Spies of No Country

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

Explains how the Arab Section became such a force in the establishment of Israel.  This is real, it is history, but it reads like a spy novel.  Both the defeats and the successes are described.  This book also shows how these incidents in the early history of Israel have shaped the behavior of Israel’s spies and the Mossad establishment ever since.    The characters are very well written, and three dimensional.
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"Spies of No Country" is an enlightening book. Its subject matter - a small, early Mizrahi spy group - is intriguing, informative, and realistic. It has all the ingredients for a superlative book. The story is great but unfortunately the writing left a little something to be desired. The reliance on good research is evident. But I had a difficult time figuring who was who and distinguishing the young men from one another. I understand that non-fiction requires the author to deal with the information he has unearthed but I wanted to better understand the background of these men

Matti Friedman follows four young Jewish men from Arab countries as they are sent out on their own and in groups back to Arab countries to spy for the just emerging Israeli state. Friedman provides a good sense of how unprepared these young men were for their assignments and how, rather than 'cloak and dagger,' their daily lives were usually rather mundane. Some of the deep-seated problems of Arab-Israeli relations are made much more understandable through Friedman's writing - and that alone  makes this book an important read.
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Quite possibly one of the most important books I've read regarding the origin of the nation of Israel to date. Vividly depicts a unique historical perspective and connects it to the present in a very mindful and observant way. Nonfiction that has the pace and prose of fiction. So glad I picked this up. Will re-read.

Absolutely excellent.
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"Spies of No Country" is set during the twenty months between January 1948 and August 1949.  No sooner was the state of Israel founded than its Jewish inhabitants faced annihilation by her neighbors.  Matti Friedman focuses on a small band of Arabic-speaking Jews who risked their lives by going undercover in Haifa and Beirut in order to spy on Israel's enemies.  Friedman focuses on Syrian-born Gamliel Cohen and Isaac Shoshan; Havakuk Cohen from Yemen; and Yakuba Cohen, who was born in Jerusalem when it was under British rule.  These volunteers were undisciplined amateurs who communicated using a primitive radio set. They paid close attention to the chatter around them, and sent reports about Arab morale, their foes’ military strength, and other information that might prove helpful.  In addition, members of the Arab Section carried out acts of sabotage and attempted to assassinate a particularly dangerous antagonist. "They improvised, saw what worked, and used it." 

Friedman pays tribute to these and other individuals who risked their lives in an effort to tilt the odds in favor of Israel's existence.  The Jews of the "Arab Section" were "drawn from the lower rungs of Middle Eastern society,” and had little experience in making life-or-death decisions.  They were trained to behave like Arabs, took lessons on handling weapons and explosives, and were ordered not to speak to their families (not everyone obeyed). They did not know for sure whether their actions would have a significant impact on Israel’s ultimate fate.  Friedman evokes the tense atmosphere in the Middle East during a time when Jews, with their backs against the sea, used the limited resources at their disposal to wage all-out war against the local Palestinian militia and the armies of five Arab countries.

The author, who conducted extensive research, brings this historical period to life with excellent descriptive writing and a host of colorful anecdotes.  His sources include material from Israel's military archives; published histories written in Hebrew by Zvika Dror and Gamliel Cohen; and lengthy interviews that Friedman conducted over a period of years with one of the aforementioned spies.  This enlightening and engrossing account, which is enhanced by evocative black and white photos, sheds light on the struggles of a courageous band of brothers whose efforts have become a footnote in the history of Israeli espionage.  In these pages are fascinating stories of human interest, an overview of the politics and deep-seated hatred that led to so much death and destruction, and passages of dark humor and irony.   Matti Friedman sadly points out that the Israeli government has not always treated Middle Eastern Jews as first-class citizens. Instead, he informs us, "They [Jews born in Arabic countries] were condescended to and pushed to the fringes” when they settled in Israel. To set the record straight, Friedman tells the little-known story of Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk, Yakuba, and others in the Arab Section, whose contributions and self-sacrifice set the stage for what would later become one of the most sophisticated intelligence networks in the world--the Mossad.
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While the journalistic interview style may be appealing to some, I was expecting more of a story. Content is strong, but the style of writing didn't hold my interest and the book took a long time to read. It was a 5 pages and stop type of book whereas I can normally read all night.
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Friedman's meticulous research and passion for the subject are obvious throughout this book. As he tells the story of Israel's first spies, sent out before Israel was even officially a country, the reader learns about one of the fascinating episodes in Jewish history. 

Despite having never heard this story before and being a fan of historical nonfiction, this book just didn't grab me. I found myself interested enough each time I picked it up, but not interested enough to pick it up that often. I began it on December 8th and finished it on February 21st, during which time I finished 47 other books - this speaks volumes!  The publisher's blurb makes it sound like this novel is full of intrigue and suspense, a lot like a Tom Clancy or Dale Brown novel. Sadly, though the intrigue, betrayal, and danger are all there - there just wasn't any suspense. I felt no emotion while reading this book. Sure, the facts were interesting enough and I continued reading, but the only compulsion I ever felt to pick the book back up was guilt because I accepted the book in exchange for providing a review. Honestly, had I not felt obligated to complete a review, I may not have finished the book. But, I contrast that with the fact that each time I did pick it up, I read without boredom.

So, I'm giving this one 3 stars: 2 for the actual book itself and a bonus 1 for the obvious research that went into making sure it was an accurate portrayal of a story that really needs to be told.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced copy of this ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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Spies of No Country makes good on the title, while diving into the political and ideological issues at the heart of the creation of the State of Israel. The style of Friedman’s work displays his training as a journalist, with narrative prose augmented by personal interviews. The result is a compelling assortment of portraits and anecdotes. 

