A kiosk selling sweets and snacks in Beirut? Unlikely as it may sound this place was the Lebanese headquarters for Israeli intelligence at the birth of the Jewish state. The kiosk was called The Three Moons. The antenna on the roof was camouflaged by a clothes line. Spies transmitted their reports via a radio back to base in Israel.
The Three Moons figure prominently in ‘Spies of no Country’ by Matti Friedman. The book centers on 18 months in the life of the Arab section, then part of the Palmach, the underground army of the Yishuv. Friedman tells the stories of four spies, all young Jews born in Arab countries. They are spies of no country because the state of Israel had not yet been founded, but also because their dual-identity creates ambiguity.
Jewish spies were sent out to Arab countries on dangerous missions ( of a dozen men in the Arab section in 1948, half die, their cover blown by the enemy). At first the spies have no radios and no money even for a bus fare. They improvise. Their work is mundane, not glamorous. It is hard to gauge how much impact it has. These spies are not of the calibre of Eli Cohen who infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian regime some fifteen years later.
The question of Jewish spies from Arab countries is a fraught one. The charge of being a fifth column was routinely levelled by Arab regimes at innocent Jewish citizens as the conflict with Zionism intensified. Scores were arrested on trumped-up charges and some even executed. But for Israel in 1948, increasing violence and the outbreak of war with its Arab neighbours made intelligence-gathering and sabotage by genuine spies a necessity.
From the amateurish beginnings of the Arab and other sections grew the Mossad, which today has a fearsome reputation for secret dare-devil operations: these range from the clandestine rescue of endangered Jewish communities to the abduction of Adolph Eichmann and targeted terrorist assassinations.
Matti Friedman has rummaged through obscure Israeli archives to bring to life the activities of the Arab section. The narrative is built around the personal testimony of one of the last elderly spies still alive, whom Friedman interviewed. Isaac fled antisemitism in his native Damascus. His group was known as ‘Mista’arvim’ – those who became like Arabs. They were chosen because they were native Arabic speakers, although they had to be coached to pray like Muslims and hide their Jewish dialect. Some became so identified with their Arab persona that they even married Arab women and had families.
The material could have been thin had Friedman not interjected his own impressions and important snippets of historical background. It is a good thing he did, as these are a necessary antidote to now commonplace revisionist accounts, even in Jewish media, of the first Arab-Israeli war (A review in the Forward newspaper lauds the spy story as ‘exquisite’ but accuses Friedman of ‘hasbara’ (propaganda) when, for instance, he spotlights the Nazi-Arab connection (routinely downplayed by Arab sources) leading to the Arab section’s sabotaging of ‘Hitler’s yacht’, a vessel staffed by ex-Nazis and en route to rearmament in Egypt.)
Friedman’s underlying purpose is to give credit to Jewish heroes from Arab countries who helped build the state of Israel as surely as did David Ben-Gurion. When the state of Israel was founded, only one in ten Jews was from the Arab world. But after 1948, boatloads of Mizrahim transformed Israel’s character into that of a Middle Eastern state. These refugees – now comprising over half the Jews of Israel – brought with them the certainty, honed by centuries of subordinate existence as dhimmis, that the Arabs would never reconcile themselves to a ‘minority insurrection’ against Islamic domination. Defeat by the despised Jews would never be considered the final round in a struggle that might last centuries.
Friedman also develops a theme he has already touched on in earlier articles and essays: that the Israel of the kibbutz, of the early Ashkenazi founders, is increasingly out-of-date in explaining the country. For this alone, ‘Spies of No Country’ , which has been widely reviewed in the mainstream US press and media, has performed an invaluable service in countering the ‘European implant’ paradigm through which so many, including rising stars on the left of the Democratic party, misperceive Israel.