When the state of Israel was declared in the spring of 1948, Abdul Karim Muhammad didn’t know about it.
A young Palestinian refugee recently arrived in Beirut, Muhammad knew only what was reported in the Arab papers: The victorious Arab Liberation Army was in Haifa. The Syrians were at Degania, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the Egyptians had reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
A few weeks earlier, when Muhammad crossed the Lebanon border on a northbound bus packed with refugees from Haifa, he saw military convoys rumbling past in the opposite direction to participate in the crushing of the Jews — trucks, howitzers, armored vehicles. “We had never seen such weapons before,” he remembered.
Only weeks later, when a wireless set finally arrived in Beirut concealed inside an ordinary radio, and after Muhammad stretched the antenna wire across the rooftop outside his rented room, did he hear the truth in a coded Hebrew transmission from the south.
The state had been established. It was called “Israel.” The fighting was desperate but Jewish forces were holding out.
Abdul Karim Muhammad was 24, and that was not his real name. He was Isaac Shushan, born in poverty in Aleppo, Syria, the son of a janitor at an elementary school. He was a Jew, and a spy.
Isaac is now a slight 89-year-old with glasses and a memory like a sharp steel blade. He laughs easily. The account here comes from a series of interviews conducted at his apartment block outside Tel Aviv.
At the moment of Israel’s creation 65 years ago, Isaac was a Jewish refugee from an Arab country who was in a different Arab country pretending to be an Arab refugee from a Jewish country. The multiplicity of lost homes and the layers of displacement in his story contain something essential about the country he helped found — a home for homeless people — and about the wars and loss among Jews and Arabs that have been part of its existence since then. Between the lines of his account, one can also discern the idea that perhaps the easy division between Jews and Arabs might not be as firm as we tend to think.
Around 1937, Isaac remembered, a teacher came to Aleppo from a place the children knew as “the Land of Israel.” Isaac was 13.
The teacher’s name was Monsieur Pedro. In a class at the Alliance Israélite school, he taught the Arabic-speaking children modern Hebrew. He told them about something called a “kibbutz,” and about workers’ cooperatives, like Egged, a Jewish bus company. He would cite passages from the Bible and describe the scenery from his own memory, because he had seen these places himself: Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.
“We understood that what we read about in the Bible really existed. It wasn’t in heaven,” Isaac said.
The 10,000 Jews of Aleppo, descendants of a community at least 2,300 years old, spoke Arabic and lived among Muslims. They included a number of wealthy merchant families and a far larger number of impoverished people who did menial jobs and subsisted with the help of the community’s charitable institutions. Isaac’s family were among the latter. He and his brothers and sisters would wear cheap sandals or hand-me-down shoes that his father received from families in Jamiliyeh, a suburb home to Jews with enough money to leave the squalor of the Old City, where Isaac’s family lived. A photograph from Isaac’s bar mitzvah shows him and three of his siblings wearing shoes but no socks.
After Monsieur Pedro arrived in the city, Isaac and a few of his friends decided they would go to the Land of Israel and join a cooperative. “Otherwise we would have had to serve the rich people, bringing them food,” he said. “I would have been a janitor like my father.”
Animosity towards Jews in Syria was rising sharply alongside the tensions in nearby Palestine, and it was increasingly clear that there was no future for Jews in Aleppo. The previous year, a mob in Baghdad — a city which was, at the time, one-third Jewish — had murdered 180 Iraqi Jews, and there were smaller incidents elsewhere. Most of the Jews of Aleppo would be gone by the mid-1950s, and three decades after that there would be nearly no Jews left in the Islamic world.
In 1942, when Isaac was 18, he made a paper bundle with a pair of underwear, an undershirt, and a towel, joined his friend the baker’s son, Tawfiq Jiro, and boarded a train to Damascus. From the train station a tram took them to the nearby village of Jobar, where they found a synagogue that was serving as a temporary refuge for Jews in transit to Palestine.
There were perhaps 30 people in the synagogue by the time a smuggler by the name of Shamsi showed up one night. He told the women to cover their hair like Muslims, and instructed everyone else to remove any article that might identify them as Jews.
