Our man in Beirut: the story of Isaac Shushan

A wonderful nail-biting story in The Times of Israel for Israel Independence Day about the brave Must’aravim spies, Jews from Arab countries, who risked their lives behind enemy lines. (I  beg only to differ with the author, Matti Friedman, on one detail: he claims that the distinction between Christian and ‘Jewish Arabs’ is a capricious one.) 

 When the state of Israel was declared in the spring of 1948, Abdul Karim Muhammad didn’t know about it. 


A young
Palestinian refugee recently arrived in Beirut, Muhammad knew only what
was reported in the Arab papers: The victorious Arab Liberation Army was
in Haifa. The Syrians were at Degania, on the shores of the Sea of
Galilee, and the Egyptians had reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

A few weeks earlier, when Muhammad crossed the
Lebanon border on a northbound bus packed with refugees from Haifa, he
saw military convoys rumbling past in the opposite direction to
participate in the crushing of the Jews — trucks, howitzers, armored
vehicles. “We had never seen such weapons before,” he remembered.

Isaac Shushan, around 1949 (Courtesy of Isaac Shushan)

Isaac Shushan, around 1949 (Courtesy of Isaac Shushan)

Only weeks later, when a wireless set finally
arrived in Beirut concealed inside an ordinary radio, and after Muhammad
stretched the antenna wire across the rooftop outside his rented room,
did he hear the truth in a coded Hebrew transmission from the south.

The state had been established. It was called “Israel.” The fighting was desperate but Jewish forces were holding out.

Abdul Karim
Muhammad was 24, and that was not his real name. He was Isaac Shushan,
born in poverty in Aleppo, Syria, the son of a janitor at an elementary
school. He was a Jew, and a spy.

Isaac is now a slight 89-year-old with glasses
and a memory like a sharp steel blade. He laughs easily. The account
here comes from a series of interviews conducted at his apartment block
outside Tel Aviv.

At the moment of Israel’s creation 65 years
ago, Isaac was a Jewish refugee from an Arab country who was in a
different Arab country pretending to be an Arab refugee from a Jewish
country. The multiplicity of lost homes and the layers of displacement
in his story contain something essential about the country he helped
found — a home for homeless people — and about the wars and loss among
Jews and Arabs that have been part of its existence since then. Between
the lines of his account, one can also discern the idea that perhaps the
easy division between Jews and Arabs might not be as firm as we tend to

Around 1937, Isaac remembered, a teacher came to Aleppo from a place the children knew as “the Land of Israel.” Isaac was 13.

The teacher’s
name was Monsieur Pedro. In a class at the Alliance Israélite school,
he taught the Arabic-speaking children modern Hebrew. He told them about
something called a “kibbutz,” and about workers’ cooperatives, like
Egged, a Jewish bus company. He would cite passages from the Bible and
describe the scenery from his own memory, because he had seen these
places himself: Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.

“We understood that what we read about in the Bible really existed. It wasn’t in heaven,” Isaac said.

The 10,000 Jews of Aleppo, descendants of a
community at least 2,300 years old, spoke Arabic and lived among
Muslims. They included a number of wealthy merchant families and a far
larger number of impoverished people who did menial jobs and subsisted
with the help of the community’s charitable institutions. Isaac’s family
were among the latter. He and his brothers and sisters would wear cheap
sandals or hand-me-down shoes that his father received from families in
Jamiliyeh, a suburb home to Jews with enough money to leave the squalor
of the Old City, where Isaac’s family lived. A photograph from Isaac’s
bar mitzvah shows him and three of his siblings wearing shoes but no

After Monsieur Pedro arrived in the city,
Isaac and a few of his friends decided they would go to the Land of
Israel and join a cooperative. “Otherwise we would have had to serve the
rich people, bringing them food,” he said. “I would have been a janitor
like my father.”

Animosity towards Jews in Syria was rising
sharply alongside the tensions in nearby Palestine, and it was
increasingly clear that there was no future for Jews in Aleppo. The
previous year, a mob in Baghdad — a city which was, at the time,
one-third Jewish — had murdered 180 Iraqi Jews, and there were smaller
incidents elsewhere. Most of the Jews of Aleppo would be gone by the
mid-1950s, and three decades after that there would be nearly no Jews
left in the Islamic world.

Isaac Shushan, left, at 13. Aleppo, Syria, 1937 (Courtesy of Isaac Shushan)

Isaac Shushan, left, at 13. Aleppo, Syria, 1937 (Courtesy of Isaac Shushan)

In 1942, when Isaac was 18, he made a paper
bundle with a pair of underwear, an undershirt, and a towel, joined his
friend the baker’s son, Tawfiq Jiro, and boarded a train to Damascus.
From the train station a tram took them to the nearby village of Jobar,
where they found a synagogue that was serving as a temporary refuge for
Jews in transit to Palestine.