The premise of Spies of No Country is a description of what it meant to be a spy for the Land of Israel while Palestine was still a British protectorate. Within the Palmach, a branch of the fighting forces for the hoped for state, was a group called the Arab Section. Comprised of individuals who were born in the Arabic-speaking world, the purpose of the group was to become “One who becomes like an Arab,” and pass as Islamic citizens. Essentially, these individuals were to assume deep cover and report on sentiment about the war over Palestine/the Land of Israel, and conduct operations as necessary. While extensive training was provided about the appropriate mannerisms and customs that relate to life as a Muslim in the Arabic-speaking world, these young men and women were not the spies of cinematic fame. They weren’t prepared for commitments of living a lie in hostile countries for years, and many of the safeguards the layperson may take for granted, such as not knowing the true identities of your fellow spies, were not in place. 

The book focuses on a cell within Beirut,and although a demolitions expert is among those profiled, this isn’t a story of high-octane adventure. As Friedman points out in a number of cases, this isn’t the story of a movie - this is the real world, and in the real world, intelligence work comes with periods where nothing exciting happens, aside from the pressure of living a lie every minute of every day. What I found more interesting and memorable than the exploits of the agents were the discussions around the internal politics of the nascent state, preconceptions about how the rest of the area would react to the creation of a Jewish state, and some of the roots of the conflict that still rages. 

Final verdict: Not a book for adventure junkies, but a winner for those interested in the people around historical events. 

I was provided with a review copy by the publisher via NetGalley.
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I found this to be a very interesting read and am fascinated by the topic. It is a very complex topic and I don't think it is a very easy one to approach. I did find the chapters to be a bit choppy as they seemed to bounce around a lot. They would start off being about what the title of the chapter was but completely went in multiple directions throughout. Other than that I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot I didn't know before picking it up.
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The Arab Section was comprised on Arab Jews, who could blend into the Arab world during Israel's War of Independence.  This book focuses on four spies who spent over two years deep undercover.  This was a quick read and an interesting story.  Overall, well worth picking up.
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This is the story of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence told from the perspective of four spies from Israel’s “Arab Section” — a precursor of what would eventually become Mossad.  Although the book includes a lot of background about the Middle East and the War itself, it is primarily a personal account of the experiences — both internal and external — of the spies.

The spies were Jewish men of Arab descent who wanted to be pioneers in the new, experimental (Zionist, socialist, and paradisical) country. Instead they were asked to “live like an Arab” — far from family and friends and amidst people with completely antithetical views (such as “Death to all Jews”).  They were given false Arab / Muslim identities and sent out to gather intelligence and sometimes engage in sabotage.  When they were finally able to come back to Israel two years later, it was to a completely different place — the reality of the country was a stark contrast to the ideal which they had held.  Drawn from interviews, personal writings, and historical reports, the book did a good job of detailing the time and place as well as the attitudes and activities of the spies and those upon whom they spied.

The writing is uneven with an irregular structure resulting from the mashing together of personal accounts, historical documentation, and the author’s occasionally inserted opinions.  A little more synthesis and coherence would have been very welcome. However, I did learn a great deal and appreciated the way the many details brought the time and place to life for me.

While I’ve known the rough history of Israel for a long time, I had either forgotten or never had known many of the specifics that I picked up from the book.  At the time Israel declared independence in May 1948, 90% of its Jews were European — and looked down on the “black” Jews of Middle Eastern descent.  The creation of Israel was a solution to a European, not Middle Eastern, problem.  The declaration of Independence caused a massive influx of Jews from the surrounding Middle Eastern countries — not because they were enamored with the idea of a Jewish state but because they were fleeing a sudden and drastic increase in persecution in their home countries.  As an example, according to the book Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish prior to 1948 (pretty much 0% now).  So the solution to a European problem resulted in a much more widespread and amplified problem for the same target population in the broader Middle East.

Middle Eastern history is long and complicated and this book did not dissuade me from my largely pro-Israel stance.  However, it certainly gave me a deeper comprehension of the experiences of the every-day people of the time on both sides of the fluid borders.
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I did not finish this book, even though I wanted to learn what it had to say.  I found its approach to be choppy and confusing, perhaps because the topic is so very complex and fraught..  A more linear approach to events and the people in them would have been better for my learning style.
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The story told by Matti Friedman of the young Jewish State is one that is not often told.  I was riveted by the untold tales of the young Jews of Arabic origin and their relationship to the emerging country of Israel.  Friedman ties together the lives of these young men as they went deeply undercover utilizing their unique cultural and language skills, inherent to people who were born and raised in Syria and other Arabic countries. 

Most importantly for the reader, Friedman shows us how their contributions and those of similar Mediterranean upbringing, were quickly cast aside by the prevailing stories of a young country whose narrative was one of European refugees, the holocaust, Hebrew instead of Arabic, and a cultural, not religious, form of Judaism.

Truly, this is a history which needs exploring.  Friedman's exploration does have some troublesome issues.  He tends to jump backwards and forwards in time with little warning or segue.  Also, I found that his sometimes conversation style of writing lessened the impact of his overall storytelling.
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I just couldn't get into this book. I think it is the style that the story is presented in. Only a chapter in I was already confused between the  people in the story (there were a lot of name changes & explaining that so in so is also named something else- it was too complex ). Future events were alluded to in passing & I would rather have let those people's stories play out rather than get hints that they would be dead by the end of the story. I understand that this is based on real people and events & that particularly interested me, but the story of these people did not draw me in. If it had been written as a first person narrative I think I would have enjoyed the story and invested in the characters. I gave up early on.
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Fascinating, well-researched, and perfectly paced. A heavily detailed account that reads like a novel. I was engrossed from the start. Even though we know the outcomes of some of these moments, I couldn't wait to see what happened.
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