Long before the Mossad became known as one of the world’s greatest intelligence agencies; before the capture of Eichmann and the raid of Iran’s nuclear archive; before Eli Cohen and Rafi Eitan; before Fauda captured audiences around the world, Israel’s first spies were dispatched to Beirut without so much as a radio to contact home. In the spring of 1948, before the State of Israel had even been declared, a handful of young Mizrahi Jews were recruited to serve in the Palmach’s Arab Section and charged with going undercover among the Arab population of Palestine and neighboring countries. Sent back into the Arab lands they had left behind, these brave Jews risked their lives to become spies for a country that was yet to be born.
In Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, journalist and author Matti Friedman tells the story of these mista’aravim, Jews who went uncover as Arabs. Focusing on the lives of four of these men, Friedman transports us back to a world without a State of Israel or an IDF, where the fate of Palestine’s Jews remained uncertain and the project of Jewish statehood hung in the balance. This was the world of Israel’s first spies, the unsung heroes of the nation’s founding.
In this podcast, Matti Friedman joins Jonathan Silver to talk about his new book. They discuss the challenges and risks the spies faced while undercover, the complex identities of these Mizrahi Jews who had to pose as Arabs, and the importance of telling the stories of these Jewish heroes from Middle Eastern lands.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble as well as “Great Feeling” by Alex Kizenkov.
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