Decades before ‘Fauda,’ Israel’s first spies assumed Arab identities in Beirut
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Times of Israel PresentsAward-winning author launches his third book in Jerusalem

Decades before ‘Fauda,’ Israel’s first spies assumed Arab identities in Beirut

At a packed event, author Matti Friedman relates that a well-conjugated Arabic verb was the difference between life and death for the Jews who founded Israel’s intelligence agency

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Journalist Matthew Kalman interviews author Matti Friedman about his new book, 'Spies of No Country,' at a Times of Israel/Beit Avi Chai event on April 10, 2019, in Jerusalem. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Journalist Matthew Kalman interviews author Matti Friedman about his new book, 'Spies of No Country,' at a Times of Israel/Beit Avi Chai event on April 10, 2019, in Jerusalem. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Isaac Shoshan (foreground) and Havakuk Cohen in Lebanon, around 1949 (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)
    Isaac Shoshan (foreground) and Havakuk Cohen in Lebanon, around 1949 (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)
  • Israeli spy Gamliel (left) walks with Isaac Shimon Horesh in downtown Beirut, in the summer of 1949. (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)
    Israeli spy Gamliel (left) walks with Isaac Shimon Horesh in downtown Beirut, in the summer of 1949. (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)

April 1948. As thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled Haifa, embedded within that group were a few undercover Jewish men. These Arabic-speaking Jews, born in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, were members of the Haganah’s fledgling spy unit, the Arab Section. Sent to gather information from within the Arab world, they assumed the identities of Palestinian refugees and set up new lives in Beirut.

They were dispatched with few instructions, and even fewer means, into a world in which conjugating a verb wrong could get them killed, said writer Matti Friedman in an onstage interview on Wednesday in Jerusalem. The lucky ones survived through bluffing and disguise; half were killed.

All that was missing was a Hollywood soundtrack as Friedman depicted snippets from the spies’ adventures, vividly painted scenes of life and death spun on a thread. The real-life anecdotes made hit modern-day spy thriller “Fauda” seem contrived.

Friedman spoke with journalist Matthew Kalman in a joint Times of Israel and Beit Avi Chai event to launch his newest book, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”

The red-haired, freckled Friedman was born in Toronto and moved to Israel in 1995 at an idealistic 17. Today an award-winning author and New York Times op-ed contributor living in Jerusalem, between 2006 and 2011 he was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, followed by a stint at The Times of Israel from 2012.

His first book, “The Aleppo Codex,” was published in 2013 and won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His second, “Pumpkinflowers,” followed in 2016 and recounts his years as a soldier stationed in Lebanon.

Live Broadcast!????️‍♀️ Spies of No Country | Book LaunchThe Times of Israel & בית אבי חי Beit Avi Chai Presents Award-winning author Matti Friedman discusses his just-publishedSpies of No Country – the breathtaking story of Israel’s first spies, a group whose undercover work laid the foundations for the Mossad.Enjoy!

פורסם על ידי ‏בית אבי חי Beit Avi Chai‏ ב- יום רביעי, 10 באפריל 2019

In “Spies of No Country,” Friedman depicts a Palmach — a paramilitary organization called “the holy of holies” of the Zionist movement — that was in love with the idea of “Arabness.” It treated the members of the Arab Section as “superheroes,” he said, while at the same time “othering” them and relating to them as outsiders.

“The very characteristics that prevented them from integrating became their ticket into the Palmach,” he said. The Palmach’s ad hoc Arab Section “picked up street kids on the margins of Jewish society and took them on an incredible, dangerous adventure,” he said.

Israeli Arab Section spy Gamliel in Beirut. (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)

Friedman’s book examines the stories of four pioneering spies: Gamliel Cohen, Havakuk Cohen, Yakuba Cohen, and Isaac Shoshan, whom he first met in 2011 and still lives in Bat Yam at a hardy 94.

Born in Damascus as Jamil Cohen, Gamliel caught the Zionist bug and made aliya to a kibbutz in pre-state Israel. Although he Hebraicized his name, he never fit in with the other New Jews, pioneers who worked the fields by day and listened to Beethoven by night, said Friedman. Then the Palmach came and asked Gamliel to “revert” and take on the cover of Yussef el-Hamed. Gamliel went on to become one of Israel’s best spies, whose long-term undercover identity even spanned the birth of his children.

To a spellbound full house, Friedman related that with no communications from headquarters — a makeshift shack with a wooden table and a Morse code wire on a kibbutz — the secret agents in Beirut read of spurious victories by the Arab armies. Concerned they’d just been dispatched into the Arab world by a state that was stillborn, said Friedman, they set up a kiosk in the heart of Beirut and sold candy and sandwiches to make a living. Over the two lonely years of their perilous mission, one of the agents took up with a local Maronite Christian girl and the whole subterfuge almost fell apart.

Israeli spy Gamliel (left) walks with Isaac Shimon Horesh in downtown Beirut, in the summer of 1949. (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)

But was their Arab identity really a subterfuge? Friedman made the case on Wednesday that these members of the Arab Section were not exactly the definition of “mista’arvim,” or literally, “ones who become like Arabs,” the label given to them by intelligence officers. Rather, he argued, perhaps they were actually Arab Jews.

“How much of this is fiction?” asked Friedman. “Are they pretending to be Arabs? Or, are they Arabs pretending to be Jewish who are pretending to be Arabs?”

“Their souls were Arab,” he said. But then in 1948, “their whole world became ‘the enemy.'”

Isaac Shoshan (foreground) and Havakuk Cohen in Lebanon, around 1949 (courtesy of the Palmach Museum, Tel Aviv)

Half of the Jewish citizens of Israel come from Arab lands, but in a country founded upon a European version of colonialist Zionism, said Friedman, the narrative of the Mizrahi Jew has been shunted to the side. By intentionally concentrating on the contributions of these Arabic-speaking Jews, his book is an attempt to rectify that.

To truly understand the history of Israel, said Friedman, one has to realize that “the Jews from Arab lands are no longer a footnote.”

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