“If anyone asks,” Shamsi said, “we’re going to a wedding.”
They set off in a truck. A few hours later, in what seemed to Isaac to be the middle of nowhere, everyone piled out and started walking. An elderly rabbi rode on a donkey, the saddlebags bursting with Hebrew books he had saved from home. One fell out as the donkey picked its way along a mountainous trail, and Isaac remembers the rabbi ignoring the smuggler’s anger and refusing to budge without it. Isaac got down on all fours and scrambled around in the darkness until he found the book. The convoy proceeded.
Isaac became disoriented. After hours of walking through the countryside, they arrived at a clump of small buildings. They were greeted by people who spoke Hebrew.
This was a kibbutz. To this day, Isaac is not sure which one. The kibbutzniks gave the refugees bread with jam, and cups of tea.
“We were shocked that we had reached anywhere, that they were feeding us, that these were Jews, that this was the Land of Israel,” he said.
The kibbutzniks, however, didn’t appear surprised: “This seemed to have happened before.”
In the Land of Israel
Along with a group of Syrian boys like himself, Isaac ended up at Kibbutz Na’an, near the town of Rehovot. A counselor helped them acclimate, teaching them Hebrew and about things like toothbrushes and toilet paper; these were new to Isaac and to the others from poor families. They were put to work in the fields, weeding and unloading enormous sacks of chemical fertilizer.
One day in late 1945 or early 1946, officials from the Palmach showed up at the kibbutz. Palmach, or “Strike Companies,” was a hopeful name for what was then an under-equipped and rather anarchic array of underground defense outfits answering to the Zionist leadership. They needed Arabic speakers.
Isaac signed up with two others. Told to report to another kibbutz, Ein Hahoresh, they got there by hitching a ride on a milk truck. They were taken to a tent encampment set up in a eucalyptus grove some distance from the low buildings of the kibbutz. Inside Isaac’s tent were iron beds and a vegetable crate set on two bricks — this was their cupboard.
The Arabic Section, as the unit was called, was a mix of kids from Arab countries like Isaac and like Havakuk Cohen, who was from Yemen and had been named for one of the Bible’s lesser prophets, and a few Arabic-speaking Jews from Palestine like Balfour Mizrahi, who was renowned for his muscular physique and had been named for the British lord behind the famous 1917 declaration.
They worked in the kibbutz fields part-time to earn their keep. The rest of the day was devoted to training. An expert from the Palmach came and taught them to use Bren rifles, hand-grenades, and explosives. Havakuk learned to operate the radio.
Shimon Somekh, an Iraqi Jew known by his Arabic name, Sam’an, was in charge of teaching them about Islamic life and practice. They learned about the Five Pillars of Islam: Offering witness that Muhammad is the prophet, praying, giving charity, fasting, and making the haj to Mecca. Isaac can still recite the prayers by heart, and does so with evident appreciation for the power of the Arabic. He can still demonstrate how they were instructed to pray in the tent at the kibbutz, first standing, left hand on stomach, right on left, then bowing, forehead touching the floor. They learned how to dress. Isaac learned to move from his native Aleppo dialect to that of the Palestinian Arab working class.
The irony at the heart of the enterprise was that in everything but name Isaac and his comrades were, in fact, Arabs. It is accepted that one can be a Christian Arab but not a Jewish Arab, but that is a capricious distinction.
This was the art of the “mista’arev,” from a Hebrew verb meaning “to be like an Arab.” The irony at the heart of the enterprise was that in everything but name Isaac and his comrades were, in fact, Arabs. It is accepted that one can be a Christian Arab but not a Jewish Arab, but that is a capricious distinction: Isaac and his comrades were Arabic-speaking products of a culture that was native to the Middle East. They had run from their countries and wanted nothing more than to be like the new Jews of the Zionist imagination, and had discovered that their ticket into their new society was to become the people they had fled.
