Matti Friedman is one of Israel’s most perceptive contemporary chroniclers, and his books and articles are quickly becoming indispensable for understanding how the Jewish State’s past is creating its emergent future. With an understatedly luminous prose style, Friedman also has an eye for that which is overlooked, but far from irrelevant. In The Aleppo Codex (2012), he told the elegiac story of what was once one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Pumpkinflowers (2016), a history-slash-memoir of Friedman’s time in the Israel Defense Forces, shone a necessary spotlight on Israel’s long engagement in Lebanon, which has shaped the country and the region even as it hasn’t garnered the attention it deserves. His piece “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth” (2014) is a defining look at the fraught issue of how Israel is covered in the media.
In an oblique way, Spies of No Country is a return to Friedman’s concern from The Aleppo Codex—the enormous impact of the dissolved world of Mizrahi Jewry on the State of Israel, and the still unfolding implications of Israel’s identity as a Middle Eastern country. The focus here is narrow, but the canvas is large. Friedman tells the story of four members of the Arab Section, the undercover intelligence unit started by the British, developed under the Palmach, and institutionalized during the consolidation of the nascent IDF. The four spies Friedman focuses on hailed from mellahs and medinas in Damascus and Aleppo, and vegetable markets in Jerusalem. They carried the resonant appellation mista’arvim, or “the ones who became like Arabs,” because their mission was to merge with the populations of places like Amman and Beirut and pick up scraps of intelligence while undercover as shopkeepers and candy salesmen, taxi drivers and kiosk venders.
The time covered in Spies of No Country unfolds during the troubled first days of the State, when its survival was far from assured. Friedman powerfully describes the feeling of uncertainty that the men of the Arab Section would have felt while on assignment. Under this previous technological dispensation, they would not have known the news of Israel’s survival; being away meant being in the dark. As their identities merged with their surroundings, they watched the Israeli-Arab War from places of geographic proximity but great psychological distance, at a moment when Israel was a hypothesis rather than a country, and when Jewish civilization in the Arab world had not yet been erased. The perpetual anxiety of being undercover — the fear that one word or misstep or gesture could mean death — was amplified by these larger uncertainties. These spies were utterly, completely on their own. There was never an extraction plan if things went wrong. For them, “running a little kiosk in an Arab city was … real life … The Jewish state, on the other hand, was just clicks on the radio.” Kiosks, clicks, and a world turned upside down.
Spies of No Country finds its deepest resonance when Friedman steps back from the admittedly compelling missions to consider what this group of spies at the edge of Israel’s birth might mean for the identity of the country they went incognito to help. At a time when the Palmach was staffed by Ashkenazi Jews, these Jews from Arab lands were peripheral to the national mythology but central to the State’s effort to defend itself. “That was how,” Friedman explains, “the Ones Who Became Like Arabs ended up using their complicated Jewish selves as a weapon to create a place where their selves could be less complicated.” Things rarely get less complicated, but Spies of No Country is a powerful examination of a moment of upheaval and foment, when Jews passed as Arabs so that they could be Jews, and when “the new state was going to be larger than the dream, because it was real. And it would be smaller than the dream, because it was real.” As Friedman deftly shows, this “reality” is indelibly defined by the culture, sensibility, language, and history of Mizrahi Jews. “Soon it began to dawn on some observers that the Jews of Islam weren’t going to be a splash of Oriental color on the state of Theodor Herzl’s Viennese imagination. The newcomers were going to alter the enterprise itself.” This observation swells into a compelling thesis; as Israel becomes more Middle Eastern, it rediscovers a different kind of old/new kinetic energy, this one sourced to the experience of Jews from Damascus rather than Odessa.
Friedman notes, “Israel is more than one thing. It’s a refugee camp for the Jews of Europe. And it’s a minority insurrection inside the world of Islam.” Refuge from history and insurrection against history; this duality strikes close to the core of Israel’s purpose and mission. There is no Fauda or wildly popular Mizrahi pop music without the communities that populated the Arab Section. Even more significantly, Israel and its future would be vastly different. Perhaps Friedman’s greatest insight is that richly doubled identities, disguises smuggled in under hyphens, is at the core of the Jewish personality, from Moses to Queen Esther and beyond.