Before the Mossad, Israel Had the 'Arab Section'

'Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel' by Matti Friedman reveals the little-known history of pre-state Israel’s first spies – Jews who immigrated from Arab countries but were strangers in both worlds

Spies Isaac Shoshan, front, and Havakuk Cohen relaxing while off duty in Lebanon during the War of Independence.
Courtesy of the Palmach Museum

“Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel,” by Matti Friedman, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 248 pages, $26.95

In his 2004 book “The Yom Kippur War,” Abraham Rabinovich notes how an Egyptian cameraman, arriving to film captured Israeli soldiers near the Suez Canal, was surprised that some of the prisoners looked “like himself ... many of them — Sephardi Jews — had olive skin like his.”

Rabinovich uses one kind of nomenclature; many of these misfortunates were undoubtedly Mizrahi Jews — descendants of Jews from the Middle East who, unlike the Sephardim, have no ancestors from Spain or Portugal.

It’s probably safe to assume that many people around the world who take an interest in Israel are similar to the Egyptian cameraman: They don’t know that roughly half the country’s Jews are Mizrahim, not the Ashkenazim with European roots who comprised around 90 percent of the Jewish population of British-run Palestine before Israel was established in 1948. The Mizrahim — beginning with the austere ma’abarot tent camps where so many of them were required to inaugurate their lives in 1950s Israel — got a slower start to life in the new Jewish state and are still underrepresented among the country’s elites.

Matti Friedman, the author of “Spies of No Country,” takes an interest in this community, lamenting that Mizrahi Jews have been “condescended to, and pushed to the fringes.”

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel - by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books

Friedman’s book — like this review — isn’t the place to analyze the injustices; suffice it to say that “Spies of No Country” rights one wrong by telling the story of how a handful of Mizrahim — only one with a high school diploma — helped launch a precursor to the Mossad. They persevered even if their role in the nascent Israeli intelligence service, the so-called Arab Section, sidelined them to “one of the only corners of the Zionist movement where their identity was valued,” as Friedman puts it.

He sets his story in the 20 months starting in January 1948, when the Arab side in the 1947-49 war was ascendant and “nothing was inevitable, and no one knew anything yet.”

Friedman focuses on four agents in the unit, also known as the mista’arvim, or, as he frequently calls them, translating the term literally, Ones Who Become Like Arabs. They were between 20 and 25 years old in January 1948; three happened to be named Cohen, including Havakuk from Yemen and Yakuba from Jerusalem. But it’s the Syrian Jews we get closest to. Aleppo-born Isaac Shoshan was in his late 80s and 90s when Friedman interviewed him, the only one of the four still alive. His conversations with the author form the backbone of the book. Also key is Damascus-born Gamliel Cohen, the one who finished high school. He wrote a history of the Arab Section in 2001 and a few years earlier provided oral testimony to the Yigal Allon Center, named after a founder of the pre-state Palmach strike force of which the Arab-speaking spies were officially a part.

Tapping out a message between spies in Beirut and Arab Section headquarters near Tel Aviv during the War of Independence.
Courtesy of the Palmach Museum

And yes, the Toronto-born author’s minimalist, riveting prose reads like a spy novel. He says he was “looking less for the sweep of history than for its human heart.” He found it, providing insight into the life of an agent’s mind when, even six weeks into the war in early 1948, “the distance between alive and dead had already become negligible — the length of an incorrect verb, an inconsistent reply to a sharp question.” They were undercover and could never forget that.

Friedman provides the taste of life on the ground on both the Jewish and Arab sides when there was “a new and hazardous electricity on the street” in a place like Haifa, where Gamliel Cohen set out for Beirut; Haifa was much less calm than the Lebanese capital, where the agents set up a spy station under the cover of a kiosk. Friedman’s protagonists also witness chapters in the 20th century’s propensity for population transfers, while the spy-world vignettes he recounts often prove hilarious when not tragic. (There will be no spoilers here, though capers include an assassination attempt on a Muslim preacher. Plus, back in Haifa, what do you do when you discover that the other side is disguising a truck as a British ambulance so it can be used to blow up a packed movie theater?)

Modest start

Among the hilarity is the balagan (mess) culture that people living in Israel today would recognize, Startup Nation notwithstanding. Gamliel Cohen, the agent setting up the Arab Section’s operations in Beirut, first communicated with his handlers via letters to a Haifa P.O. box. He was code-named Cedar, “in keeping with the Jews’ occasional practice of using code names vulnerable to third graders of average intelligence,” Friedman gibes.