There were perhaps 30 people in the synagogue
by the time a smuggler by the name of Shamsi showed up one night. He
told the women to cover their hair like Muslims, and instructed everyone
else to remove any article that might identify them as Jews.

“If anyone asks,” Shamsi said, “we’re going to a wedding.”

They set off in a truck. A few hours later, in
what seemed to Isaac to be the middle of nowhere, everyone piled out
and started walking. An elderly rabbi rode on a donkey, the saddlebags
bursting with Hebrew books he had saved from home. One fell out as the
donkey picked its way along a mountainous trail, and Isaac remembers the
rabbi ignoring the smuggler’s anger and refusing to budge without it.
Isaac got down on all fours and scrambled around in the darkness until
he found the book. The convoy proceeded.

Isaac became disoriented. After hours of
walking through the countryside, they arrived at a clump of small
buildings. They were greeted by people who spoke Hebrew.

This was a kibbutz. To this day, Isaac is not sure which one. The kibbutzniks gave the refugees bread with jam, and cups of tea.

“We were shocked that we had reached anywhere,
that they were feeding us, that these were Jews, that this was the Land
of Israel,” he said.

The kibbutzniks, however, didn’t appear surprised: “This seemed to have happened before.”

In the Land of Israel

A Palmach soccer team, around 1946. Isaac is standing, far right (Courtesy of Isaac Shushan)

A Palmach soccer team, around 1946. Isaac is standing, far right (Courtesy of Isaac Shushan)

Along with a
group of Syrian boys like himself, Isaac ended up at Kibbutz Na’an, near
the town of Rehovot. A counselor helped them acclimate, teaching them
Hebrew and about things like toothbrushes and toilet paper; these were
new to Isaac and to the others from poor families. They were put to work
in the fields, weeding and unloading enormous sacks of chemical

One day in late 1945 or early 1946, officials
from the Palmach showed up at the kibbutz. Palmach, or “Strike
Companies,” was a hopeful name for what was then an under-equipped and
rather anarchic array of underground defense outfits answering to the
Zionist leadership. They needed Arabic speakers.

Isaac signed up with two others. Told to
report to another kibbutz, Ein Hahoresh, they got there by hitching a
ride on a milk truck. They were taken to a tent encampment set up in a
eucalyptus grove some distance from the low buildings of the kibbutz.
Inside Isaac’s tent were iron beds and a vegetable crate set on two
bricks — this was their cupboard.

The Arabic Section, as the unit was called,
was a mix of kids from Arab countries like Isaac and like Havakuk Cohen,
who was from Yemen and had been named for one of the Bible’s lesser
prophets, and a few Arabic-speaking Jews from Palestine like Balfour
Mizrahi, who was renowned for his muscular physique and had been named
for the British lord behind the famous 1917 declaration.

They worked in the kibbutz fields part-time to
earn their keep. The rest of the day was devoted to training. An expert
from the Palmach came and taught them to use Bren rifles,
hand-grenades, and explosives. Havakuk learned to operate the radio.

Shimon Somekh, an Iraqi Jew known by his
Arabic name, Sam’an, was in charge of teaching them about Islamic life
and practice. They learned about the Five Pillars of Islam: Offering
witness that Muhammad is the prophet, praying, giving charity, fasting,
and making the haj to Mecca. Isaac can still recite the prayers
by heart, and does so with evident appreciation for the power of the
Arabic. He can still demonstrate how they were instructed to pray in the
tent at the kibbutz, first standing, left hand on stomach, right on
left, then bowing, forehead touching the floor. They learned how to
dress. Isaac learned to move from his native Aleppo dialect to that of
the Palestinian Arab working class.

 This was the art of the “mista’arev,
from a Hebrew verb meaning “to be like an Arab.” The irony at the heart
of the enterprise was that in everything but name Isaac and his
comrades were, in fact, Arabs. It is
accepted that one can be a Christian Arab but not a Jewish Arab, but
that is a capricious distinction: Isaac and his comrades were
Arabic-speaking products of a culture that was native to the Middle
East. They had run from their countries and wanted nothing more than to
be like the new Jews of the Zionist imagination, and had discovered that
their ticket into their new society was to become the people they had

As time went
by, Isaac’s commanders began to send him to collect intelligence
–snooping around an Arab bus depot in Ramleh, praying at Al-Aqsa and
listening to a sermon calling for war against the Jews. Eventually, he
was involved in an attempted 1948 hit on an Arab guerrilla leader,
Sheikh Nimr el-Khatib, who was badly wounded and put out of action for
the duration of the war. In February of the same year he helped prepare
explosives with acid-filled condoms for detonators, booby-trapped a car
and then drove it into a garage on Nazareth St. in Haifa where there was
thought to be an Arab car bomb ready for detonation. He escaped, the
car blew up, and the garage was destroyed.

Read article in full


  • Today is an important date in our Jewish calendar. We owe a lot to a handful of Jews who joined Israel to fight and defend it.My own uncle left Egypt to join the Hagana
    I wish I had been among those people.


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