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A Thrilling Israeli Spy Story, But Is It Accurate? Or Moral?

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

By Matti Friedman

Algonquin Books, 272 pages, $26.95

It is entertaining to learn that in Beirut in 1947, Jewish intelligence agents detonated a mine attached to the Aviso Grille, which was once Hitler’s personal yacht. In his new history, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel,” Matti Friedman tells this story with great style. During World War II, we learn, the Grille’s crew members wore white dress uniforms and “had to be at least six feet tall.” The Jewish saboteur, named Rika, carried, along with flippers and the mines, “a bottle of rum to warm him up when he came out of the water” and “‘energy pills,’ probably methamphetamines.” After diving under water to avoid the searchlights of a British warship, he struggled with a slippery, defective detonator. But eventually, he prevailed. The explosion left a hole “the size of a large dining room table,” and the ship was eventually sold for scrap, its toilet ending up “in an auto shop in Florence, New Jersey.” As I said, extremely entertaining.

The trouble with this story, as with the book generally, is that Friedman yokes research, suspenseful storytelling and austere but potent prose to historical narratives that are both simplistic and pernicious. In the case of the Grille, the entire episode comes off as a weird attempt to tie Israel’s Arab enemies in 1948 to the Nazis. “Evidence of Nazi fingerprints on the Arab side,” Friedman writes, “always drew special attention from the Jewish intelligence services.” He goes on to provide his own list of such evidence: German advisers working with Arab troops, a Palestinian explosives expert responsible for truck bombs in 1948 who trained in German, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’s support for Hitler during World War II. “For many” Jews, Friedman explains, “the war wasn’t really over.”

Were they right? “Spies of No Country” does not answer that question clearly. Friedman merges his own perspective with his subjects, the spies and intelligence forces of the nascent Jewish state. It may be true that the Jews interpreted their Arab enemies as continuous and even allied with Nazis. But that interpretation has little to do with reality. After all, in 1947, German military men and equipment were everywhere: that is what happens to defeated armies and munitions after a world war. If the best Palestinian explosive expert was German-trained, well, the best American was in fact a Nazi, the notorious rocket-scientist Wehrner von Braun. Moreover, the Grille’s military equipment had been stripped by the British, and it was at this point a pleasure yacht. Indeed, after the explosion, the boat was repaired (one of Friedman’s sources reports the damage was “minor” — somehow this detail gets left out of the book), but the boat was still junked, presumably since it wasn’t worth buying. Why then did Friedman transcribe this inflated fantasy of Nazi-Arab collaboration breathlessly and uncritically from his Israeli archival sources and interviews with the agents? The reason is clear and ugly. The story buttresses an extremely nasty narrative popular in Israeli hasbarah: that 1948 was in some sense an attempted continuation of the Holocaust and that Israel’s Arab enemies were as bad as the Nazis.

The whole of the book follows this sad pattern. As a literary document, Spies of No Country is exquisite. Having interviewed several elderly former spies, Friedman tells the story of the “Arab Section,” a pre-State, Jewish intelligence force composed of Arab Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Its members were born in the Arab countries, where Jews had led precarious, second-class lives: Friedman describes one protagonist, Isaac as “on his knees in Aleppo.” Driven by anti-Semitic violence (in 1941, “Arab mobs in Baghdad… murdered nearly two hundred of their Jewish neighbors”) and Zionist ideology, they made their way to Palestine. There, they were recruited by Sam’an, a Jewish spymaster who realized their potential usefulness. He trained them to imitate and blend in with Arab neighbors. They learned Muslim prayer rituals and practiced local slang, even as they also had a “course on explosives… the precise amount needed to knock out an electric pole or a bridge.” Friedman notices and makes much of the fine irony here. Even as these men were acquiring a Jewish national identity and becoming what would be Israelis, they were also refining their Arabness. At its best, Friedman’s history chronicles the bitter ironies of these men’s doubled consciousness: the pain of pronouncing “death to the Jews” to an Arab man, for instance, only to discover he is bringing you to a surreptitious Shabbat dinner.

Not only is “Spies of No Country” good on such sophisticated, tangled questions of identity; it also just tells a fun story. In one of the first extended sequences, we follow two agents as they try to kill Muhammed Nimr el-Khatib, a radical Palestinian imam from Haifa. Friedman intersperses Isaac’s oral recollections, the subsequent Palmach report, and Nimr’s written version of the events. The resulting collage of styles and perspectives is both beautiful and exciting. Nimr’s flowery prose (“blood spurted from the head of our comrade el-Majdoubt as if he were a burbling spring”) mix with the Jews’ terse description (“We fired bursts at the vehicle, we hit it, and it swerved”). The scene has the rich texture and multiple angles of a Sam Peckinpah shootout, which is impressive, since it was captured in words and not by cameras.

