Award-winning journalist Matti Friedman's tale of Israel's first spies has all the tropes of an espionage novel, including duplicity, betrayal, disguise, clandestine meetings, the bluff, and the double bluff--but it's all true.
If you’re pro-Israel, Friedman’s book offers a cast of humble, hardworking and brave characters who overcame prejudices in their old and new homelands for the greater cause of Judaism. But if you think of Israel less as a victim and more of a victimizer, then Friedman’s book might feel like hagiography, yet another work that idealizes the history of the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus ... admirably, Friedman seems to be telling this story for larger purposes. He wants to shine a light on a band of Arab-born operatives often overlooked in the stories of Israel’s founding as a Holocaust refuge led by Europeans in the Zionist movement ... The book is most engaging when Friedman sticks with one character, in one timeline and in one scene. But often, “Spies of No Country” veers from one timeline to the next and from one spy to the next, and it’s hard to keep track of who’s doing what and when, especially because each of the four spies has aliases that Friedman also uses ... Despite those obstacles, Friedman’s book was still illuminating.
A book with spies in it, not a spy book. Friedman chose the Arab Section to prove a point. My grandfather believed in Israel as a place of refuge for European Jews, but for Jews like Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac, and Yakuba, it was more complex than that. Yakuba had no other homeland. Gamliel, Havakuk, and Isaac only had homelands outside Israel if they were Arabs, and yet Jewish and Arab identity have always been considered mutually exclusive — which is why they emigrated to Israel. They weren't alone. After 1948, Israel filled with Middle Eastern Jews. Today, nearly 53 percent of Israeli Jews have roots in the Arab world. To Friedman, understanding that fact is crucial to understanding Israel ... an important book...Americans are not accustomed to hearing about Israel's complexity, or its diversity. We are rarely asked to consider Israel as a country that is, as Friedman says, 'more than one thing.' Any serious defender or critic of Israeli politics should consider this a serious problem. Meaningful opinions require nuanced understanding, and Spies of No Country offers that.
A slim but intriguing string of anecdotes in which members of the unit risk their lives under cover in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as Jewish settlers and refugees fought to preserve their foothold in Palestine ... Mr. Friedman draws a larger point from the pioneering role of the Mizrahim in intelligence: It foreshadowed the transformation of the population of the Jewish state from essentially one of native-born Sabras and transplanted left-wing Europeans with little or no religious belief to a blended people in which Levantine Jews and their descendants have ever-greater influence.