TEL AVIV — In 1951, my great-grandfather was executed in the city of Baghdad, Iraq. The government accused him of being an Israeli spy.
My grandmother always told us things were never the same after the Farhud, a two-day pogrom filled with vandalism and violence against the Jewish population of Baghdad that took place during Shavuot in 1941. Every Iraqi Jew was viewed as an Israeli agent.
While America had closed its gates to the Jews of the Middle East, my family heard word of a safe haven for the Jewish people: Israel. Soon after, Israeli spies and Israeli security forces came to rescue them on planes, around the same time that my father’s parents arrived in Israel from Tunisia, also forced out of their country. Tunisia was not as violent toward its Jews as Iraq was, but the oppression and institutionalized discrimination against the Jews was unbearable. So both sides of my family took a chance on the new state that promised to be a safe refuge for all Jews.
The majority of Israeli Jews, like my family, came from Arab and Muslim countries, an inconvenient fact for some critics of the State of Israel today. Far from being a white colonialist entity, the truth is that Jews in Israel have suffered from oppressive and racist governments just as much as other brown peoples throughout the world.
However, not only were they kicked out of their home countries — where my family truly felt they belonged but were never Arab enough for the Arabs — Mizrahi Jews also often have felt like second-class citizens in Israel. Many Mizrahi Jews weren’t seen as being Israeli enough for the Ashkenazi founders.
Indeed, most of the versions of the story of Israel’s founding focus on Ashkenazi figures like David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, all with roots in Eastern and Western Europe. This also is the dominant narrative in modern-day Israel — and that’s why Matti Friedman’s new book is long overdue.
“Spies of No Country,” the third book by the Israeli journalist, tells the gripping and previously untold stories of four Mizrahi Jews who were part of a spy unit called the Arab Section. The unit, comprised entirely of Jews from Arab lands, was part of both the underground Palmach before the modern State of Israel was founded and the post-independence Israel Defense Forces.
Instead of paying Arab collaborators for expensive and unreliable information, the Arab Section trained Jews who had grown up in the Arab world to pass as non-Jewish Arabs. Because money was short and resources were limited, these spies often were forced to get creative and scrappy, simply out of necessity.
These were not normal spies, in the sense that a spy collects information and passes it on to a foreign country. These spies were citizens of Arab countries who were spying for a country that was not even a country yet.
In other words, these spies were sacrificing everything for an idea of a country that European Jews were running.
What was the driving force behind their commitment to an unborn country, a country whose self-proclaimed parents often did not accept their new Mizrahi children?
Friedman’s approach to this often untold history of Israel is a refreshing one.
Early reviews of the book have addressed the thrilling stories of espionage and double identity. But there is more to these raw, painful and inspiring stories: Friedman’s book exposes the complex reality of these loyal Israelis who were challenged, exoticized, and vilified again and again by Ashkenazi Jews.
Mizrahi Jews face erasure from both Arabs and Ashkenazi Jews — and they still do to this day. Arab and Islamic countries in the Middle East actively erase the history of their Jewish communities. Egypt was home to 75,000 Jews before 1972; only a few dozen remain today. Iraq’s once 150,000-strong Jewish population has met the same fate, and none of the quarter-million Jews who once lived in Syria and Libya remain there.
In Israel, Mizrahi Jews still are an underrepresented minority. They comprise less than 9 percent of Israel’s academic faculty members. There never has been a Mizrahi Israeli theater director, a Mizrahi head of public broadcasting, a Mizrahi state attorney — and there never has been a Mizrahi prime minister. We still face discrimination, whether our society wants to admit it or not.
Today, many Mizrahi Israelis speak, dress, and act indistinguishably from their Ashkenazi Israeli brethren. Marriages between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim have erased some of the most glaring social distinctions.
But the Mizrahi Jews who helped build Israel did not have the choice to assimilate. Not only were these Jews native speakers of Arabic, the language of Israel’s enemies, but their culture, attire, and identity were similar to those of the Arabs who ere attempting to destroy the newly established Jewish state. Nobody wanted “Arab” culture.
One of the book’s heroes, Gamliel Cohen, described how hard it was to find a kibbutz that would accept him as a member because of his Mizrahi origins. Once he finally found one, in 1940, he was frustrated because the “keepers of Israeli culture” refused to play Arabic music.
I imagine that Gamliel craved the same music that I grew up with and still enjoy today. I still remember how much I loved it when my grandmother played Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s music to me — and I still remember the pain I felt when my Ashkenazi teacher in elementary school heard about my favorite Arab artist and laughed along with my whole class.
The Mizrahi culture is a rich one, dating back thousands of years. Yet instead of celebrating it, we are told that we ought to be ashamed of it. That is what we have been told by many of these keepers of Israeli culture, as they celebrate Western and European culture, since the very beginning.
As a proud Mizrahi Jew, it was moving to read the stories of these heroes of the State of Israel, and I believe this book should be added to the reading list of every Israeli high school. Maybe then the next generation of Mizrahi Israeli children won’t have to experience the same pain that I’ve felt.
Whether you are interested in the history of the land of Israel or just enjoy a good spy story, Friedman provides unparalleled insight into the complex and deep history of Israeli spycraft.
The global Jewish community is diverse and multicultural, but the Jewish homeland always has been in the East. It is in the East that the Jewish people began, and where today in Israel our peoplehood is maintained and continues to thrive.
The rich history of Eastern Jews, including the critical role they played in establishing the State of Israel, should not be minimized or erased by the superficial biases of Western scholars. Thankfully, Friedman’s groundbreaking book provides a vital example of how to avoid just that.
JTA Wire Service