Yet it is hard not to notice that the whole scene contains no explicit discussion of the moral question here: may one assassinate a civilian cleric for his fiery rhetoric? Is that moral? “Spies of No Country” continually refuses moral judgments, or more accurately, it presents just enough details to imply a justification. For instance, given how much of the history is set in Haifa, you would expect some consideration of the mass exodus of Palestinians from that city in the early stages of the 1948 war. Well, that event gets two pages, including the convenient detail that Haifa’s Jewish mayor asked his Arab neighbors to stay. Very touching, and complete propaganda. For, as the historian Benny Morris has documented, the Haganah deployed a mixture of “psychological warfare broadcasts” and “military tactics” deliberately to demoralize and break the Palestinian population. As Morris writes of this phase of the war, “as was understood by IDF intelligence, the most important single factor in the exodus of April–June was Jewish attack.” Of course, the Palestinian tragedy, the naqba, is not Friedman’s subject in the book. And yet, for a book about Arabs and Jews during 1948 to gloss deliberately over this mass atrocity seems to me inexcusable.

Now, if “Spies of No Country” uniformly refrained from editorializing, it would be hard to fault such a moment. There is a place for simple, naïve storytelling. And yet, that is plainly not this book’s purpose. For, in twenty pages near the end, and in the media-storm of publicity surrounding the book’s release, Friedman explicitly draws a political moral from his story. He argues that contemporary Israel makes “sense only through a Middle Eastern lens, which is one reason that Westerners find it harder and harder to figure out.” Jews from the Muslim world, Friedman argues, do not share Ashkenazi delusions about Arab willingness to compromise. Instead, they have a “deep distrust of that world” and “the knowledge that nothing good befalls the weak” — positions which have become the “mainstream political stance of Israelis now.” Further, focusing on Arab Jews falsifies the anti-Zionist claim that Israeli Jews are “colonialists,” since Jews turn out to be indigenous to the region.

There is a great deal one could say about this sermon. First, contrary to what Friedman says, much of it is not particularly new. The claim that Israel lives in a “tough neighborhood,” where European norms about democracy and peacefulness do not apply, is the oldest chestnut of hasbarah, pro-Israeli propaganda. Friedman has merely dressed up this stale claim in a turban.

Second, there is a wild mismatch between the story of some spies in 1948 and “trying to navigate today’s Israel.” Friedman jumps over so much history that his conclusions seem arbitrary. For example, while the votes of middle-eastern Jews did contribute to the victory of the right-wing Likud party in 1977, the peacenik Left subsequently regained power. It was the failure of Oslo and the second intifada which broke the Israeli left, not the ascendency of Mizrahi, middle-eastern Jews. Indeed, the demographic shift that explains Israeli recent political shifts is the influx of a million Jews from the Former Soviet Union in the nineties. These Russian Jews formed the base for a new, right-wing nationalism. Unfortunately, they don’t fit Friedman’s story about the Israel conservatism as local wisdom. Nor do they support the claim that Israeli Jews are native to the region. So they get airbrushed out of this portrait of contemporary Israel.

Most tellingly, though, Friedman’s narrative of Arab intransigence has been flat-out disproved over the last several decades. Israel has peace with its two most important neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and the other neighboring threat, Syria, has militarily collapsed. Moreover, as the Israeli and American right never tires of pointing out (correctly), even the Sunni Arab states that do not recognize Israel officially are informally allied with it against Iran. Broadly speaking, the Israeli-Arab conflict is over: Israel won. What Israel has is a low-grade conflict with Iran (which has little to do with 1948 and less to do with Arabs) and a half-century, brutal occupation of Palestinian territory, which produces sporadic outbursts of Palestinian terrorism and guerilla warfare.

That occupation never enters Friedman’s book. Explaining contemporary Israel through 1948 allows him to conveniently skip 1967. Friedman loosely lumps in Palestinians with other Arabs, as the Israeli right has for decades. (And again, this is supposed to be a new reading of the conflict — well, it was old to me when I heard it in Hebrew School twenty years ago.) To explain Palestinian “refugees in Jordan” — this is the only discussion of Palestinians in Friedman’s discussion of contemporary Israel — Isaac shares a story about a revenge murder by a Bedouin man. In the story, the man waits several decades before avenging his brother, only to be asked by his family, “why did you hurry?” The moral is supposed to be that Arabs love revenge and, regrettably, won’t just let bygone expulsions be bygone expulsions. It is a weird Orientalist fable. The Bedouins live in an unnamed place, and the anonymous story becomes a parable of the Arab mind. Such gross generalizations are, let us say, out of favor in the West.

Moreover, this story weirdly misses the point of Palestinian political violence over the last several decades. Hamas is not firing rockets from Gaza out of “revenge,” because Israeli violence against Palestinians is not merely a past shame. They are firing rockets because Gazan Palestinians are confined to an open-air prison, blockaded of basic goods, and pummeled with high explosives. There literally is no way for West Bank Palestinians to forgive and forget, since every day brings a new checkpoint and a new indignity. Even many Palestinian refugees to this day remain stateless persons since 1948. They carry keys to their old houses in Palestine not out of revenge, but because they genuinely would like to return to their houses. To be clear, I don’t mean to excuse or justify Palestinian terrorism here, nor to suggest that Israel bears all the blame. There are, to be sure, wrinkles in this story. Yet Friedman’s present-day analysis require erasing the ongoing fact of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. In a moment like this one, this omission makes nonsense of the broader narrative.

Presumably Friedman would think my misgivings about this story are just another liberal luxury, one real Israelis cannot afford. Well, the reader will have to decide how credible they find a hard-headed political realism based on a racist bubbe mayse. I, for one, enjoyed very much reading the reminiscences of old spies. I just wish Friedman had stuck to the entertaining stories and left out the hasbarah.


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