Spies of No County: Israel’s secret agents at the birth of Israel by Matti Friedman (Algonquin, 2019) is a profoundly important book, for two reasons. First it shines light on a long-neglected subject, the actions of young Jews who were native Arabic-speakers, who came to British Mandatory Palestine to get away from Muslim domination and persecution, and to help the formation of a Jewish State that had not yet come into existence. Some of them were recruited as the Jewish State-to-be’s first spies, they knew Arabic fluently, they knew the culture of the Muslims and they could meld into Arab society and provide the embryonic intelligence apparatus of the Jewish community in Palestine with its first insights into what was really going on in Arab Palestine and those centers of Arab society Beirut, Damascus and Amman. Second for anyone who has delusions of Israeli power (on the right) or of Israel as a colonial power (on the left) it throws a bucket of cold water that must mitigate against such delusions.
These were young men who from personal experience knew deeply that they had no future in the Arab world. Any day, every day, they were insulted and spat upon by Muslim Arabs, they were barely tolerated, and they and their families could be attacked at their home or at their place of work and be dragged out into the street, beaten or killed, without any defense or justice. They were tiny minorities in Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Beirut, and throughout the cities of North Africa (the Maghreb). After more than a thousands years of intolerance among the Muslims, there were barely 1 million from Morocco to Iran, far less than the number of Jews in the Middle East than at the time of the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637 ce. In a word these young Jews recognized their powerlessness, and saw in the eternally foretold religious promise of a return to Zion the possible means to redeem themselves and attain some degree of power over their destiny.
The book focuses on four of the 20 or so Arabic-speaking spies that were recruited to form the unit known as the “Black Unit” or the “unit of those who become like Arabs” (expressed in Hebrew by the word “mista’aravim”). They were Gamliel Cohen (alias Yusuf) born Damascus; Isaac Shoshan (alias Abdul Karim) born Aleppo, Syria; Havakuk Cohen (alias Ibrahim) born Yemen; Yakuba Cohen (alias Jamil) born Jerusalem (it is pure coincidence that three of them have the surname ‘Cohen’). Their exploits in Palestine before the State was founded and later in Beirut, Damascus and Amman are detailed in this book from personal memoires and recently declassified Israeli government files. Although they received some training they were essentially amateurs, although their commitment and their risk-taking were beyond question, and they formed the first group of spies that was later to become the Israeli foreign intelligence service, the vaunted Mossad (the Institute). Their main job was to infiltrate into Arab society, learn what was going on and what people were saying and thinking and trace troop movements and weapons caches and report back so that the Jewish leadership was better informed. They also engaged in cases of sabotage, but that was discouraged because their intelligence information was considered to be most valuable.
Their return to Zion coincided with the political movement of Zionism that sprung from the powerlessness of Jews in Christian Europe (that had recently been proven by the Holocaust of WWII). While the British tried to maintain hold of Mandatory Palestine, they came up against the anti-colonialist forces of the Jewish community there (the Yishuv) and were already in retreat soon after WWII ended. Since Britain could no longer maintain control of Palestine, it sent the issue for the UN to decide, and in a vote on Partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab States on November 29, 1947, resolution 181 was passed. However, the Arab/|Muslim States entirely rejected partition, they wanted it all for themselves, and so they attacked the purported Jewish State immediately after the British withdrew. The Jewish minority (then ca. 650,000), surrounded by hostile Arabs and attacked by the armies of 5 Arab States (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq) was not expected to survive. The British High Command predicted the Jews would be defeated and massacred, and the Arabs issued blood-curdling statements, such as Fawzi al-Kaukji, Commander of the Arab Liberation Army of Palestine, who said “we will murder, wreck and ruin everything in our way.” Fortunately his army was defeated by a much smaller Jewish force and he was injured, whereupon he retired to Beirut.
One significant section of this book is devoted to what Israel was and currently is. When these young Arab-Jews, known as Mizrachim In Israel (Easterners) first arrived in Jewish Palestine they were a small minority. In effect they were used and patronized by the predominantly European Jewish (Ashkenazi) Zionists. But, with the establishment of Israel the Jews in Arab lands were both forced out by the Arabs and with the help of the fledgling Mossad managed to get to Israel (some 800,000; many of the rest moved from N. Africa to France and the USA). With this influx and their large families they soon became a majority. The tipping point came in 1977 when the “riff-raff” as the Ashkenazi ascendency called them, out-voted the Labour Party that had ruled since Independence, and voted in the right-wing Likud Party of PM Menachem Begin. It can be said that they voted against the liberal-socialists who were forever trying to assuage the Arabs and make peace (for example Defense Minister Moshe Dayan gave control of the Temple Mount to the Muslim Wakf in the expectation that they would show gratitude) and voted in the more realistic and hawkish right because they knew the Arabs better than the Ashkenazim. So Israel moved in a different direction than many of the European Zionist founders expected, with their socialist ideals and their sense of entitlement. For those who criticize Israel as a colonialist endeavor you should accept the fact that more than half of Israel’s population (55%) is descended from people who never left the Middle East, and now 74% of its population have been born in the Middle East, and aren’t going anywhere else.
For those who have seen the popular Israeli series Fauda, you may get a taste of what these Arabic-speaking Jews experienced. But, in Fauda the Duvdevan (cherry) unit goes in and out of the Arab West Bank and Gaza, while the Arabic-speaking Jews in this period were expected to live as Arabs in an Arab society for long periods of time, and without all modern means of communication. Their fate was more like that of Eli Cohen, the most famous Israeli spy, who conned the whole of the Syrian power structure for a long time, but was eventually caught and hung (see The Spy on Netflix). Of those Arabic-speakers who joined the fledgling Jewish intelligence service 8 out of 10 did not survive. They were caught out not by their ability to speak Arabic, but often by their lack of knowledge of Muslim religious customs, saying prayers or how to perform the routine ablutions (wudu). But, they learnt by mistakes and that was taken care of in time by expert training.