Mr. Friedman is the author of “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”
JERUSALEM — Late on the night of Nov. 11, Hamas soldiers in southern Gaza stopped a van near the town of Khan Yunis. Inside were a group of Arabic-speaking men and women who said they were aid workers. The soldiers were suspicious. When the passengers understood that they couldn’t talk their way out, they dropped the pretense and drew guns. In the ensuing firefight, seven Hamas men and one of the passengers died before the intruders were extracted by an Israeli rescue force.
The van’s passengers were undercover agents, but in Hebrew their profession has a unique name: They were mista’arvim, which translates as “ones who become like Arabs.” The work of the mista’arvim, who serve in Israel’s Army and police and are meant to move around Palestinian areas undetected, has gained some international renown recently thanks to the success of the TV series “Fauda,” a fictionalized version of their exploits.
But the odd term has roots older than Israel — and deeper than the world of spies. Its origins have much to tell us, not just about the history of covert operations here, but also about the complicated identity of this country.
Israel tends to tell a European story about itself — Theodor Herzl, socialism, the Holocaust — and many Israelis and many of our enemies like to imagine that this country doesn’t quite belong where it exists. But even if we set aside the one-fifth of Israel’s citizens who are Arab Muslims, half of the Jewish population here has roots in the Islamic world. They’re the children and grandchildren of people like Jamil Cohen.
Who is Jamil Cohen? He isn’t famous, and his name was new to me when I began researching a book about Israel’s first spies. But his story is a window onto some crucial and forgotten Israeli history.
Cohen was born in 1922 in Damascus, Syria, and grew up in the alleys of that city’s ancient Jewish Quarter. The existence of such a quarter seems unimaginable today, with the Arab world’s old ethnic mosaic largely destroyed by state persecution, religious violence and civil war. But when Cohen was growing up, there were about one million Jews native to Islamic countries, most of them Arabic speakers. Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, was one-third Jewish in those days.
At 21, facing an uncertain future amid the Muslim majority, Cohen decided to run away to join the Zionist pioneers forging a new Jewish future in the country next door: British Mandate for Palestine. He crossed the border on foot and joined a group of idealistic young people working the land at a kibbutz. It was the beginning of 1944, with World War II still raging and the creation of the state of Israel still four years away.
In oral testimony recorded in the 1990s, Cohen remembered what the experience was like. He was exhilarated by the comradeship and ideology of pioneer life. On the other hand, he was different from the others and found the difference hard to escape. Although Palestine had an old community of Jews who spoke Arabic, the native tongue of most Jews in the country at the time was Yiddish: They had come to the Middle East fleeing abject poverty and oppression in Poland and Russia.
To the kibbutz pioneers, Jamil Cohen was mystifying. He seemed Arab — in his appearance, in his Hebrew accent, in the music he loved, like that of the Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum. He stopped using the Arabic name of his childhood, Jamil, and instead used his Hebrew name, Gamliel, but that didn’t resolve the problem. Cohen made friends but didn’t talk about his old life in Damascus; they weren’t interested. “Because I was the one who wanted to join them, and not the other way around,” he remembered much later on, “I was the one who was worn down, who had to round his edges to fit the machine that spins around, sparing no one.” The ability to “round your edges” is useful for a spy, as he’d soon find out.
The course of his life was changed the following year when someone came looking for him. Not for Gamliel, but for his earlier incarnation — Jamil. It turned out that the Arab identity he was trying to escape was precisely what the Zionist movement needed.A Backgammon game at the camp in the Arab Section.CreditPalmach Museum, Tel Aviv
Understanding that the Jews in Palestine would shortly face a war for survival against the combined might of the Arab world, a few officers in the Jewish military underground were running an ad hoc intelligence unit called the “Arab Section.” Its members were tasked with collecting information in Arab areas: How big was the local militia? What were the imams saying in the mosques? They needed people who could pass.
The people who could do this did not want to be called “spies” or “agents,” names which were seen as dishonorable. Another term was needed to describe their service, and one was found in the long history of the Jews of the Arab world. In Aleppo, Syria, for example, there had always been two Jewish communities: One was the Sephardim, who had been expelled from Spain after 1492, and the second consisted of people who had been in the metropolis since before Christianity or Islam, and who had adopted Arabic after the arrival of Arab conquerors in the seventh century A.D. Those Jews called themselves, in Arabic, musta’arabin — “ones who become like Arabs.” The word in Hebrew is nearly identical.
