Spies, Terrorist Hunters, and an Uneasy Reporter try to decode the Middle East

The female spy has long been cast in the role of trickster seductress. Think Delilah,1100 B.C.E. Think La Femme Nikita in skimpy black leather, circa 2003.

In Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War (New_ York University Press, $26.96), Tammy M. Proctor argues that the sexy, temptress spy taps into larger societal fears that accompany shifts in gender roles and the rise of female power. When the iconic figure Mata Hari was executed in 1917, it was on the basis of very circumstantial evidence. In Proctor’s view, Mata Hari’s real threat to male authorities was her independence as a divorcee and self-defined success as a dancer. Indeed, spying, like ambulance driving, nursing, or munitions factory work in wartime, offered alternatives to women who wished to escape their confining domestic roles. Proctor’s larger project is to uncover the unknown history of women in intelligence (over 6000, in her estimate) who worked for the British during World War I. Regrettably, Proctor’s book reads like a reworked dissertation. She omits Zionist Sarah Aaronsohn, a member of the NILI spy ring who spied on the Turkish rulers of Palestine. Aaronsohn was captured by the Turks and tortured for four days, eventually committing suicide to avoid confession. Zionists later cited NILI activities as part of the service to Britain that earned them the right to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Looking at a much earlier book, we meet another Jewish woman spy, Shula Cohen, the heroine of Shula: Code Name Pearl (by Aviezer Goland & Danny Pinkas, Delacorte Press,1980), for whom spying also offered an escape from a claustrophobic domestic life. Born in Jerusalem, Shula was married at 17 to a wealthy Beirut merchant and raised seven children. In 1947, on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence, she stumbled on military intelligence and sent it on to Israel. Immediately, the nascent intelligence services tapped her to smuggle Jewish refugees from Syria across the Lebanese border. In the 1950s, she organized a spy ring based in a Beirut night club, and obtained for the Mossad secret Lebanese and Syrian documents. Dubbed “The Mata Hari of the Middle East,” when she was arrested and convicted by the Lebanese government in the late 1950s, Shula spent seven years in prison, and was released in 1967, following the Six Day War as part of a prisoner’s exchange. Returning to Jerusalem, she settled into the innocuous role of a manager of an antique shop near the king David Hotel. As told by Golan and Pink as, her story is rich in texture and page-turning power—and yes, even spy romance.

In contrast, The Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America (Harper Collins,$25.95), whose author, like Shula, witnessed first-hand the effects of terrorism on her own family, reads like a scandalous spy memoir. The author is listed as Anonymous, an Iraqi-born Jew married to an Israeli and now living in the United States. A mother of four, she found her true calling when she responded to a help-wanted ad placed by a Middle East research institute. On the job, she discovered documents that made her suspect certain Muslim charities as fronts for Hamas. Soon she was attending rallies and conferences of Islamic radicals, where she wore a burqa to hide both her identity and a tape recorder. At once enacting traditional and nontraditional female roles, Anonymous gives us the striking image of a woman eight months pregnant who conceals recording equipment under her enormous belly! Anonymous later outed as Rita Katz, whose father was one of nine Jewish men hanged in Baghdad in 1980, is currently the director of SITE (The Search for International Terrorist Entities,

Jessica Stern, faculty member at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, distinguished terrorism expert, and author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Harper Collins, $27.95), is not exactly a proper spy. Yet research for her highly readable book led Stern to dangerous places and dangerous people, who typically assumed she was working for the CIA or a similar organization. For four years, often dressed in long sleeves, long skirts, and a head scarf, and armed only with a supply of Harvard pens for gifts, she interviewed extremist Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Although the information she uncovers from her travels to Pakistan, Gaza, Israel, and Texas is undoubtedly valuable. Stern’s real intelligence lies in the sleuthing she does into terrorists’ minds and motives. Stern paints a frightening picture of the Muslim world’s hatred of the West and its threat of future terrorist attacks. She does not call for military solutions—American violence inevitably assists terrorists in mobilizing recruits, she says—but for First World nations to study the psychological, spiritual, and material vulnerabilities in the Islamic world. Cultural intelligence, says Stern, can help covertly dismantle powerful terrorist networks. And it can sow dissent among a Muslim population that is vulnerable to the fervor of religious extremist leaders who promise clear solutions to poverty, alienation, and humiliation.

Like Stem, Amira Hass is aware of being deeply involved in an historical process, and this makes her work equally compelling. Hass, a Jewish Israeli journalist frequently reviled for her work, has lived and reported from the Palestinian territories since 1993, when she moved to Gaza to report for Ha’aretz. Her book, Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land, edited and translated by Rachel Leah Jones, (MIT Press, $14.95), is a compilation of gritty columns published from 1997-2002 that hold up a mirror to both Israeli and Palestinian societies. She describes roadblocks, destroyed buildings, curfews, and the misery of Palestinian life, weaving her “intelligence” from Israeli soldiers, Palestinian ex-prisoners, people in refugee camps, restaurant owners, teenagers, and bereaved families. It is painful reading for ordinary Israelis and supporters of Israel.

Hass provocatively links her work to her mother’s experience on a transport to Bergen-Belsen. Her mother recounted how the sick and doomed Jewish women on the train received only cold, dispassionate stares from the German women who saw them. This story made Hass dread being a mere silent by stander, and nurtures her intense needs to know and tell. Her telling has made many Israelis brand her a traitor, but it has also won her supporters in Israel, as well as the UNESCO Guillermo Camo World Press Freedom Prize for 2003.

Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs. In Sickness & In Health: A Love Story and The Pregnancy Project: Encounters with Reproductive Therapy. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.