As time went by, Isaac’s commanders began to send him to collect intelligence –snooping around an Arab bus depot in Ramleh, praying at Al-Aqsa and listening to a sermon calling for war against the Jews. Eventually, he was involved in an attempted 1948 hit on an Arab guerrilla leader, Sheikh Nimr el-Khatib, who was badly wounded and put out of action for the duration of the war. In February of the same year he helped prepare explosives with acid-filled condoms for detonators, booby-trapped a car and then drove it into a garage on Nazareth St. in Haifa where there was thought to be an Arab car bomb ready for detonation. He escaped, the car blew up, and the garage was destroyed.
A few weeks before the end of the British Mandate and the final exit of British forces from Palestine in May, 1948, thousands of Palestinian Arabs were already fleeing to neighboring countries, part of the great exodus that augured the collapse of Palestinian society that year. According to United Nations statistics at the time, 726,000 Palestinians permanently became refugees because of the war.
In the port city of Haifa, Isaac saw convoys of British troops arriving from elsewhere in the country, boarding ships and sailing west. The locals who had worked as Mandate policemen had disappeared. Jewish and Arab forces were fighting in the streets with mortars and machine guns, and Arab civilians were fleeing overland and by sea. The city was emptying out.
Isaac and Havakuk were in a hotel in a Jewish section of the city, up on the Carmel ridge, when a commander arrived. He gave them some money and a 7mm pistol. He instructed them to pose as Palestinian Arabs and flee to Lebanon with the refugees. They both already had Arab identities and papers. The instructions did not say much beyond that, which was the Palmach style. “Find a way,” the officer told them.
They went to one of Arab neighborhoods in the lower city, by the port, and found a group of families, mostly women, children and old people carrying packs with their belongings and waiting for a bus to take them north to Lebanon. Isaac and Havakuk waited along with them.
As they drove through Galilee, a group of officers stopped the bus. They were volunteers from the Arab Liberation Army.
One of them called Isaac over and hectored him loudly: “We leave our homes, our wives, our kids, to help you fight the Jews, and you are running away?”
“We’re not escaping,” Isaac said. He flashed his 7mm. “If this gun had a mouth, it would tell you how many Jews it killed.” The Jews had killed his father, he told the officer, and he was going to check on his mother and siblings in Syria, where they had fled. “Then I’ll be back to fight,” he said.
“That was enough, and he let us go,” Isaac remembered.
The Palmach sent other agents into the Arab world disguised as refugees at this time. Not all were as lucky as Isaac. Yaakov Bokai, another Syrian Jew, had his cover blown at the Mandelbaum Crossing in Jerusalem and was arrested by the Jordanians. He was executed.
When Isaac and Havakuk arrived in Beirut, the cosmopolitan Arab capital was filling up with Palestinian refugees. The two Jewish agents were first put up with other newcomers in a crowded school. They soon found themselves a room on a rooftop downtown. Not long after their arrival, an Israeli boat landed a small cache of equipment and weapons on a beach just south of the city, and they hid it nearby. They opened a small kiosk selling soda and school supplies, and part of the time Isaac drove a taxi.
They would remain in Beirut for two years, communicating in encoded radio transmissions with headquarters in Tel Aviv, passing on information about the movement of Palestinian refugees and developments in Lebanon and elsewhere. Like most spies, they were usually unaware of how their information fit into the bigger picture, if it did at all. Some of their activities remain classified. They would occasionally meet up with other members of the nascent Israeli intelligence apparatus passing through Beirut en route to other destinations in the Arab world. Isaac also found time to fall briefly in love with a beautiful Christian woman, Georgette — they met playing volleyball on the beach, and spent time together until her brother heard his sister was dating a Muslim and warned him off. He and Havakuk toured Lebanon, snapping photos like tourists.
Not long after their arrival, a Lebanese man whom Isaac had befriended introduced him to an elderly Palestinian. The Lebanese man thought Abdul Karim Muhammad would enjoy meeting someone from home.
The man was close to 70, Isaac remembered, and wore a simple suit. He said he was from Haifa, and now lived in one of the refugee camps around Beirut.
Isaac asked about the circumstances of his departure.
I had two sons, the man said. Both worked at a garage in the lower city.
Isaac understood before the man said another word.
The Jews sent a car bomb and blew up the garage, the old man said. Both of his sons died in the blast.
“I said words of comfort, and that God would avenge their deaths,” Isaac remembered, his usually expressive face stony this time.
