Friday, March 08, 2019

Reviews of Friedman's 'Spies of No Country'

' Spies of No Country' proves the point that Israel's early Arabic-speaking spies had no country to call their own own - except Israel, writes Lily Meyer for NPR:   

For half a decade, Friedman has been working hard, and publicly, to dispel easy narratives about Israel. He rose to attention — and controversy — through a pair of essays about media bias in coverage of Israel, and has remained on the beat ever since. His perspective is unusual: Israeli by choice, he clarifies his own bias in every piece but he writes to complicate, not to defend. In his third book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, Friedman rejects the narrative of Israel as a country filled with Europeans and their descendants, motivated by memories and guilt like my grandfather's. And he does it through a spy story.

Spies of No Country focuses on a fledgling Israeli intelligence unit called the Arab Section, and on four of its spies. The Arab Section emerged at the tail end of British colonialism, at a moment when the Palestine was filling with Jews. The British had made hazy promises, but none clear enough to prevent the war that ensued. The Jews in Palestine formed an army, which in turn formed the Arab Section, a fledgling espionage operation easiest to understand as a version of the Soviets' Directorate S. Where the USSR trained Russians to live in America, though, the Arab Section did something much murkier. It trained Middle Eastern Jews to embed themselves in the very countries they were from.

Friedman builds his story around four such Jews: Gamliel Cohen, Havakuk Cohen, Isaac Shoshan, and Yakuba Cohen. (None of the Cohens were related.) All four were native Arabic speakers. Yakuba grew up in Palestine, Havakuk in Yemen, and Gamliel and Isaac in Syria. In present-day Israeli parlance, they were Mizrahi. In the parlance of the Arab Section, they were not spies but mista'arvim, a word Friedman often uses in its full English translation: Ones Who Become Like Arabs. But it's hard to parse what made them like Arabs. "They were native to the Arab world," Friedman writes, "as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arabic nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really...pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren't Arabs pretending to be Arabs?"

The question is unanswerable, but it's far more important to Spies of No Country than any spying the four men do in the book. In the time Friedman writes about, they lived in Beirut, running a corner store and driving taxis. "Their position," he explains, "was like that of Russian agents tasked with gleaning intelligence not from Capitol Hill or Wall Street but from the sidewalk outside a public school in Queens." Imagine watching The Americans with no missions or violence. It would be a show about two travel agents' marriage. A show with spies in it, not a spy show.

Spies of No Country is a book with spies in it, not a spy book. Friedman chose the Arab Section to prove a point. My grandfather believed in Israel as a place of refuge for European Jews, but for Jews like Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac, and Yakuba, it was more complex than that. Yakuba had no other homeland. Gamliel, Havakuk, and Isaac only had homelands outside Israel if they were Arabs, and yet Jewish and Arab identity have always been considered mutually exclusive — which is why they emigrated to Israel. They weren't alone. After 1948, Israel filled with Middle Eastern Jews. Today, nearly 53 percent of Israeli Jews have roots in the Arab world. To Friedman, understanding that fact is crucial to understanding Israel.


 This book should be required reading in every school, writes Hen Mazzig in the Jerusalem Post:

Today, many Mizrahi Israelis speak, dress and act indistinguishably from their Ashkenazi Israeli brethren. Marriages between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim have erased some of the most glaring social distinctions.

But the Mizrahi Jews that helped build Israel had not yet had the choice to assimilate.

Not only were these Jews native speakers of Arabic, the language of Israel’s enemies, but their culture, attire and identity were similar to that of those attempting to destroy the newly established Jewish state. Nobody wanted “Arab” culture.

One of the book’s heroes, Gamliel Cohen, described how hard it was to find a kibbutz that would accept him as a member due to his Mizrahi origins. Once he finally finds one, in 1940, he is frustrated that the “keepers of Israeli culture” refuse to play Arabic music.
To see short video clip of Matti Friedman speaking on his US tour click here (with thanks: Rachel W.)

I imagine that Gamliel craved the same music I grew up with and still enjoy today. I still remember how much I loved it when my grandmother played Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s music to me – and I still remember the pain I felt when my Ashkenazi teacher in elementary school heard about my favorite Arab artist and laughed along with my whole class.

The Mizrahi culture is a rich one, dating back thousands of years. Yet instead of celebrating it, we are told that we ought to be ashamed of it. That is what we have been told by many of these “keepers of Israeli culture,” as they celebrate Western and European culture, since the very beginning.

As a proud Mizrahi Jew, it was moving to read the stories of these heroes of the State of Israel, and I believe this book should be added to the reading list of every Israeli high school. Maybe then the next generation of Mizrahi Israeli children won’t have to experience the same pain that I’ve felt.

Read article in full 

Wall St Journal (subscription required) 

Times of Israel

New York Times 

New York Times 

Washington Post

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