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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend a Moroccan Jewish Mimuna celebration in Or Akiva on April 21, 2014. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/POOL/FLASH90)
Avishag Shaar Yashuv/POOL/FLASH90, shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attending a Moroccan Jewish Mimuna celebration in Or Akiva on April 21, 2014.
Elections 2019: Interview'Israel's Middle Eastern soul has come out of the basement'

Nobody hijacked Israel. It’s just not what its pioneers thought they’d created

It’s not European. And it doesn’t divide into right and left, religious and secular. Matti Friedman, author of a new book about Mizrahi spies, on why Israel baffles and infuriates

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Avishag Shaar Yashuv/POOL/FLASH90, shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attending a Moroccan Jewish Mimuna celebration in Or Akiva on April 21, 2014.

Israel is in the Middle East.

That may sound like one of the more banal opening sentences to an article, but it’s a fact, argues Matti Friedman, that seems to continually elude many commentators and critics of Israel, many Diaspora Jews who pronounce themselves baffled by some of Israel’s actions and policies, and, indeed, many Israelis themselves.

Friedman, 41, is an acclaimed Canadian-born Israeli author (“The Aleppo Codex,” “Pumpkinflowers”) who recently published a most unusual book, “Spies of No Country,” about Israeli espionage at the time of the state’s founding — unusual in that its protagonists are Israelis born in the Arab world who ventured back there, into what was at once familiar and highly dangerous territory, in the service of the nascent state. Friedman chose to focus on the heroes of what was sometimes known as “the Black Section” of Israel’s bare-bones initial intelligence apparatus because, he told The Times of Israel in an interview last week, “I thought we needed stories that better reflect the real Israel — not just stories of secular Ashkenazi pioneers and survivors of Warsaw.”

That “real” Israel, Friedman argues, is the Middle Eastern Israel, Israel as “part of the continuum of Judaism in the Muslim world.” The more you understand and internalize that, he says, the better you understand this country — everything from its cuisine and its music to its behavior and, crucially, its politics.

Matti Friedman’s newest book is ‘Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.’ (Mary Anderson/Algonquin Books/via JTA)

Which is why it seemed like a good idea to interview Friedman just as Benjamin Netanyahu overtook David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — chiefly, says Friedman, because Netanyahu so well recognizes the cutthroat, merciless reality of Israel’s Middle East location — and as the combined forces of the center and left try, yet again, to alight on a formula to defeat him in the year’s second general election. (Full disclosure: I have worked and been friendly with Friedman for almost as long as he has lived in Israel.)

The Times of Israel: There’s a striking section toward the end of your book where you write that “Israel in this century makes sense only through a Middle Eastern lens, which is one reason that Westerners find it harder and harder to figure out.” You yourself have been on this learning curve, gradually internalizing what you’ve come to regard as this misunderstood Israeli reality?

Matti Friedman: I came from the West, with the European stories of Israel — the kibbutz, the Holocaust… The longer you’re here, the more you realize those stories don’t fully represent Israel. Half the country came from the Muslim world, and that informs everything about Israel — cuisine, behavior, music, religion, politics. Many Israelis think the basis of the country is the European Jewish world — Herzl and Ben-Gurion — and that the Jews of the Middle East then came and joined that story. I think it’s the opposite: Israel is part of the continuum of Judaism in the Muslim world, together with the remnants of European Jewry.

‘The original tenets of Zionist faith… included the communal idea of the kibbutz, the desire for a “new Jew” free of Judaism, and the belief that eventually the Arab world would make peace with the Jewish state as the world moved toward greater amity. These were ideas from Europe, and they’re dead… In the ensuing ideological vacuum, Israel’s Middle Eastern soul has come out of the basement’ — Matti Friedman, “Spies of No Country”

And the Jews of European origin are becoming more Mizrahi here — in their behavior, their attitude to religion. Your Israeli kids are more Middle Eastern than you if you are a Western immigrant. It’s hard to wrap our heads around that.

Many people try to gauge the country through these outmoded categories: religious or secular, for instance, when most Israelis are neither; right and left — again, when most Israelis are neither.

And rather we are?