The mastermind of the mista’arvimendeavor in the embryonic Israeli intelligence services was an educated Jew from Baghdad who went by the Arabic name Saman. (His Hebrew name was Shimon Somech, but no one used it.) The ideal recruit to the Arab Section, he once explained, “isn’t just a young man with dark skin and a mustache who knows how to speak Arabic.” A successful candidate, he wrote, “must be a talented actor playing the part twenty-four hours a day, a role that comes at a cost of constant mental tension, and which is nerve-racking to the point of insanity.”
With that in mind, Saman set off at the end of the war to recruit young arrivals from the Arab world. One of the recruits was Cohen, who would operate as a Palestinian Muslim with the name Yussef el-Hamed.
The scope of their adventures has preoccupied me for much of the last seven years: their dramatic, overlooked role in the 1948 war; their creation of Israel’s first foreign intelligence station in Beirut; how some evaded capture and lived, and how others were exposed and killed; how those Jewish refugees from Arab countries experienced Israel’s birth while pretending to be Arab refugees from a Jewish country; how they witnessed the violent collapse of their world, the Jewish world in Arab lands; and then the flood of those newcomers into the new state, which wasn’t expecting them, and which was transformed by them into a place different than its founders had planned.
The members of the Arab Section were one part of what later became the Mossad. When Cohen died in 2002, having spent much of his life under an assumed identity, he was described by a military historian as one of Israel’s most successful agents: “We never heard of him because he was never caught.” Saman, the mastermind, eventually ran Eli Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy, who penetrated the Syrian regime as the businessman Kamal Amin Thabet before he was exposed and hanged in 1965. But the point I’d like to make here is not about what they did, but instead about who they were and what it says about the country they helped create.
Were they the “ones who become like Arabs”? Or was that identity real?
This is an important question beyond the particular case of these spies. The divide between Jews from Christian countries (known as Ashkenazim) and from Muslim countries (generally called Mizrahim) has always been the key fault line in Israeli society, with the former clearly on top. But in recent years it has become more acceptable to admit or even celebrate the Middle Eastern component of Israel’s Jewish identity. The Hebrew pop style known as Mizrahi, long scorned, now rules the airwaves. The dominance of the political right in recent years comes far less from the settler movement, as foreign observers tend to think, than from the collective memory of Israelis who remember how vulnerable they were as a minority among Muslims and grasp what this part of the world does to the weak. In the country’s official view of itself, it might still seem as if the Jews of the Islamic world, by coming to Israel after the founding of the state, joined the story of the Jews of Europe. But in 2019 it’s quite clear that what happened was closer to the opposite.Jamil Cohen in Beirut in the spring of 1950.CreditPalmach Museum, Tel Aviv
As the young Jamil Cohen found when he was recruited in the 1940s, the world of military intelligence is, ironically, one corner of Israeli society where Arab identity has always been respected. The Israeli scholar Yehouda Shenhav opens his 2006 book “The Arab Jews” with an anecdote about his father, who came to Israel from Iraq and found his way into the secret services. Looking at a photograph of his young father on a beach with friends from those early days, the author is forced to consider his father’s tenuous position in Israeli society and his utility as a spy: His appearance, Mr. Shenhav wrote, “confronted me with my complex location within what is often represented as an ancient, insurmountable conflict between Arabs (who are not Jews) and Jews (who are not Arabs).”
To an Israeli viewer, that ethnic blurriness runs clearly beneath the surface of “Fauda,” the popular Netflix thriller. In the second season it’s embodied in the character of Amos Kabilio, who confuses us when he first appears on screen — he’s speaking Arabic and it’s not clear which side he’s from, until we realize that he’s the father of Doron, the Israeli agent who’s the main character. Amos is a Jew from Iraq, and when he speaks to his son, the Israeli spy, it’s partly in his mother tongue, Arabic. We’re meant to grasp that when Doron “becomes like an Arab” as part of his mission, it’s not entirely artificial.
“Espionage,” John le Carré once observed, “is the secret theater of our society.” Countries also have cover stories and hidden selves. The identity of Israel’s spies teaches us who Israel has to spy on, of course. But it also has much to say about what Israel is — and how that country differs from the country we know from stories.
Matti Friedman (@MattiFriedman), a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel,” from which this essay is adapted.
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Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.A version of this article appears in print on March 2, 2019, on Page SR6 of the New York edition with the headline: Israel’s Secret Founding Fathers. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe