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  • Title: Spies of No Country: Behind Enemy Lines at the Birth of the Israeli Secret Service
  • Author: Matti Friedman
  • Genre: History
  • Publisher: Signal
  • Pages: 248

Before Israel was a country and before its spy service earned a fearsome reputation for covert operations, a small group of volunteers was sequestered on a kibbutz to train in the arts of espionage and concealment. After a rudimentary training course, they were sent out into the Arab world in the period just before the founding of the state and remained there during the ensuing Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Isolated, operating under the assumption they would be killed if their true identities were discovered, the men were the forerunners of the modern Mossad.

They were the Spies of No Country, the subject of Toronto-born, Jerusalem-based journalist Matti Friedman’s latest book. Their story shines a light on the improvised origins of a fabled spy service. But Friedman argues that it also provides insight into the kind of country that Israel has become, one that its founders may not recognize.

The four men who are the focus of the book belonged to the Arab section. They were born in Jewish communities in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and had an easy understanding of their Arab neighbours that the Jewish forces under the British occupation knew could be useful. The term they used for them was mista’arvim, or “the ones who become like Arabs.”

In order to survive, they had to immerse themselves in the Arab world with enough confidence to talk their way through any number of scenarios. “Anyone can learn the Five Pillars [of Islam],” Friedman writes. These recruits had to nail the details that could betray them, from regional dialects to hand gestures to the layout of a street they would claim to know. “How could you become like an Arab to such an extent that you would be taken for an Arab by an Arab?”

From a news kiosk in Beirut, they transmitted intelligence back to their handlers that Friedman describes as not world-changing, but quietly valuable. So valuable, in fact, that Friedman says it was one of the only effective intelligence tools the Jews had in that period – eyes behind enemy lines.

True to the spy genre, this book has its share of dramatic events and daring acts. In one operation, a spy is asked to prevent a bombing by destroying the bomb before it’s delivered. In essence, he needs to plant a bomb to head off a larger bomb, but is waylaid by bystanders demanding to know what he’s doing. His answers aren’t good enough. A relatively simple twist, but vividly told. Friedman convincingly portrays the mundane terror of espionage. When one of the spies is tripped up by a tribal elder when telling his cover story, the tension is stomach-turning. The descriptions of Haifa and Beirut in 1948 clamour with descriptive colour. The prose is smooth and understated and stays focused on the relatively narrow story of the four men of the Arab section.

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So much of the modern Middle East was shaped by the events swirling around the men of the Arab section, but as Friedman points out, they knew relatively little about it, including the country for which they were risking their lives. In many cases, they had never actually spent a day in what, since their departure, had become the state of Israel.

Friedman argues that the story of the “ones who become like Arabs” reflects a deeper truth about Israel today. In the 1940s, nine of 10 Jews in Palestine were from Europe. The men of the Arab section were a distinct minority. But as Israel has grown, roughly half the country is now of Middle Eastern origin. Its old elite, shaped by the socialist ethos of the kibbutz, has been eclipsed, Friedman argues. As it has faded, so has some of the idealism that shaped Israeli thinking about the prospects for peace. In its place, a reality has emerged closer to the one known for centuries by the Jews of the Islamic world: a tense relationship that shows no sign of easing.

Referring to a passage written by one of the men of the Arab section, Friedman writes, “The Jews who came to Israel from the Islamic world brought a deep distrust of that world; an appreciation of the importance of religion, which Westerners often don’t understand; and the knowledge that nothing good befalls the weak.”

The story of the birth of Israel’s secret service is a story of sameness and difference and moving between worlds. It is narrowly focused on what amounts to a couple of years in the lives of four men, but manages to raise deeper questions about Israel and its place in the Middle East.

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