On Judaism, we’re generally traditional. The pollsters ask: Are you religious or secular. So people try to answer. But do most Israelis light Shabbat eve candles? Yes. Believe in God? Yes. Believe in the power of prayer. Yes.

That’s all very Middle Eastern. In the Middle East, people aren’t “religious” or “secular.”

As for “right” or “left,” in the 1990s, there was the notion of territorial compromise, the notion that rapprochement is possible; that it’s in our hands [to solve the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world].

And that’s not true? No regional rapprochement is possible?

Of course not. There’s regional war, and we’re a small player.

Regional war between?

Dozens of different actors, including dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing; Shiite versus Sunni; the various proxies of Iran and Saudi Arabia; medievalists and modernists, and other smaller conflicts including the one between much of the region and Israel. Belgium, obviously, could not engineer rapprochement in Europe in 1915; the same is true when it comes to the notion that Israel can achieve rapprochement in the Middle East in 2019.

A detachment of Israeli soldiers with motorized support presses on during fighting in Beersheba, Jan. 6, 1949, during the War of Independence. (AP Photo)

Generally speaking, the Israelis with roots in the Islamic world always saw this. In general, they were always politically on the right and skeptical about the possibilities the left saw.

On the left, there was the belief that rational self-interest and modern ideas of progress would prevail. No. In 2019, it’s clear that the Middle Eastern perspective is closer to reality.

So now, as we head again to elections, who gets this?

The right understands this better, and that is the reason for their success. The right successfully taps into fears — rational fears, too often belittled by the left — of what this region does to the weak.

It also understands the importance of traditional Judaism even to those who don’t call themselves religious or Orthodox.

And it taps into the residual anger over how Jews from the Middle East were treated here. That anger still comes out — in ways that aren’t always productive, but which are understandable. You see it, for example, in [Culture Minister] Miri Regev’s war on the cultural elites.

‘People trying to forge a Jewish state in the Middle East should have seen that Jews from the Middle East could be helpful. The newcomers might have been invited to serve as equal partners in the creation of this new society, but they weren’t. It was one of the state’s worst errors, one for which we’re still paying’ — Matti Friedman, “Spies of No Country”

Netanyahu, and Menachem Begin before him, spoke to those memories.

Some of the people who have traditionally affiliated with the left, with the so-called elites, are gravely disappointed: They imagined Israel being Vienna. And it’s much closer to Alexandria. It’s not socialist. It’s not secular. It’s Middle Eastern. It makes perfect sense that it’s a lot more like Alexandria, but lots of people are very disappointed by that. When you hear anger at “the right” or “the religious,” often it’s really about this. They ask: Who are these people from the Middle East who hijacked our country?

Yemenite Jews walking to Aden, the site of a reception camp, ahead of their emigration to Israel, 1949. (Kluger Zoltan/Israeli National Photo Archive/public domain)

Talk to Israelis, and you’ll hear that most people don’t really differ on what to do here vis a vis the Arab world. There’s the hard-core left of Meretz; four Knesset seats out of 120. The rest are in a muddle. In no hurry to pull out of the West Bank because of the feared consequences. The terrible years of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada don’t get talked about all that much, but it’s deep in the Israeli psyche. Those years were what discredited the old political elite that had roots in the optimism of the kibbutz movement, and permanently killed the left. The years of attacks showed Israelis what the Middle East is, and why optimistic Western templates don’t apply here. To many of us it came as a rude surprise.

So Netanyahu wins again in September?

Only a fool predicts. These elections are quite unpredictable. A second election within months of the last is unprecedented.

But Netanyahu is incredibly competent. He’s intelligent. He’s an ugly politician, who knows how to push people’s buttons. And he’s helped by the naiveté, perceived or genuine, of the “old left.”

This December 11, 2017, photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watching troops march at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

He says to Israelis, there’s a room. And in that room are the likes of Putin and Assad and Khamenei. Who do you want in there? A straight shooter who believes in the fundamental goodness of humanity? Or your most wily representative? Many Israelis say yes, the latter. That’s who we want in that room.

It’s not about decency. It’s about having the most competent person to protect us. I would personally never vote for Netanyahu, but I understand that appeal. And his ability to speak to people’s resentments means you can’t count him out.

