Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File

Having nearly been outed by an Arab observer who suspected he wasn't really an Arab, then recognized by a Jew who knew he was a Jew, then nabbed by Jews who thought he was an Arab, the agent finally made it back to his friends. They were camped at a kibbutz on the formerly malarial flatlands of the coastal plain, a cluster of tents and sheds around a water tower. The Section moved around, but the camps looked more or less the same.

This was where they slept on mattresses they sometimes stuffed with corn husks, and where they kept the disguises purchased in the Jaffa flea markets: keffiyeh headdresses for villagers, work shirts or cheap franji suits, the kind worn by both Arabs and Jews, if they didn't want to draw attention on either side of the line. The chances of a British raid against the Jewish underground were lower now that the pullout was close, but the weapons cache was concealed just in case.

Sam'an the teacher was there, with his English manners and his little Arabic library, and around him the lost boys he'd collected from slums, communal farms, and regular Palmach units, where they stood out among the Jews from eastern Europe because of the wrong skin shade and accent. Most of them didn't have parents in the country, and some didn't have parents at all. Their family was the Arab Section.

Isaac was there, and Yakuba, and Havakuk. With the newly returned Gamliel, these are our four. Three of them—all but Isaac— happened to share the same family name, Cohen, but it's a common one among Jews, and they came not just from different families but from different countries. I've chosen to write about them because they were the agents who took part, individually or together, in the key events of the war; because they left the richest recollections and observations; and because each is compelling, and each in a different way. Havakuk, born in Yemen, was gentle—a quiet watcher. Isaac, the janitor's son from Aleppo, had the muscles of a small boy who'd decided he wouldn't be bullied, and the determination of someone who'd come a long way uphill. Yakuba, raised on the streets around the vegetable market in Jewish Jerusalem, was volatile and unusually brave. Gamliel was cautious and the most intellectually inclined, the only one who'd finished high school.

Among the other men at camp was David, nicknamed Dahud, who already had a wife, and who would soon have a daughter but would never meet her; and Ezra, who provided comic relief and was known for asking his comrades to train him to withstand torture by beating him. One story has Ezra squeezing his own testicles and screaming, “I won't tell, I won't tell!” They used to roll with laughter but wouldn't have if they'd known his fate. There was a pair of younger trainees from Damascus, Rika the saboteur and his redheaded friend Bokai, both with roles to play later on, one heroic and one tragic.

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