Reviews of Friedman’s ‘Spies of No Country’

‘ Spies of No Country’ proves the point that Israel’s early Arabic-speaking spies had no country to call their own own – except Israel, writes Lily Meyer for NPR:   

For half a
decade, Friedman has been working hard, and publicly, to dispel easy
narratives about Israel. He rose to attention — and controversy —
through a pair of essays about media bias in coverage of Israel, and has
remained on the beat ever since. His perspective is unusual: Israeli by
choice, he clarifies his own bias in every piece but he writes to
complicate, not to defend. In his third book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel,
Friedman rejects the narrative of Israel as a country filled with
Europeans and their descendants, motivated by memories and guilt like my
grandfather’s. And he does it through a spy story.

Spies of No Country focuses
on a fledgling Israeli intelligence unit called the Arab Section, and
on four of its spies. The Arab Section emerged at the tail end of
British colonialism, at a moment when the Palestine was filling with
Jews. The British had made hazy promises, but none clear enough to
prevent the war that ensued. The Jews in Palestine formed an army, which
in turn formed the Arab Section, a fledgling espionage operation
easiest to understand as a version of the Soviets’ Directorate S. Where
the USSR trained Russians to live in America, though, the Arab Section
did something much murkier. It trained Middle Eastern Jews to embed
themselves in the very countries they were from.

builds his story around four such Jews: Gamliel Cohen, Havakuk Cohen,
Isaac Shoshan, and Yakuba Cohen. (None of the Cohens were related.) All
four were native Arabic speakers. Yakuba grew up in Palestine, Havakuk
in Yemen, and Gamliel and Isaac in Syria. In present-day Israeli
parlance, they were Mizrahi. In the parlance of the Arab Section, they
were not spies but mista’arvim, a word Friedman often uses in its full English translation: Ones Who Become Like Arabs. But it’s hard to parse what made them like Arabs.
“They were native to the Arab world,” Friedman writes, “as native as
Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arabic nation was the Arabic
language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were
they really…pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be
people who weren’t Arabs pretending to be Arabs?”

The question is unanswerable, but it’s far more important to Spies of No Country than
any spying the four men do in the book. In the time Friedman writes
about, they lived in Beirut, running a corner store and driving taxis.
“Their position,” he explains, “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.” Imagine watching The Americans with no missions or violence. It would be a show about two travel agents’ marriage. A show with spies in it, not a spy show.

Spies of No Country is
a book with spies in it, not a spy book. Friedman chose the Arab
Section to prove a point. My grandfather believed in Israel as a place
of refuge for European Jews, but for Jews like Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac,
and Yakuba, it was more complex than that. Yakuba had no other homeland.
Gamliel, Havakuk, and Isaac only had homelands outside Israel if they
were Arabs, and yet Jewish and Arab identity have always been considered
mutually exclusive — which is why they emigrated to Israel. They
weren’t alone. After 1948, Israel filled with Middle Eastern Jews.
Today, nearly 53 percent of Israeli Jews have roots in the Arab world.
To Friedman, understanding that fact is crucial to understanding Israel.

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 This book should be required reading in every school, writes Hen Mazzig in the Jerusalem Post:

Today, many Mizrahi Israelis speak, dress and act indistinguishably from their Ashkenazi Israeli brethren. Marriages between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim have erased some of the most glaring social distinctions.

But the Mizrahi Jews that helped build Israel had not yet had the choice to assimilate.

Not only were these Jews native speakers of Arabic, the language
of Israel’s enemies, but their culture, attire and identity were
similar to that of those attempting to destroy the newly established
Jewish state. Nobody wanted “Arab” culture.

One of the book’s heroes, Gamliel Cohen, described how hard it
was to find a kibbutz that would accept him as a member due to his
Mizrahi origins. Once he finally finds one, in 1940, he is frustrated
that the “keepers of Israeli culture” refuse to play Arabic music.

To see short video clip of Matti Friedman speaking on his US tour click here(with thanks: Rachel W.)

I imagine that Gamliel craved the same music I grew up with and
still enjoy today. I still remember how much I loved it when my
grandmother played Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s music to me – and I
still remember the pain I felt when my Ashkenazi teacher in elementary
school heard about my favorite Arab artist and laughed along with my
whole class.

The Mizrahi culture is a rich one, dating back thousands of
years. Yet instead of celebrating it, we are told that we ought to be
ashamed of it. That is what we have been told by many of these “keepers
of Israeli culture,” as they celebrate Western and European culture,
since the very beginning.

As a proud Mizrahi Jew, it was moving to read the stories of
these heroes of the State of Israel, and I believe this book should be
added to the reading list of every Israeli high school. Maybe then the
next generation of Mizrahi Israeli children won’t have to experience the
same pain that I’ve felt.

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Wall St Journal (subscription required) 

Times of Israel

New York Times 

New York Times 

Washington Post

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