What about Labor’s new leader Amir Peretz? He was born in Morocco. Does he better understand the Middle East?

Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis (R) and Labor head Amir Peretz arrive at a press conference announcing their joint run in the September election, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

He’s an ex-mayor of Sderot [on the Gaza border]. He was born in North Africa. His first move was to bring on another person who can speak to the same issues: Orly Levy, the daughter of one of the first prominent Israeli politicians from North Africa, [the former Likud foreign minister] David Levy.

But we’ve been here before. She didn’t get in to the Knesset in the April elections. He’s already led Labor. Maybe they’ll draw some more votes. But the politician who really has the lock on understanding all this is Netanyahu.

Netanyahu says, This is an incredibly dangerous region, and I will keep you safe.

Netanyahu says, You were mistreated by the elites. I am mistreated by the elites, by the media, by the judiciary [in the corruption cases he’s facing].

Many people from a Middle Eastern background will not vote Labor, no matter who is leading it. The idea that the Peretz-Levy alliance will somehow catapult Labor back into the front ranks is fanciful.

You wrote this book to highlight these central, underappreciated aspects of the Israeli reality?

The book was born of insights that I’ve had about Israel in my 24 years here. I thought we needed stories that better reflect the real Israel — not just stories of secular Ashkenazi pioneers and survivors of Warsaw. It’s much more a Middle Eastern place than the one in the stories. It was designed as a refuge for the Jews from Europe but it came too late for that. It became a refuge for Jews from the Middle East. It’s part of the continuum of the Jewish presence inside the Muslim world, in different circumstances.

‘Some children and grandchildren of the Zionist founders from Europe don’t know what to make of the Middle Eastern country that has emerged. They miss the old country, where these people and their voices were kept in the back room. The resentment is sometimes expressed as nostalgia for an old liberalism, or as criticism of “the right” or “the religious.” But it’s often a deeper discomfort: many Israelis weren’t expecting this Israel’ — Matti Friedman, “Spies of No Country”

This country does not rest on socialism and secularism. It rests on a bedrock of Jewish identity that has a lot to do with people who came here from Baghdad, Aleppo and Casablanca, and understand things that are deeply important about being Jewish in the Middle East and the Arab world. That wisdom was disdained in the first few decades of modern Israel, but is coming increasingly to the fore now.

And it’s one reason why Westerners find Israel increasingly difficult to understand.

In the book, I tried to get at this story of identity with a story about spies. These were Jews from Arab countries who put their Arab-ness at the disposal of the state. The very characteristic that made them outsiders became their weapon. The question of who these guys are, and what kind of state they wound up creating, was interesting to me and relevant to 2019.

A plane filled with Iraqi Jews photographed on arrival at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv in early 1951 (Teddy Brauner, GPO)

Mizrahim are dominant in the Israeli demographic?

In very rough terms, Israel is 20 percent Arab Muslim, and the Jewish majority is about 50-50 — half from Christian Europe, or Ashkenazi, and half from the Islamic world, or Mizrahi. It used to be slightly more Mizrahi, but then the Russians came and offset that.

And where do the Russians fit into this Middle Eastern Israel?

I remember that the late Amnon Dankner, a prominent journalist, a member of what some might call the Ashkenazi elite, wrote an article [at the time of the influx of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union 30 years ago], saying basically, Great, the Russians will save us from becoming swamped by the Middle East. They play piano. They love the opera. They do math. A million Ashkenazim, they’ll redeem the European country we hoped to have.

Israeli World War II veterans of the Allied armies of Russian origins take part in a parade marking the 71st anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2016. Hundreds of Jewish World War II veterans of the Allied armies, the majority from the former Soviet Union, and Israelis took part in the parade. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON

The irony is that in many ways, the new Soviet arrivals ended up being kind of Middle Eastern. They don’t vote left. Few of them want anything to do with the left. Many of them see a dog-eat-dog world. They see the weak are not respected, but are eaten alive. Never be naive.

If we are in fact that small, strong, Jewish-dominated part of the Muslim region, what does that spell for us?

Our future has a lot more to do with Aleppo and Kurdistan than it does with the Warsaw Ghetto. Think of the future? Think about the Middle East.

