April 23, 2020

I didn’t know much about the creation of Israel before reading Matti Friedman’s book, Spies of No Country. I still know very little, but at least now the emotions its creation evoked have become real.

By focusing on four Jewish men who were born in Arab countries, Friedman offers readers a tiny glimpse of the struggle Zionists have always faced.

He doesn’t try to outline the creation of Israel. Nor does he comprehensively describe how Israel’s military agency began. Instead, he profiles four specific men who risked their lives to spy for the people setting up Israel from January 1948 until August 1949. He doesn’t glamorize them either.

“Their mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle. Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be—the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services…1

Founding of Israel

After reading about the exploits of the four spies and their colleagues, it’s clearer to me why peace in the Middle East has been so fleeting. I’ve always known that David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s birth as an independent country on May 14, 1948. I didn’t know that Britain and the United Nations worked hard to stop them though. Until reading Spies of No Country, I never gave any thought at all to the Jewish minorities in Arab countries. That’s the point of view Friedman highlights.

His book works brilliantly. Friedman’s decision to tell a straight-forward narrative about four young men working for a cause that was far from assured at the time keeps readers hooked. At the same time, in his role as the narrator, he provides context that makes it clear to a modern reader that people living within Israel and in neighbouring countries still seek their versions of justice, none of which agree with one another. Revenge seems never-ending.

Storytelling Technique

By allowing us to live side-by-side with Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac and Yakuba over a period of 20 months, we get to feel their fears and his concerns all at once. He does this by describing particular moments and allowing us to feel what the people he describes feel. Even at the end, as he takes us through his own process, he helps readers identify with the spies’ humanity.

“Two young men look out from behind the counter. They move easily beside and around each other. They know each other very well. Both have mustaches. One wears glasses. I have a photograph of them grinning at the camera, hair slicked back and collars open. They seem capable of both humor and violence..Don’t be fooled by their relaxed manner. Five of their friends are in shallow graves, and fate isn’t done with them yet.”2

After finishing the book, I combed through Wikipedia articles and news stories to find out more about the birth of Israel. I always knew that the Ottoman Empire ruled the area that includes Israel and Palestine from 1516 until World War I, but I didn’t realize the extent of the roles played by Turkey, France and Britain prior to and during the Arab-Israeli war.

More about Matti Friedman

I also read more about Matti Friedman’s work. Initially, Spies of No Country attracted me as a book with good reviews that was written by a Canadian. Friedman’s website talks about his birth in Toronto and the fact that he now lives in Jerusalem, but says little more.

Youtube videos are more helpful in getting to know who he is and why. The most recent features a discussion with Joe Yudin about what he’s been doing recently via an interview conducted on April 15.

The article featuring criticisms about how the international media cover Israel that they speak about at the beginning as Friedman’s best-known work appears in The Atlantic.

Throughout all of these articles and information, it’s clear that Friedman works very hard to make sure that all of us remember that more than half of the people who helped create Israel are Jewish people who used to live in Arab countries.

Sources

1Friedman, Matti, Spies of No Country: behind enemy lines at the birth of the Israeli secret service; Toronto: Penguin, ISBN 9780771038839, 2019, pp 27-28.

2 Ibid, pp 797-798.

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About the author 

Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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