The 41-year-old author reported from Jerusalem for The Associated Press between 2006 and 2011, but he’s no hack; he’s more of an Ian Fleming of James Bond-fame, who launched his writing career with Reuters in Stalin’s Russia. Friedman’s opus already includes the 2012 “The Aleppo Codex” on how the most accurate still-existing text of the Hebrew Bible reached Israel, and the 2016 “Pumpkinflowers” on his experiences serving in the Israeli army in southern Lebanon in the mid-’90s. Friedman’s books and recent op-eds in The New York Times, where he’s a contributing columnist, stress the neglect the Mizrahim have suffered, both in material terms and in the recounting of the Zionist saga.

Friedman is also known for the controversy he stirred in 2014 when he criticized AP’s Jerusalem bureau and the Western media in general, railing in Tablet magazine about the press’ “hostile obsession with Jews” he says mars its Israel coverage.

Matti Friedman, the author of the 2019 book "Spies of No Country."
Mary Anderson

The title of the current book alludes to the fact that the four young protagonists were literally spies of no country — the State of Israel was not established until May 1948, four months after Gamliel Cohen arrived in Beirut. And it had been only six years since Isaac Shoshan had sneaked over the border after setting out from his native Aleppo, where he had existed “on the bottom rung of a community that had historically been defined as second class by Islam.”

Not that integration into the 90-percent Ashkenazi Jewish community was easy; the racism in the assimilation of the Arab-speaking spies into the Palmach, the most fabled unit of the Haganah, sometimes bordered on the comical. As Friedman describes it, their unit was originally called the Black Section; black is a derogatory Israeli term for Mizrahim. By dropping one letter in Hebrew — shachor to shachar — the unit became the Dawn Section, but was usually called the Arab Section.

From Gamliel Cohen’s oral recollections, as related by Friedman, we learn how one kibbutz wouldn’t let the Arab Section’s men stay overnight, even though kibbutzim were where Palmach troops were normally housed. A few other kibbutzim told their young women to steer clear of the “blacks.”

But the men in the Arab Section don’t appear to have possessed the same racism about the people they spied against. Friedman notes how in his conversations with Isaac — the author uses first names in his work — the old man took the Arab world’s “people seriously, and their culture seriously, and their hostility seriously. Like Gamliel, he had no hatred or disdain for them.”

Friedman adds, however, that Isaac had “no illusions about the fate of the weak, which is why the Jews could never be weak again.”

He also includes Gamliel’s comments on a political event he witnessed in the Palestinian city of Tul Karm as the war heated up; an activist incited a crowd to chant “We’ll slaughter the Jews!” — leading Gamliel to conclude that control was “in the hands of extremists with whom you have no common language.”

Two spies captured by the Egyptians during the War of Independence.
Courtesy of the Palmach Museum

Force has the final word

Friedman builds on this iron-wall theme in his own words: “The Jews who came to Israel from the Islamic world brought ... the knowledge that nothing good befalls the weak. Many other Israelis might have seen this view as retrograde not too long ago.”

There’s an ongoing theme here, so one caveat about Friedman’s book: Readers who think Israel could be doing more to arrive at a reconciliation with the Palestinians will be less enchanted by it. This approach is on more explicit display in a recent Friedman piece in The New York Times titled “There Is No ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,’” where the author contends that the real conflict is with a larger enemy, whether the Arab armies of yesteryear or Iran and its allies today.

In this respect, “Spies of No Country” is reminiscent of a work I reviewed here earlier this decade — also by a 1990s immigrant who served in the Israeli army in Lebanon during wartime. In his 2011 book “The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict,” Jonathan Spyer provides what he considers the main lesson about the region: “Force, and nothing else, has the final word.”

Matti Friedman appears to agree with Spyer on this point and its corollary: The hard-line view traditionally popular among Jews with roots in the Islamic world has spread to the wider society as these Jews have been assimilated into that society. As Friedman puts it, “if the culture of Jews from Islamic lands was once marginal, it has now moved to the heart of the life of the country.” Or, as he wrote in a New York Times op-ed a month ago, “The dominance of the political right in recent years comes far less from the settler movement, as foreign observers tend to think, than from the collective memory of Israelis who remember how vulnerable they were as a minority among Muslims and grasp what this part of the world does to the weak.”

In “Spies of No Country,” Friedman notes how the heroes sent back reports on the outsize emigration by Maronite Christians, foreshadowing exits by Islamic-world minorities and “leaving their home region a poorer place.”

On the other side of the border, during one talk with Isaac, Friedman marvels at a scene at a shopping mall near Tel Aviv. “The children of the Jewish quarters of Tunis and Algiers were here in Ray-Bans and running shoes. The Jews of Mosul in northern Iraq were also here — not in Islamic State ditches with their neighbors the Yazidis.”

Too much gloom and doom? Don’t be put off. “Spies of No Country” tells a gripping story of praiseworthy obscure men.

Steven Silber is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.