Without understanding the Middle Eastern-ness of this country, you can’t get anywhere. The settlers hijacked it? Netanyahu hijacked it? No, it’s what the country is. It’s where the country is. Jews were always part of the Middle East. Every Arab city had a Jewish quarter. Jews didn’t come here in 1948. They were here

Thinking of this country as part of Europe is part of the misperception. Why does Israeli Judaism not resemble our Judaism, ask Western Jews. Why is Israeli politics so different? Why are Israelis so different? Without understanding the Middle Eastern-ness of this country, you can’t get anywhere.

The settlers hijacked it? Netanyahu hijacked it? No, it’s what the country is. It’s where the country is. Jews were always part of the Middle East. Every Arab city had a Jewish quarter. Jews didn’t come here in 1948. They were here.

Maybe that opens a door. To throw out one far-fetched idea, I’d love it if we, if Israel, became part of the Arab League, for instance.

Jews could no longer live among that hostile Muslim populace, but are still here in the region — native to the region. If we think of ourselves in that way, maybe that’s the way to naturalize ourselves.

If we keep thinking of ourselves as Europeans, dumped here, we’ll continue to be the outsider. But the continuum of Jewish life in the Middle East offers us the way to see ourselves, and be, part of the region.

And yet there are many on the Israeli right, and many outside supporters of Israel, who want us to deepen our entanglement among that hostile Muslim populace, including by expanding and annexing settlements in the heart of the Palestinian populace.

A lot of people who love Israel, love an imaginary country. A lot of people who hate Israel, hate an imaginary country. We lack a critical mass of people who see the country for what it is. We’d all be a lot better off if we had that critical mass.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. (GPO)

The left got stuck at the Oslo accords, and had no new plan, and ceded leadership to the right…

What could that new plan be?

Well, for a start, not to send hundreds of thousands of our civilians to intertwine with millions of Palestinians. The old left, what’s left of it, keeps suggesting that if they were only in power, peace would somehow become possible, and voters know that’s not true.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants an olive tree at the Netiv Ha’avot neighborhood in the Elazar settlement in the West Bank, on January 28, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

And the right, the people running this country, say, The status quo is fine. It isn’t fine. That’s where you’d hope the center could do more: Acknowledge the reality. Acknowledge what’s happening. And think about how to proceed. Zionism was always a creative movement. That’s been lost. Labor Zionism traditionally had such creative energy. The secular Zionist pioneers created the country — for their own purposes, to their specifications. But they created it.

But you’re also saying they didn’t realize where they were?

They understood in 1948, at that dark moment — that moment besides which everything else now pales — that it was us or them. They made a series of ruthless decisions because it had to be us, not them. But they didn’t really understand who “us” was: More religious, less socialist, more Middle Eastern than we were supposed to be. And that becomes the state.

The gap between the expectation and the reality is the source of much of the angst we still deal with every day.

All these decades later, might this Middle Eastern Israel now be needed as a refuge for Western Jews again?

The people who created the state were geniuses — in terms of understanding the world and in being so capable of applying their conclusions to the real world. Anyone concerned with the fate of the Jewish people needs to be very happy that there’s a successful Jewish country that has a Law of Return [providing automatic citizenship for anyone with a Jewish grandparent]. Thinking of the Jews in the UK and France, say, I don’t think many of us thought this would still be relevant in 2019. We thought the problem of the Jews in the world was solved after World War II. It wasn’t solved.

In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s speech declaring independence. (AP Photo)

I wish everyone many happy years in their home countries. I’m not predicting impending catastrophe. But everyone should be grateful to Ben-Gurion and Weizmann for what they did 70 years ago. It’s fashionable to criticize them for their blind spots. They did have blind spots. It’s fashionable to criticize the country today. There is a lot to criticize. But we must appreciate what they achieved and how important it is in 2019.

They understood the fate of the Jews before the Holocaust, and they pulled it off: They created Israel.

Just not the Israel they thought they’d created.

America isn’t really what Thomas Jefferson thought he was creating either, and the guys from the French Revolution might be a bit surprised if they showed up in Paris right now. Nothing ever turns out as planned.

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