A Jewish Spy Ring in Palestine
by Nurith Cohen
We are talking about the beginning of the twentieth century when the Ottomans were ruling the Middle East.
A group of activists established an espionage network called NILI an acronym in Hebrew for "Nezach Israel Lo Yeshaker,"
"The Glory (literally Eternity) of Israel does not deceive or lie" This verse is taken from the Book of 1 Samuel chapter 15 verse 29.
NILI developed into the largest pro-British espionage network in the Middle East.
The outbreak of World War 1, Turkey's joining the Central Powers, Germany and Austria in the autumn of 1914 and the declaration of war
on the Allied Powers brought the Aaronsohn family and some of their friends to embark upon a route of action designed to benefit
from the war by aiding the British to oust the Turks from Palestine.
The main player in the organization was Sarah Aaronsohn.
She was born in 1890 in the agricultural colony (moshavah) of Zichron Ya'akov on Mount Carmel, the fifth of six children and older
daughter of Efraim Fischel and Malka who emigrated to Palestine from Romania in 1882 known as the first Aliya.
The family became one of Zichron Ya'akov most prominent families, not least because of the career and reputation of Aaron,
Sara's eldest brother and mentor, who was a world famous botanist.
The family were Hebrew speaking establishing youth organizations aimed at the revival of Hebrew and of a national culture,
as well as clandestine semi-military organizations whose aim was the defense of Jewish property.
The social - familial network which sustained Sarah throughout her youth and adulthood included Aaron and the younger Aaronsohn siblings,
the charismatic Avshalom Feinberg with whom Sarah most probably had a love relationship and who
later co-founded NILI, his younger sister Zila and the Belkind brothers Eitan and Na'aman of Rishon le Zion (which is another of the first colonies).
Sarah and the other members of the group used a familial vocabulary to describe these relations, referring to themselves as siblings and to the
nation as a family of brothers and sisters, ignoring their elders and parents. Elite women of the native generation forged their own nationalist
language, set of mannerisms, dress and forms of social conduct which created a place for them within the Zionist project, a place which was not
necessarily maternal and which was non-domestic.
Sarah never completed her formal education. However, encouraged by her brother Aaron, she studied languages and was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish and French, had a reasonable command of Arabic and taught herself English. She was also apprenticed in agronomy and botany, often accompanying Aaron on his travels through Palestine,
In the spring of 1914 probably following the rift between herself and Avshalom and his engagement to her younger and less dynamic sister
Rivkah, Sarah married the affluent and older Bulgarian merchant, Chaim Abraham and followed him to Istanbul.
The marriage soon foundered because of a lack of shared interest, big age gap and due to the impact of world and regional events on the
couple's private life.
During her extensive travels, including Turkey, she witnessed the Armenian genocide by Ottoman forces. This prompted her to help the British eject the Ottomans from Palestine by joining Nili spy ring, where she oversaw operations and communications with British forces.
Upon her return from Istanbul to Zichron Ya'akov in November 1915 Sarah joined the underground movement. From at least the end of 1916
until her capture and death in October 1917 she coordinated and conducted its activities in Palestine.
She also supervised the transmission by NILI of Jewish American money converted to gold to aid the Jewish population, which was suffering
destitution and hunger. In addition she liaised with the Turkish authorities who were unaware of the underground until late 1917.
Sarah alone of NILI's top hierarchy stayed on in Palestine. Aaron was traveling between Europe and Cairo and Avshalom Feinberg disappeared in 1916 in an aborted expedition to Egypt. In another source Avshalom on attempting to reach Egypt on foot was killed and another member of the group Yosef Lishansky was wounded but managed to reach British lines.
From February to September 1917 a steam yacht regularly sailed to the coast near Atlit near Haifa. Yosef Lishansky swam ashore to collect
information and to pass money sent by American Jews to aid the settlements in Palestine. However, the presence of German submarines made the trips too risky and the group switched to homing pigeons.
In the fall of 1917 one of these pigeons was caught by the Turks, who were able to decipher the NILI's code within one week. As a result the Turks were able to unravel the spy network. Na'aman Belkind one of the two brothers was captured by the Turks and reportedly revealed information about the group.
Sarah refused the advice of British intelligence to leave Palestine by sea to save herself, she remained in Zichron Ya'akov after Turkish intelligence uncovered Nili's activities.
In October 1917, the Turks surrounded Zichron Ya'akov and arrested several people, including Sarah. Yosef Lishansky and Na'aman Belkind were hanged.
During rigorous interrogation and torture Sarah didn't disclose any information. Having learnt that she would be transferred to Damascus prison and fearingshe would break down, Sarah committed suicide, using a pistol hidden in the bathroom of her parents home.
Her correspondence revealed her independent thought and refusal to adopt prescribed roles for women.
She cross-dressed, occasionally referred herself in the male gender.
She is buried in Zichron Ya'akov.
The Aaronsohn home in Zichron Ya'akov, Beit Aaonsohn, has been preserved as a museum and memorial to NILI. In the west of Zichrom Ya'akov is a moshav called Givat Nili. The settlement Nili in the western Binyamin region is also named for NILI. Many streets throughout Israel bear the nameof the movement.
After Aaronsohn's death, the director of British Military Intelligence, confirmed that Allenby's victory would not have been possible without
the information supplied by the Aaronsohn group.
Some Information was taken from