The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Arab-born spies who served the young state of Israel

Ian Shapira is a Washington Post reporter who often writes about the intelligence and military communities.

Shortly after the creation of Israel in May 1948, a small band of Jewish spies set up shop in Beirut — literally a kiosk — as part of the country’s first intelligence station in an Arab nation. To Lebanese citizens, the men inside the refreshment stand by the Three Moons elementary school couldn’t have looked suspicious. Every morning, they hawked pencils, candy and sandwiches. Equally as crucial, if not more so, the Jewish shopkeepers/spies looked and sounded just like their customers, many of whom were connected to the government or the army. These Jews hailed from the Arab world — Syria or Yemen — and, as Israeli agents, had studied the Islamic and Christian worlds so they could blend in, obtain intelligence and relay it back to headquarters.

“The spies were not . . . navigating candlesticks and crystal at dinner parties, or insinuating themselves into the corridors of power,” writes Matti Friedman in his new book, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.” “Their position was like that of Russian agents tasked with gleaning intelligence not from Capitol Hill or Wall Street but from the sidewalk outside a public school in Queens.”

But the spies hated labeling themselves with such a sinister term. They preferred the Hebrew word “mista’arvim,” which, translated into English, means: “ones who become like Arabs.”

Like most anything written about Israel and Palestine, “Spies of No Country” will either repel or attract you, depending on your political perspective. If you’re pro-Israel, Friedman’s book offers a cast of humble, hardworking and brave characters who overcame prejudices in their old and new homelands for the greater cause of Judaism. But if you think of Israel less as a victim and more of a victimizer, then Friedman’s book might feel like hagiography, yet another work that idealizes the history of the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus.

It’s also impossible to read “Spies of No Country” without taking into account the background of its author. Friedman, a former Associated Press journalist who lives in Jerusalem, caused a dustup five years ago when he publicly blamed the “global mania about Israeli actions” on the media, including his former employer, needling the press for its aggressive coverage of the Israeli military and for portraying Palestinians as “passive victims.” (Friedman’s articles caused such an uproar that the AP issued a lengthy statement blasting his arguments for their “distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies.”)

But in his newest book, Friedman, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, focuses just as much on Israel’s earliest conflicts with Muslims as on Israel’s problems with itself. “Spies of No Country” is the story of four men who fled their Arab homelands to join a new country whose Jews initially hailed mostly from Europe and, more often than not, looked down on Jews from the Islamic world. Friedman’s four spies are Gamliel Cohen and Isaac Shoshan, both born in Syria; Havakuk Cohen, from Yemen; and Yakuba Cohen, a native of British Palestine. (The Cohens aren’t related.)

Yes, we learn about the quartet’s daring exploits, such as the time Shoshan and others in the Jewish military tried assassinating a popular sheikh in the port city of Haifa, or another time when some of them helped a fifth comrade, Eliyahu Rika , blow up a 443-foot yacht that once belonged to Adolf Hitler off Beirut in late 1948. But, admirably, 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.

More broadly, though, Friedman also wants to help Westerners understand that Israel’s demographics have massively shifted over time. He writes that about half of the Jewish population has “roots in the Islamic world.” In his telling, Israel’s early leaders didn’t see or appreciate the rising tide of men like the spies featured in this tale.

Jews had lived for centuries, and quite peacefully, in the Islamic world, from North Africa to Iraq. But when Israel was established, Jews in those countries were threatened, their bank assets frozen or, worse, they were killed. So they fled en masse to Israel, often, as Friedman notes, with the help of “covert immigration agents” shepherding them onto ships or planes. In the Israeli immigration camps, the sounds of Arabic drowned out the Yiddish of other Jews. The Arab Jews helped build the country and now significantly influence Israeli culture. Mainstream musicians in Israel, Friedman points out, “are now singing in Arabic, Persian and Ladino.”

The Jews who founded Israel tend to be mythologized as those who hailed from Europe and worked as pioneers on kibbutzes. As Friedman tells it, the country’s earliest founders largely ignored or dismissed contributions from Jews of the Arab world. “People trying to forge a Jewish state in the Middle East should have seen that Jews from the Middle East could be helpful,” he writes. “The newcomers might have been invited to serve as equal partners in the creation of this new society, but they weren’t. Instead, they were condescended to, and pushed to the fringes. It was one of the state’s worst errors, one for which we’re still paying.”

One of the more odious examples Friedman found was an April 1949 article in the Daily Haaretz newspaper, which dispatched a reporter to a camp housing Arabic-speaking Jews from North Africa. The journalist, Aryeh Gelblum, wrote that the newcomers had “savage primitive instincts” and an “inability to comprehend anything intellectual . . . an even lower level than that of the former Palestinian Arabs.”

The book is most engaging when Friedman sticks with one character, in one timeline and in one scene. But often, “Spies of No Country” veers from one timeline to the next and from one spy to the next, and it’s hard to keep track of who’s doing what and when, especially because each of the four spies has aliases that Friedman also uses. Halfway through the book, I tore out an early page listing their real and fake names and mug shots and tacked it to a wall as a much-needed reference. (In this way, I felt a bit like a spy myself.) Friedman relies mostly on interviews he conducted with one of the spies, Shoshan, who is still alive; for the other three, who died, Friedman has to resort to oral histories they supplied or military archives.

Despite those obstacles, Friedman’s book was still illuminating. 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.

Friedman’s main character, Shoshan, described the set-up in a way that feels like a metaphor for the double lives of spies and of Arab Jews: “The inside of the store is strategic for us because from the outside you can’t see what’s going on inside, and in the middle is a partition of cupboards behind which it is possible to organize and hide many things without being seen.”

By Matti Friedman

248 pp. $26.95