Washington Independent Review of Books, March 8, 2019

By Chris Rutledge

Like its subjects, Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel is more than just its “cover story.” Yes, on the surface, it’s an engaging spy saga. Beneath that, though, lies an examination of identity and the humanity behind both sides of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

For those who require it, a brief history. In 1948, after over 20 years of British rule of Palestine, the United Nations proposed a partition plan calling for independent Arab and Jewish states. Even before the May 1948 British withdrawal, fighting broke out among the occupied parties. To help wage this and the subsequent War of Independence, Israel would need spies able to blend in with its neighboring enemies.

With this, Israel’s “Arab Section” was born.

Throughout the book, Friedman follows four of the organization’s spies — Gamliel, codenamed Yussef, Isaac/Abdul, Havakuk/Ibrahim, and Yakuba/Jamil — as they operate between Haifa and Beirut, gathering intelligence and engaging in sabotage. …


Ultimately, Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk, and Yakuba were unknown until now because they were not caught and thus escaped greater renown. Matti Friedman does us, his readers, a great service not just in bringing their exploits to light, but in sharing with us insights into how they impacted history and the region.

(Read the whole thing here.)