle Easteners 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. Justice demanded that their stories be told. We’re lucky that a writer as gifted as Matti Friedman came along to tell them.”
—Judith Shulevitz, New York Times op-ed contributor and author of The Sabbath World
“Matti Friedman shows us how an heroic little 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. With Spies of No Country, Matti Friedman proves that he is one of the essential interpreters of Israel writing today.”
—Yossi Klein Halevi, New York Times bestselling author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor
- On Sale
- Feb 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Algonquin Books