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Spies Of No Country - Review


Spies of no Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel
By Matti Friedman
Hardcover. 219 pages.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019
Available from Steimatsky (NIS125.10), Amazon ($26.95), Kindle ($10.99)
Reviewed by Pnina Moed Kass

"But the commanders of the Palmach, now operating illegally outside British control, were wise enough to know the value of the Ones Who Become Like Arabs . . . using their complicated Jewish selves as a weapon to create a place where their selves could be less complicated – a country whose children wouldn't be like Poles, or Russians, or Arabs, or like anyone but themselves. And that was how two young strangers appeared on a deserted street near the docks in Arab Haifa at the beginning of May 1948 . . . their destination was Beirut, but they'd have to figure out how to get there. They had no radio and no other way to communicate . . . It would be a very long time before they'd revert to themselves."

No one reading this review is going to have to get to the final sentences to know this reviewer's opinion – Friedman's book is a masterful blend of history and suspense. It is a capsule of twenty months and four men all in their twenties, a memoir of spies and saboteurs, whose hidden heroism is now revealed. The author guides the reader through every step and misstep of the training of Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk, and Yakuba against the intense background of Israel becoming a nation. Only one of the four is still alive and the author's interview with Isaac Shoshan makes for compelling reading. What will surely fascinate a reader is the human story, the skin and bones and heart of these unknown spies.

"The Jewish State . . . was just clicks through a radio. Maybe it didn't exist. And if it did, maybe it wouldn't exist for long. And if it survived, maybe he wouldn't survive to see it. And then there it was, people walking on the street, their babies crying, their poor laundry drooping and electric lights shining, Isaac's own people buying, selling, living under the guns of the Jordanian sentries along the wall, still unreachable across a hostile border but right here, right in front of him, the reason for his missing friends, for the dread in the pit of his stomach – the State of Israel."

The pitfalls of recounting history are many—from inaccuracy to melodrama. Matti Friedman brilliantly leaps over the hazards and produces a book precisely detailing events without forgetting the heartbeat of history.

A must read. 

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