Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel
Where: Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University
511 Fayerweather Hall, 1180 Amsterdam Ave.
212-854-2581 Price: Free
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The four spies at the center of this story were part of a ragtag unit known as the Arab Section, conceived during World War II by British spies and Jewish militia leaders in Palestine. Intended to gather intelligence and carry out sabotage and assassinations, the unit consisted of Jews who were native to the Arab world and could thus easily assume Arab identities. In 1948, with Israel’s existence in the balance during the War of Independence, our spies went undercover in Beirut, where they spent the next two years operating out of a kiosk, collecting intelligence, and sending messages back to Israel via a radio whose antenna was disguised as a clothesline. While performing their dangerous work these men were often unsure to whom they were reporting, and sometimes even who they’d become. Of the dozen spies in the Arab Section at the war’s outbreak, five were caught and executed. But in the end the Arab Section would emerge, improbably, as the nucleus of the Mossad, Israel’s vaunted intelligence agency.
Spies of No Country is about the slippery identities of these young spies, but it’s also about Israel’s own complicated and fascinating identity. Israel sees itself and presents itself as a Western nation, when in fact more than half the country has Middle Eastern roots and traditions, like the spies of this story. And, according to Friedman, that goes a long way toward explaining the life and politics of the country, and why it often baffles the West. For anyone interested in real-life spies and the paradoxes of the Middle East, Spies of No Country is an intimate story with global significance.
Supported by the generosity of the Kaye Family.
Matti Friedman, a journalist and contributor to the New York Times Op-Ed Section, is the author of two previous works of nonfiction.
His 2016 book Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War was chosen as a New York Times’ Notable Book and as one of Amazon’s 10 best books of the year. Pumpkinflowers was selected as one of the year’s best by Booklist, Mother Jones, Foreign Affairs, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. It won the 2017 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish literature and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for memoir, and was shortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize, the Writer’s Trust Prize, and the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for military writing (Israel). Editions were published in the US, Britain, Canada, Israel, and China.
Matti’s first book, The Aleppo Codex, an investigation into the strange fate of an ancient Bible manuscript, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize, the ALA’s Sophie Brody Medal, and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for history. It was translated into seven languages.
Spies of No Country, the story of Israel’s first intelligence agents in 1948, has received the 2018 Natan Book Award.
A former Associated Press correspondent, Matti’s work as a reporter has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, the Caucasus, and Washington, DC, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Tablet Magazine, and elsewhere. Two essays he wrote about media coverage of Israel after the 2014 Gaza war, for Tablet and The Atlantic, triggered intense discussion and have been shared on Facebook more than 130,000 times.
He was born in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem with his family.