The Jewish Spies Who Posed as Arabs (New York Times review, March 22, 2019)

By Neal Bascomb

If experience is any guide, spies are not wont to emote. On the rare occasions they do speak about their perilous missions, they avoid sentiment, as if recounting a visit to the dry cleaners. For this reason, histories often fall short in tapping the depths of their lives — or, more aptly, their humanity. Matti Friedman’s “Spies of No Country” stands out as a wondrous exception.

In this genesis story of Israeli intelligence, Friedman focuses on a period of 20 months, beginning in January 1948, on the ports of Haifa and Beirut, and “on four young people drawn from the margins into the center of events. I was looking less for the sweep of history than for its human heart, and found it at these coordinates.”

The four men, Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk and Yakuba — all in their 20s — were members of the Arab Section, a secret unit led by the Jewish militia in Palestine. Called the “Ones Who Become Like Arabs,” they were Arab-born Jews put to work as spies and saboteurs in enemy territory. Theirs was a haunting task, where the simplest act could escalate into disaster.

In the opening chapter, Gamliel is introduced. He must pick up a ticket to Beirut from a travel agency in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa. Dressed in a suit and carrying luggage, he is operating under the name Yussef el-Hamed from Al-Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem). To his surprise, the agency is closed. A passing local stops to interrogate him and quickly becomes suspicious, particularly since posters throughout the neighborhood warn of fifth-columnist traitors. Standing on the sidewalk, Gamliel faces a horrifying situation: “The distance between alive and dead had already become negligible — the length of an incorrect verb, an inconsistent reply to a sharp question.”

Such moments are the point and purpose of “Spies of No Country.” In unadorned yet piercing prose, Friedman (whose previous book, “Pumpkinflowers,” was a memoir of his service in the Israeli Army) captures what it was like to be part of the Arab Section. “They had no country — in early 1948, Israel was a wish, not a fact. If they disappeared, they’d be gone. No one might find them. No one might even look. The future was blank. And still they set out into those treacherous times alone.” …

(Read the whole thing here.)