The spies who helped make Israel
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 March 2019)

Before Israel existed, when it was more aspiration than reality, it had spies investigating the Arab militia and the British troops, reporting back to Palmach, the underground force that eventually developed into a part of the Israel Defense Forces.

Matti Friedman, who grew up in Toronto and worked for The Associated Press in Israel, has written Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (McClelland & Stewart). He's produced a narrative account of a conflict zone that few know existed -- what might be called "pre-Israel Israel."

This was in 1948 and 1949, towards the end of the British Mandate. Jewish spies needed to be wary of British soldiers as well as their enemies, the Arabs. The Jewish spies were chosen partly for their time lived in Arab districts, so they could comfortably speak Arabic when concealing their true identity -- and talk in the accents of the regions where they claimed to have been born. Of four Jewish spies Friedman concentrates on, two are from Syria, one from Yemen and one from Jerusalem. Their exploits are stirring and productive.

At the beginning they had little professional training. One of their superiors in Palmach had to inform them that they were to stop meeting in a group, which might result in all of them being wiped out at once. They became officially the Arab Section and privately called themselves the Ones Who Became Like Arabs.

Untrained or not, they managed to report where arms were being manufactured in Palestine, which dealer in Italy was sending 1,000 rifles to the Syrians, and even the location in Beirut of Hitler's private yacht, then awaiting transport to King Farouk of Egypt. (Alas, Farouk never got the boat -- it went to a wrecker in New Jersey and a collector who proudly acquired Hitler's on-board toilet.) The Jewish spies smuggled out a map of Beirut, identifying potential targets -- the prime minister's home, for instance, and the presidential palace.

Gamliel Cohen, alias Yussel, originally Jamil Cohen of Damascus, Syria, is the most effective spy in the book, and perhaps the best storyteller. Gamliel was cautious and the most intellectually inclined, the only one who'd finished high school. When he married, his cover was so deep that his marriage ceremony had to be conducted far away, in Europe. His daughter lived the first years of her life with an Arab name, Samira, and didn't revert to Mira until the mission was over.

If Jews could play Arabs, then Arabs could play Jews, which led to complications. Sometimes the Jews would capture Jews when believing they were Arabs, which created embarrassment.

Gamliel and the others learned the trade in the quieter years before the war. They slipped in and out of Arab towns around Palestine, practised dialect, saw what fooled people and what didn't, and collected bits and pieces for the Jewish Information Service as the Jews prepared for the fight they knew was coming.

They brought back nuggets of military value, like a description of an armed rally in the town of Nablus and a quote from an Arab militia leader who addressed the crowd: "Independence is not given but taken by force, and we must prove to the world that we can achieve our independence with our own hands!" After Israel was established, Gamliel signed on as full-time spy. He spent years in Europe as an Arab, first posing as an embassy clerk, later as a journalist. After his death in 2002, a military authority said he was one of Israel's best agents: "We never heard of him because he was never caught."

Matti Friedman, writing about the waves of Jews who moved from Arab countries, calls them "people who came here from somewhere else to become someone else." The "someone else" was a matter of legal and historical identity. They hoped, in fact, to be Israeli. Spies of No Country is one absorbing story of the way Israel was created, and the earliest days of spycraft, a trade at which Israelis are still champions.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image