In Spies of No Country, Matti Friedman turns his laser-like investigative focus to the “Arab Section”, a tiny group of Jews from Arab countries who were recruited to secure intelligence for the pre-Israel military. As he did in his debut Pumpkinflowers, Friedman offers a sliver of history, a small narrative easily overlooked in the saga of a much large conflict. In Pumpkinflowers it was a hilltop. In Spies of No Country, it’s a spy unit.
Friedmans’s deep dive into the formation and activities of the “Arab Section” brings with it close look at life in final days of British Mandate Palestine. His attention to the experience of mizrachi Jews in both Israel and their countries of origin provides a breathtakingly fresh approach to the often European-centric view of the establishment of the State of Israel. Friedman is respectfully direct in addressing the racial, social, political and economic inequalities that existed prior to Israeli Statehood. He effectively describes the tensions between both the Jews and their Arab neighbors, and Jews from different national backgrounds. In this way, Friedman’s work challenges readers with fundamental questions about the definition and formation of Israeli identity.
Friedman’s writing maintains a scholarly distance while staying sensitive to the humanity of his subject. In Spies of No Country, Friedman includes photos and interview transcripts, enlivening the story and providing additional background into his research process. They allow him to balance his roles as reporter, narrator, and interpreter, giving full color to the Arab section, the men who were a part of it, and the places where it operated.
Spies of No Country will appeal to all those who seek a greater understanding and knowledge of the State of Israel. The desire to recognize and learn more about those who lived through the time that it was established and fought for its survival is well-served by Friedman’s work. A basic background on the British Mandate in Palestine, the War of Independence, and the geography of Israel and her neighbors is necessary to truly appreciate the book. Spies of No Country would make an excellent selection in education settings from high school and above.