Unknowing Arab Wives of Israeli Spies Had to Choose: Stay with the Spies?

This item, reprinted from the website of a synagogue in Ontario (Canada), may resonate with viewers of the Hebrew-language TV series from Israel, “Prisoners of War” (Hatufim) — the original basis for the Showtime hit series “Homeland.”

Slight spoiler alert: One Israeli spy has planted himself in an Arab family in an enemy country and seems, for a long time, to be an anti-Israel terrorist. What do his family and neighbors do, once they find out?

That’s TV…now the mention of a surprising long-term operation by Israeli intelligence:

Jewish Spies and Arab Wives

Jewish Spies In movies and TV, intelligence operations are often portrayed as glamorously dangerous human chess matches with a series of sexual entanglements and ingenious double crosses. The operatives are master manipulators, forming intimate relationships they must cast off at mission’s end.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover just how closely these storylines reflect reality.

A new book by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Spies Against Armaggedon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, tells the history of Israel’s intelligence establishment, whose main (known) arms are the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), the Mossad (foreign intelligence), and Aman (military intelligence).

One of the book’s most vividly described operations launched in 1952. A Shin Bet unit of Iraqi Jews infiltrated Arab villages to monitor the population as a potential “fifth column” that might join with Israel’s enemies in case of war. The spies lived in these villages and most of them married local women and had children. As time passed, the intelligence provided by the men “proved to be almost worthless,” according to Melman and Raviv, but the emotional toll suffered by agents and their families was profound.

The unit was disbanded in 1959, and the spies’ wives, who faced particular hardship, were given the choice of being relocated to an Arab country or resettling with their husbands in Jewish communities in Israel. Almost all chose to stay with their husbands. Decades later, the project’s commander is still haunted by the social and psychological trauma the operation had on the children of these marriages.

The Secrets of Arab Men

Secrets of Arab MenSayed Kashua has made a career out of being an anomaly: A Hebrew-speaking Muslim Israeli Arab. As a writer, he pens a weekly column for Ha’aretz, a major Israeli newspaper, and he writes the hilarious sitcom Arab Labor for Israeli TV.

His new novel, Second Person Singular, is about being Arab in a majority-Jewish country, and it’s also about being a man, and a husband, and a father. In the set-up, an Arab lawyer from Jerusalem–we never learn his name–finds a love letter inside a secondhand book, written in his wife’s handwriting. It’s addressed to someone named Yonatan–a Jewish name. Consumed with jealousy, the lawyer attempts to track down the letter’s original recipient, a quest which takes him across the country–ending in a poor Arab village, just like the one where he grew up.

Most of the book takes place inside the lawyer’s head, but it’s about very real conflicts–with the lawyer’s wife, who was the first woman he ever dated (and whom he still doesn’t know very well), and with Israeli Jews, whose upward mobility he identifies with, but whose social and sexual mores threaten him.

Second Person Singular is a startling novel about a culture in Israel that’s all but invisible. As the lawyer becomes consumed by tracking down Yonatan, the pressure builds to a crescendo in his head–showing us the very real insanity caused by clashes of both relationships and cultures.

January 14, 2014

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