“Etcetera, etcetera,” he said in his apartment all those years later, lifting one hand as if to allow the memory to come no closer.
At around the same time, in November, 1948, a coded Morse message arrived from Israel concerning a unique ship that had just docked at Beirut. A Lebanese Christian of the wealthy Arida family, the message said, had purchased a Nazi craft that had served as Hitler’s personal yacht and sailed it to Lebanon.
The boat, the Aviso Grille, carried senior German officers throughout the war and, in 1940, appears to have been intended to convey Hitler in triumph to London after the planned Nazi conquest of Britain.
Headquarters seemed to think the Lebanese meant to arm the Aviso Grille with cannon and use it to attack the Haifa port. (In fact, it appears the Lebanese buyer purchased it on behalf of the Egyptian king, Farouk, who then backed out of the deal and stranded it in Beirut.) It is also possible that a Nazi ship was too tempting and symbolic a target to resist. The agents were ordered to put it out of action.
Isaac located the boat 500 yards offshore near a popular swimming beach. He reported back.
The next message to come in on Havakuk’s radio informed them that a navy craft would land an explosives expert to help destroy the yacht.
The rendezvous took place along the coast near Beirut. Isaac flashed a light. A dinghy flashed back, and the expert swam ashore. It was Eliyahu Rika, another Syrian Jew, in a mask and snorkel, two mines strapped to his body.
The agents took Rika to the shoreline near the Aviso Grille. He swam out, scraped a section of the hull clean just below the waterline and and attached the mines. He came back blue and shaking after nearly an hour in the water, and Isaac handed him a small bottle of rum and rubbed him down with a towel.
The agents went back to their room. Havakuk tapped out a message to Israel saying the explosives were in place.
Then nothing happened.
The next day, they waited for a boom from the direction of the port. Nothing.
By a day or two later — Isaac no longer remembers precisely how much time went by — they had given up, which was when a blast finally rocked the port.
The mines blew a hole in the hull, but the ship was repaired before it could sink. To the extent that this incident has been mentioned at all since then, the blast on the Aviso Grille has generally been attributed to unknown saboteurs or “anti-Faroukist terrorists.”
The ship later ended up in New York, where it was briefly a tourist attraction. Hitler’s yacht was sold for scrap in 1951.
Two years after their arrival, Isaac and Havakuk were due to be relieved. Four new agents arrived to replace them. They packed their things, paid their debts — Isaac seems particularly proud of that — and proceeded at night to the pick-up point on the shore outside Beirut.
Isaac flashed his light. A dinghy approached the shore.
There was an agreed-upon series of passwords. Isaac was to ask, “Who’s there?” The crew on the boat were to answer, “Ahmad.” Isaac was to say, “Did Mustafa come with you?” The crew was supposed to say “Yes,” completing the exchange.
But someone forgot to tell the crew about the code, and when Isaac asked, “Min hada?” – Who’s there? — the crewmen, young Israelis on an enemy beach, heard Arabic and panicked. Isaac heard their commander say in Hebrew, “Hevre, achora!” Guys, reverse! He saw the dinghy turning back out to sea.
“Yodfoyomat,” Isaac shouted at them, using a Russian curse of particular potency that he picked up on the kibbutz, and then in Hebrew, “Bo’u tachzeru!” Come back! The crew rowed back in his direction.
The dinghy ferried Isaac and Havakuk out to a small transport ship that was now in the service of Israel’s navy. The ship sailed toward Haifa.
In a few hours, they would set foot for the first time in their state. The Palmach was gone, its men discharged or absorbed into the new Israeli army. Some of their comrades from the Arabic Section were dead. Others were waiting for them.
A year later, Havakuk would travel to a clandestine meeting with an Arab agent on the Jordanian border, where he would be betrayed and killed.
Isaac would go on to a long intelligence career. In 2013, on the country’s 65th anniversary, he would be the father of two children and the grandfather of one. He would look out his window at the busy streets and apartment buildings of central Israel and know that in some small way all of this was because of him.
On that night in 1950, he was 26 and seasick. He staggered across the deck, gripped the rail, and threw up into the waves.