Spies of No Country: Behind Enemy Lines at the Birth of the Israeli Secret Service by Matti Friedman (Signal)
“Countries have cover stories and hidden selves, just like their spies, and our clandestine basements conceal insights into the world aboveground,” Matti Friedman writes in his latest book. Indeed, Spies of No Country is a much needed spotlight on the pivotal role Mizrahi Jews played in the creation of Israel.
Friedman, a former Associated Press correspondent, follows Arab-Jews as they operate undercover during Israel’s War of Independence. Part of Israel’s intelligence gathering operations, the men formed the group informally known as “Black Section,” because, as Friedman writes, “among the eastern European Jews who filled the ranks of the Palmach, and who made up most of the Jewish population in Palestine at the time, Jews from the Middle East were sometimes called blacks.”
Later officially referred to as Dawn Section, these men could pass through the contested Arabic landscapes of war, unlike their Ashkenazic Sabra peers. This competitive advantage, Friedman demonstrates, was indispensable to Israel. “In retrospect, we understand that our men had found their way into one of the only corners of the Zionist movement where their identity was valued,” Friedman writes.
That these men were simply Jews born in Arab lands, however, smothers the complexity of their roles. The unique intricacies of passing as an Arab reared in Haifa or Jaffa, versus Beirut or Aleppo, required intensive training.
He “and the others had learned the trade in the quieter years before the war. They slipped in and out of Arab towns around Palestine, practised dialect, saw what fooled people and what didn’t, and collected bits and pieces for the Haganah’s Information Service as the Jews prepared for the fight that their more insightful leaders knew was coming. The agents would sometimes bring back nuggets of military value, like a description of an armed rally in the town of Nablus and a quote from an Arab militia leader who addressed the crowd: Independence is not given but taken by force, and we must prove to the world that we can achieve our independence with our own hands!” Friedman writes.
Dawn Section’s duties were to absorb and monitor their surroundings. Friedman wonderfully captures the often banal aspects of subterfuge. Far from James Bond car chases, Dawn Section operations involved many unassuming activities. By attending religious sermons or monitoring reactions to the latest Egyptian movie releases, these men sought to capture the milieu of attitudes, sentiments and dispositions of Israel’s Arab neighbours.
As Friedman retells, “Sometimes it was impressions of Arab society or soundings of the mood, the kind of material sought by mass observation in Britain during the Second World War, when citizen-spies reported conversations and rumors to help gauge the direction of public opinion.”
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Such surveillance was paired with acts of military sabotage. The abundance of Nazi fingerprints on the Arab side – employing former Wehrmacht military advisors, Egypt’s use of German Tiger tanks and Third Reich-trained explosives experts – drew special attention from Israel’s intelligence services.
A particularly fascinating story Friedman focuses on is Dawn Section’s sabotaging of Hitler’s yacht, the Aviso Grille, docked in Beirut’s harbour. Though now belonging to a Lebanese businessman, Israeli intel discovered the ship was set to be refitted for military purposes and bound for Egypt’s King Farouk. The vessel would have been a game-changer against Israel’s nascent navy.
Friedman’s retelling of the episode is wonderful. The lead operative, Rika, carried along flippers, mines and “a bottle of rum to warm him up when he came out of the water.” Moreover, the mission carried a personal significance for Rika. “It was as if the tormentor, in his grave, hadn’t come to terms with the existence of the State of Israel, and sent his personal warship against it,” Rika later described.
The destroyed yacht never made it to Egypt. Instead, sold at a loss, the boat was scrapped in the U.S. The only part salvaged was Hitler’s toilet, which spent years in a mechanic shop in New Jersey.
Dawn Section was more than simply Israel’s conduit to the Arab world. The unit’s members helped transplant and incorporate their Arabic upbringing within Israel. Placed within the Palmach, which played a central role in the development of Israeli society, unit gatherings “ended up acting as a portal through which pieces of the Arab world passed into the culture of the new Jewish state.
“An anthology of Palmach songs and stories compiled by two famous poets who served in those days includes a list of Arabic words that reached modern Hebrew via fighters’ slang: halas, ya’ani, masbut, mabruk, sahbak and dozens of others still in use.” Friedman even recounts brewing coffee seven times during his army days, another nod to Arab tradition.
“Espionage is the secret theatre of our society,” John Le Carré once observed. And, as Spies of No Country reveals, Israel’s secret theatre spoke to a deeper reality: of a society grappling with rapid ethnic, social and religious change. Despite Israel’s ethnic transformation during these decades and the discrimination Mizrahi Jews historically encountered in Israel, Friedman’s interviews are markedly absent of the animosity one would expect.
Accordingly, Spies of No Country distinguishes itself alongside earlier espionage titles as The Angel and Rise and Kill First for its introspection and meditation. Whereas these earlier works spotlighted once-tight-lipped Israeli spymasters at work in Egypt or targeted assassination programmes, Friedman sought to recover, and amplify, a lost voice. His work is a welcome contribution.