Elucidatory Espionage: Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country
Written by Avery Weinman
Illustrated by Cameron Edwards
What makes a great work about espionage? Is it the pulse-pounding narrative beats? The harrowing accounts of close-call brushes with detection by the enemy? The dizzying revolving door of false identities and fake names? The wildly improbable missions? The tragic accounts of doomed love? The inevitable intruding sharpness of death? Or is it the way in which stories about spies and the world of spying feed our deeply human desire to know about more than just what meets the eye? Is it because they assure us that while most of us go about our banal, routine days there are parallel lives filled with intrigue and consequential grand designs? Is it because they prove to us that our world is full of hidden truths, obscured truths, or partial truths that we may not otherwise see? In his third full-length non-fiction book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, Israeli author Matti Friedman confirms that a great work about espionage is all of these things.
Friedman’s Spies of No Country recounts the stories of four Mizrahi Israelis – Jews whose pre-Israeli heritage comes from the Arab and Islamic world – who spied for the Arab Section of the Haganah in a rag-tag espionage unit that ultimately became one of the foundations for the famed Israeli intelligence agency: the Mossad. These four spies – Gamliel Cohen, Isaac Shoshan, Havakuk Cohen, and Yakuba Cohen (no relation between the three Cohens, just a thoroughly Jewish coincidence) – used their intimate knowledge of the Arab world that all of them were born into to collect vital information and execute covert espionage missions to benefit the Zionist project and the state of Israel in the mid-20th century.
Friedman focuses in on two major periods of these spies’ operations. The first, their missions in the industrial coastal city of Haifa in 1947, during the civil war phase of retaliatory violence between various Zionist and Arab nationalist militias in what became Israel’s War of Independence. The second, their deep-cover and operations out of “enemy territory” in Beirut, Lebanon in 1948, during the period of all-out war between the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and the armies of the Arab world. Over these two years, we come to know these four spies intimately. Which ones are mild, and which ones are hot-tempered. Which ones saw espionage as a solemn responsibility, and which ones saw it as a kinetic adventure. Which ones killed, and which ones never fired a gun. Which ones lived and grew to become old men, and which ones died and did not.
Friedman’s background as a reporter for the likes of The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Associated Press, as well as his previous experience as a long form non-fiction writer and pop-historian are both on display as considerable advantages in Spies of No Country. His journalistic senses are to the great benefit of the book’s readability and pacing. Friedman’s style of writing provides the text with vividly drawn characters, locations, and events that both draw the reader in and create real stakes in the spies’ fates. It also propels the story with the kind of snappy urgency that is appropriately fitting for a spy thriller, but may have otherwise been lost in a text more explicitly geared towards academia. To Friedman’s credit, this accessibility does not come at the expense of an intelligent academic framework. Like his two previous books – The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (2012) and Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016) – Friedman is able to situate interesting stories in greater historical contexts and questions. In Spies of No Country, Friedman uses the stories of these four young Israeli spies to touch upon the Mizrahi experience in Israel and the tensions of Israel’s many precarious identities.
Mizrahi Jews have constituted the Jewish demographic majority of the state of Israel from the mid-1950s through to today, but their stories are generally relegated – often intentionally – to an ancillary footnote in favor of telling the story of Israel through a European-Ashkenazi lens. Mizrahi Israeli lives, stories, experiences, and histories – and the way in which these not only influence Israel’s character, but, as the pasts of the majority of Jewish Israelis, largely define it – are too frequently obscured from the layman’s knowledge about the state of Israel. Spies of No Country provides a glimpse into what feels like a hidden, parallel past in a meta-exercise on the revelatory nature of espionage; this, in itself, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. By complicating the traditionally presented Ashkenazi-centric Israeli history with the presence of four spies whose dark skin, native Arabic, and inherent “Arabness” was precisely what made them such valuable assets, Spies of No Country leaves behind hints for the interested reader to uncover the story of an Israel that they previously may not have known existed at all.
As a first clue – a kind of “your mission, if you choose to accept it” – Spies of No Country provides a gateway to a far larger and more nuanced history of the state of Israel in the guise of a thoroughly entertaining spy thriller. With the narrative and scholarly threads that Friedman introduces in Spies of No Country as square one, the interested reader can continue following the legacy of these Mizrahi Israeli spies by learning about the crucible of Mizrahi immigration to Israel, how and why Mizrahim became (and remain today) the core base of the Likud party, and why taking a five minute walk down the corridors of the Jerusalem shuk feels a lot more like a journey into One Thousand and One Nights than Fiddler on the Roof.
At a succinct and quickly paced 224 pages, Friedman’s Spies of No Country is a simultaneously accessible and rigorous study of Mizrahi Jews who played an indispensable role in the nascence of Israeli espionage and the creation of the state of Israel. With enough spy intrigue and genre-true suspense to entertain the casual reader, enough new insight to engage the dilettante of Israeli history, and enough primary evidence and academic framework to sustain the scholar – Spies of No Nation succeeds as a work of far-reaching value. Friedman’s closing remarks for his opening paragraph ultimately ring true about the book itself: “time spent with old spies is never time wasted.”