By Robin Jacobson.
When we tell the story of Israel, it’s often a story about European Jews. Theodor Herzl of Vienna dreamt of a Jewish state; David Ben-Gurion, born in Poland, proclaimed Israel’s statehood; and other European Jews escaped the Holocaust to build modern Israel. Yet half of today’s Israeli Jews have ancestral roots in the Arab world, from North Africa through the Middle East. To understand Israel’s complicated Jewish identity, Israeli author-journalist Matti Friedman contends, we need a fuller narrative of Israel, one that encompasses these Mizrahi (literally “eastern”) Jews. (Mizrahi Jews have a different heritage from Sephardic Jews, who descend from Spanish or Portuguese Jews.)
In Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, Friedman vividly recounts the largely unsung history of the Mizrahi Jews who comprised Israel’s first intelligence service, predating the formidable Mossad. The “Arab Section” was a secret spy unit initially under the auspices of the Jewish military underground and later, after Israeli statehood, the Israel Defense Forces. Tellingly, the unit was sometimes referred to as the “Black Section” because of its dark-complexioned agents.
Like Israeli history, Israeli literature has tended to overlook Mizrahi Jews. This makes the recent work of Ayelet Tsabari especially welcome. Tsabari’s memoir, The Art of Leaving, tracks her life as an Israeli of Yemenite heritage, while her prize-winning short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, gives voice to the perspectives of Mizrahi Jews.
Spies of No Country focuses on four Jewish spies in the Arab Section. All four were native Arabic speakers: two were from Syria, one was from Yemen, and one was born in Jerusalem. Preparing to pose as Muslim Arabs, they practiced local Arabic dialects and studied Islam, learning Muslim rituals for washing and prayer. Then they infiltrated Arab communities and collected information. Refusing to call themselves agents or spies, labels that struck them as dishonorable, Arab Section operatives chose instead the term mista’arvim, translated as “ones who become like Arabs.”
Some of the operatives’ missions involved derring-do (e.g., blowing up a fake ambulance concealing a bomb, damaging an armed yacht originally built for Hitler). Yet other assignments entailed patiently gathering information about Arab morale and military preparedness out of a small store and taxi service the men ran in Beirut. The work was dangerous – of the dozen active Arab Section operatives at the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence, half were caught and killed.
Born in 1973 into a large Israeli Yemenite family, Tsabari moved to Canada as an adult and, unusual for Israeli-born authors, writes her books in English. The Art of Leaving begins with the death of Tsabari’s father when she was age nine. After a rebellious adolescence and Israeli army service, she roamed the world for 10 years, spending time in India, New York, Mexico, and Thailand, even titling her bank account “the wandering Jew fund.” Part of the attraction of India, she says, was that the dark-skinned Indians looked like her.
“Growing up,” Tsabari writes, “I had often felt out of place in my own country.” Some of that had to do “with the exclusion of my [Mizrahi] culture from so many facets of Israeli life, with not seeing myself in literature and in the media, with being taught in school a partial history about the inception of Israel that painted us as mere extras.”
Tsabari’s stories in The Best Place on Earth portray Israeli characters of Mizrahi background. There are stories about siblings, friendship, army service, and lost love. Collectively, they challenge commonly held perceptions of Israelis, offering a broader understanding of the Israeli story and the Jewish experience.