Tuesday, July 23, 2019

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

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface, this concise book is a thrilling untold history of Israel’s first spies. It is in some ways a tale out of a Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon novel. As the title tells us, these were spies of no country: they become spies and operated before the state came into existence. Friedman focuses primarily on four men of the Arab Section. They were recruited to be spies because they could pass as Arabs: they knew the language, the customs, the way of life, in a way only a local could.

And this gets to the second layer. These four men were born and raised in the Arab world: they were from Syria, Yemen, and Jerusalem. They were not from Warsaw or Minsk. The Mizrahi, Jews of the Islamic world, were largely invisible in the early days of Israel and in the founding stories of Israel. Friedman’s book is telling the story of these four to help us see the Mizrahi and their importance to Israel; then and today. The title is, I suspect, also part of this layer: the Israel that they become spies for didn’t fully see them. They believed in and spied for the Land of Israel: but the state of Israel came into existence when they were already operating in Beirut and Damascus. By the time they returned to Israel, it was already a very different from the place they left. In this sense too, maybe, they were spies of no country.

Another layer of the book is the slipperiness and messiness of identity. This was a time of gigantic shifts and things got very messy, very quickly. The uneasy, yet relatively stable world in Europe was finally destroyed by WWII and now that was happening in the Middle East as new countries, including Israel, created themselves with new identities. This is given some measure of reality with the lives of these four spies. They were Jews born in the Arab world; they grew up speaking Arabic. As these shifts began, they left the Arab world to live among the Jewish, Hebrew speaking communities in what soon would be Israel. But then as spies, they are sent to live as Arabs among the Arabs. This is highlighted by this quote about the men as they were training to be spies: “But were they Arabs? They would have said no, and most Arabs would have said no. But they were native to the Arab world—as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arab nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really ‘becoming like Arabs’? Or were they already Arabs? Were they pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren’t Arabs pretending to be Arabs?” (58). It’s enough to give anyone an identity crisis!

Another layer is the ambiguity of founding stories and myths. This not unique to Israel. Americans face this too in trying somehow to make sense of the intellectual and practical achievements of liberty by men such as Jefferson and Washington with the horrors and evils of slavery in which they partook. Friedman’s book highlights the seeming paradox that Israel born out of the ideas in 19th century Europe is peopled by a population half of whom have grandparents from places like Iraq rather than Poland. Friedman’s spies come from and teach us something about this half of the population. Largely invisible for the first part half of Israel’s existence, they are becoming more and more a prominent part of the country’s culture and politics. Understanding the future of Israel means, in part, understanding this invisible past.

Friedman’s book is an opening, an invitation to this past.

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