Fascinating interview by Calev Ben-Dror in Fathom with Matti Friedman, author of a new book on Israel’s ‘Mistarav’ spies. They are emblematic of Israel’s unacknowledged character as a Middle Eastern state whose dominant narrative is that of the Jews expelled from Muslim countries. (With thanks: Lily)
Matti Friedman:westerners struggle to understand Israel
Calev Ben-Dor (CB-D): Your new book Spies of No Country tells the story of four young Jewish men from the Arab world who form the beginnings of Israel’s spy network. What drove you to focus on this?
Matti Friedman (MF): The book follows four of Israel’s first spies through the 1948 War of Independence. The main characters are young men on the margins of the Zionist project who are recruited by a small, ad-hoc intelligence outfit within the Palmach called the Arab Section, which encourages Arabic-speaking Jews to cross enemy lines and gather intelligence in the Arab world. They actually don’t call themselves agents, but Mistarvim, which means ‘ones who become like Arabs’ and it’s a term used today, made famous by the TV hit Fauda. At its height at the onset of the war, the section was no more than 20 agents, only half of whom survive. Their mission expanded to attempted assassinations of Arab leaders, and in Haifa they carried out a pre-emptive attack on a garage where the Arab militia was preparing a car bomb in the spring of 1948. And then when Haifa fell to the Haganah in 1948 and the Arabs begun to flee, the people in charge of the Arab Section realised that they have an opportunity to insert their agents into the Arab world by disguising them as refugees. They ran away to Lebanon and spent the first two years of Israel’s existence as Palestinian refugees, so the way they experienced the birth of the state is radically different to most of the stories people have heard about at that time.
For many years, I have had the feeling that the stories we tell about Israel no longer explain the country; nor are they useful as a map for navigating the country in 2019. Israel has always told its story in a very European way, about socialism, Theodor Herzl, the Holocaust, the Kibbutzim. That is very important if you want to understand how the country was founded, but it doesn’t explain the society that we live in. So I was looking for other stories that would explain the state of now, particularly from the Middle Eastern perspective, which reflects the fact that half of Israelis today actually come from the Islamic world rather than from Europe. In 2011 I met a 90-year-old former spy, Isaac Shoshan, who lives in a small working class suburb of Tel Aviv with whom I had a series of fascinating conversations. Isaac told me a story about the founding of the state that I hadn’t heard before. He experienced 1948 as a Palestinian refugee, which was his job as part of the very small, embryonic intelligence outfit that as part of the Jewish military underground and that story struck me as worth telling.
CB-D: I recently interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi about his book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour and one of the things he emphasised was how he wanted to tell a 21st century Zionist story. You touched on this earlier, in that the story often told is overly Euro-centric – the narrative begins with the pogroms in Russia and ends with the Holocaust. Your book, which is different in many ways, has a similar idea in that if we are to tell the story of Israel today – both to Israelis and outsiders – we need to make it more accurate to include a Mizrachi component.
MF: People still tell the story of Israel as: When the Jews of the Islamic world moved to Israel they joined the story of the Ashkenazim – so the story of Israel is the story of the Jews of Europe. But having thought about this, and having lived here for 23 years, it is clear to me that what actually happened is much closer to the opposite. The remnants of the Jews of Europe come to the Middle East and inserted themselves into the story of the Jews of the Islamic world. The State of Israel is shaped by our contact with Islam and Jews who have lived here for centuries. The dominant narrative of the European Jews is wrong.
Looking ahead, telling Israel’s story in the 21st century will have a lot less to do with the Warsaw Ghetto than it will with Kurdistan and Aleppo. And Western observers find that difficult. But if we want to understand Israel, we are going to have to make an effort to move our centre of consciousness to the Middle East because that’s where we are. (….)
CB-D: Something that struck me while reading is the how the story of the Jews from Arab lands end. You remind readers that these Jews had survived a lot of crises – they had been present before the conquest of Islam, and even before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. There is nothing inherently to suggest that they shouldn’t also have been able to survive the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet now, when we look back, we see it as inevitable that they would not be able to continue to live in the Arab world. But in 1947, for the heroes of the story, it was far from clear that we were approaching the end of Jewish presence in Arab lands after 2,000 years?
MF: In 2019 it is clear to us that if the state of Israel exists then the Jewish presence in the Arab world isn’t going to exist. This was a world of about a million people in the 1940s – almost every major Arab city has a Jewish quarter, with some estimates putting the Jewish population of Baghdad as a third. The idea that this was going to suddenly disappear at the time was crazy. And we should remind ourselves of the fact that it did vanish is crazy. If you grow up in a Western Jewish community you’re very much aware of the loss stemming from the Holocaust, but less aware and appreciative of the loss of the smaller and much older Jewish world in the Middle East, which was alive and well into the 1940s.
The remnants of that world are largely here in Israel and they and their experiences are a very important part of the life of the country. It’s one of the things that makes this county different to a Western Jewish community, and why Westerners sometimes who struggle to get their heads around the country. These spies are a way of talking about all of that. They see it collapse. When they leave Palestine in 1947, they still see that world intact, but when they return to the State of Israel in the 1950s that world is doomed. That collapse of that world has both incredible significance for the Middle East and huge impact on the development of the State of Israel.
THE ARAB MUSLIM WORLD ERRONEOUSLY VIEWS ISRAEL AS A WESTERN IMPLANT
CB-D: In addition to Israelis and Westerners having to shift their perception about Israeli society, there is a third component you mention in your book that needs to be shifted, namely those within the Arab/Muslim world who view Israel as a Western implant rather than a country populated by people indigenous to the region. You talk about a mural in Egypt showing Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 and facing blond Israeli soldiers. You point out that Israelis are generally not blonde, but it helped the Arab world to see Israel as a European story.
MF: There are two main reasons why the Arab world has tried so hard to portray Israel as a colonialist implant: the first is that it help plays on European guilt for what happened in the Second World War; the second is that it obscures their own responsibility for why over 800,000 Jews, most of whom came to Israel, lost their homes in the Islamic world. Once you understand what happened, you will have a lot of criticism of Arab states for what drove out the Jewish population, so in order to make that go away, the Israelis have to be portrayed as blonde. Rather than blonds, many of those soldiers fighting the Egyptians on the Suez Canal looked like Egyptians (in fact some were originally from Egypt). So this a purposeful attempt by the Muslim world to erase that history, which suggest their own culpability in this story.