The first time Matti Friedman walked into Isaac Shoshan’s kitchen, he didn’t know what to expect. It was 2011. Friedman, who’d spent the last five years as an Israeli correspondent for the Associated Press, was tipped off that Shoshan, a former spy, had some stories to tell. Shoshan, then in his 80s, had lived quietly in a modest concrete apartment complex in Bat Yam, Israel, for the last 50 years. When Friedman arrived, the octogenarian brewed some coffee and began to talk.
He told Friedman about his upbringing in Aleppo, as the son of a poor janitor, and how he became a Jewish spy – for a country that not only didn’t exist yet, but one that Shoshan thought was the stuff of legends. He was raised believing Palestine to be a kind of myth, something his parents talked about in dreamlike terms, rather than a country he could literally walk into.
As Shoshan detailed his escapades as a secret agent, Friedman realized he was hearing a story about the birth of Israel “that was just completely different about 1948 than any story I heard,” he told The CJN over the phone from his home in Jerusalem.
Over the years, Friedman kept returning to visit Shoshan, corroborating old stories and hearing new ones, slowly realizing that what Shoshan was telling him deserved a proper book.
That book, Spies of No Country: Behind Enemy Lines at the Birth of the Israeli Secret Service, was released on March 5. To promote the book, Friedman will be stopping at Beth Tzedec Congregation in his hometown of Toronto on March 10, for a public talk with writer David Bezmozgis.
Shoshan was part of a small group of spies called the Arab Section, a top-secret group whose goal was to infiltrate the Arab world, gather intelligence and prevent terrorist attacks. In 2019, we take their work for granted. But back in 1948, it was unprecedented.
“There was no state called Israel, nor was it clear there would be one,” Friedman writes in the book’s first chapter. The British still nominally controlled the territory, but their grasp appeared to be waning, as a civil war broke out between Arabs and Jews. “The result would be a catastrophe – that seemed clear,” Friedman continues. “But it wasn’t yet clear for whom.”
In his book, Friedman details the lives of four spies, including Shoshan. After the exodus of Palestinian Arabs to neighbouring countries in 1948, these spies infiltrated their ranks and “fled” to Beirut, where they lived until 1950, communicating with their fellow Israelis through a radio antenna disguised as a clothesline.
There, they carried out dozens of operations, including the covert explosion of Hitler’s yacht, which sat in Beirut’s harbour before being sold to King Farouk of Egypt.
Friedman, who has been a journalist and writer in Israel since moving there in 1996, was shocked that he’d never heard the story before. That’s partly because the Arab Section is barely known, even in Israel.
“Isaac offered me this creation myth of Israel that … was all about Jews from the Arab world,” he said. “It’s not the story. The story is Ben Gurion, the Palmach, the Six-Day War.… But if you look at the country in 2019, it’s a very Middle Eastern place.”
The proof, he noted, is everywhere in the country: pop music, cuisine, politics. Half of Israel comes from the Islamic world, he said, and while the country retains deep connections to Europe, it’s still situated in the Middle East.
“We need to get away from the idea that the story of Israel is a story of Europe,” he said. “If you don’t understand that, understanding Israel is impossible.”
Matti Friedman will be speaking with David Bezmozgis at Beth Tzedec in Toronto at 2:30 p.m. on March 10. Tickets are free, but registration is required. Visit beth-tzedec.org for details.