On December 11, 1917, the British imperial governor, General Sir Edmund Allenby, entered Jerusalem, placing the city under military administration. It would be another 10 months before the Turks finally surrendered near Megiddo, giving up Palestine and four centuries of Ottoman rule in the region.
The turning point that ultimately sealed Allenby’s victory was his third and final battle for Gaza, in which the Australian Light Horse thundered across the desert, sweeping into Beersheba to cut off the reinforced Turkish garrison.
Outside of Israel, most historical accounts celebrate Allenby’s skills as a cavalryman in the desert. Much less is known about the group of dedicated Jewish spies who worked behind the scenes for almost two years, guiding him to victory with information about Beersheba and the Negev desert in preparation for the surprise British attack inland.
This is the main theme of “Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal, And The Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn,” a book recently published by American writer and journalist James Srodes.
“When [the Allies] seized Jerusalem, it was the lynchpin of the British attack that enabled them to capture Palestine,” Srodes explains from his home in Washington, DC. “And when the British eventually got the mandate to occupy Palestine, they recognized that they owed a huge debt to the Jewish community.”
“Edmund Allenby couldn’t have secured his victory without the Aaronsohns,” Srodes adds.
The Aaronsohns were a family of wealthy Romanian Jews who had come to Palestine in the late 19th century during the First Aliyah — a migration movement that had financial support from both evangelical Christians and well-positioned Jews in Western nations.
Ephraim and Malkah Aaronsohn had six children. All grew up in the village of Zichron Yaakov with an education that focused on languages, politics, philosophy, history and culture. This was funded by the wealthy French patron and banker, Edmond de Rothschild, who had invested $50 million to provide schools and infrastructure for the new wave of Jewish migrants settling in the region.
And so the Aaronsohn children grew up to be outspoken, intellectually curious, ambitious, and bold enough to speak their minds when necessary.
Srodes’s book documents NILI, the James Bond-like espionage network that three of the Aaronsohns formed in 1915: It was a secret, pro-British Jewish spy organization that operated under Turkish rule in Palestine during World War I and worked predominately out of the small village of Zichron Yaakov, just south of Haifa.
It was initially led by world-renowned agronomist, international celebrity, statesman, diplomat, and committed Zionist, Aaron Aaronsohn, the eldest of the Aaronsohn family.
NILI is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker,” which translates as “the Eternal One of Israel will not lie.” The phrase would become the secret organization’s password for the duration of its existence.
As Srodes’s narrative recalls, the NILI network had three main aims: to aid the British invasion of Palestine from their base in Egypt; to inform the world about Turkish oppression of local Jews; and, more crucially, to advance the hopes for the Zionist cause for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
It was Aaron Aaronsohn’s status as a world class agricultural researcher that enabled him to move freely about Europe, the US, and the Middle East, collecting funds from wealthy American Zionists or getting the necessary information to the British when it was most crucially needed.
“As an experienced geologist, biologist, and agrarian, Aaron had mapped the wells across the [Negev] desert that were secret, and very highly guarded,” Srodes explains.
Moreover, the British, says Srodes, had very little knowledge of the geography of Palestine at the time.
“The idea of crossing the desert [to attack the Turks] was unthinkable, because there wasn’t a way to cross without water,” he says.
‘Aaron had mapped the wells across the Negev desert that were secret, and very highly guarded’
“But Aaron said to the British, ‘All you need to do is go where I show you, and you get can simply march water hole to water hole.’ So that is what Allenby did. He crossed the desert and caught the Turks on the flank. And after two rather costly attempts, they eventually came across and caught the Turks and made it to Jerusalem by Christmas ,” says Srodes.
For most of 1917, Aaron remained in Cairo secretly liaising with the British. His sister Sarah, meanwhile, along with her other brother Alexander and his two close friends — Avshalom Feinberg and Joseph Lishansky — formed the core of the spy organization that kept the intelligence operation going back in Palestine.
Out on his travels across the globe, Aaron began to move in the world of international diplomacy and politics. He eventually came in contact with Chaim Weizmann, who would later go on to become the first president of the State of Israel.
Weizmann at that time was both head of the World Zionist Organization, as well as an intimate adviser to the British prime minister Lloyd George.
“Weizmann was a chemist in Britain during the war,” says Srodes. “And he had hundreds of patents, many of which were [vital formulas] that the British war industry needed. And so he gained influence within the government, particularly with Lloyd George.”
Weizman saw himself as being able to walk that line between being an influential British policy adviser and also representing a neutral World Zionist Organization, Srodes says.
Pretty quickly, however, a bitter conflict erupted between Aaronsohn and Weizmann. The former wanted to take the side of the British in the war, while the latter believed neutrality was the best option for Jews seeking a new state.
“The World Zionist Organization felt WWI was a distraction from what they wanted,” says Srodes. “So it didn’t seem reasonable for them to take a side. Now Weizmann, of course, played a double game.”
‘Now Weizmann, of course, played a double game’
“But Aaronsohn rejected that notion all together,” says Srodes. “He said to Weizmann, ‘You’ve got to take sides.The Germans are as bad as the Turks in their persecution of the Jews.’ And Weizmann said, ‘I don’t think so, besides we don’t know who is going to win yet.’”
“And so the World Zionist Organization went back and forth on this issue for years,” says Srodes. “And later on, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, there was an open clash [on this issue of neutrality] between Weizmann and Aaronsohn.”
In September 1917, meanwhile, a homing pigeon that bore a coded message from the secret spy group accidentally landed on the house of a Turkish governor in Caesarea, located midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Immediately NILI’s cover had been blown.
Turkish soldiers ransacked Zichron Yaakov, threatening to raze the entire village to the ground, arresting a number of people, including Sarah Aaronsohn.
When Sarah was eventually caught, instead of denying all knowledge of the NILI, she taunted the Turkish authorities, saying that she alone was responsible for the spying and that she would live to see them all destroyed, for both their genocide of the Armenians (which she witnessed first-hand) and for the persecution of the Jews.
Despite her bravery, Sarah did not live to live to see the defeat of the Turks. After her father was tortured before her eyes, she was interrogated and tortured, before finally meeting a tragic end to her life.
Before Sarah left Zichron Yaakov for the last time, from where she was to be brought to Damascus for further questioning, the Turkish authorities rather bizarrely allowed her one last request: to change her clothes at her home and wash the blood off herself before she was hauled away.
Srodes details Sarah’s final moments.
‘It was while she was in the bathroom that she scribbled a hasty note and threw it out the window’
“The Turks marched her back and she went into the bathroom, where there was a pistol. And she stuck the barrel in her mouth, and squeezed the trigger with her thumb. But instead of blowing out her brain, it damaged her spinal column,” he says.
“And so she was still alive for three days, but paralyzed and in terrible agony,” he adds. “And then eventually she died. And it was while she was in the bathroom that she scribbled a hasty note and threw it out the window.”
The letter — which is now held in the NILI museum in Zichron Yaakov — is clearly aimed at posterity, and asks to “describe all our suffering to those who shall come after we have passed away, and tell them about our martyrdom and let them know that Sarah has asked that each drop of blood be avenged…”
Victors may get to write the first draft of history after great events. Often, however, it tends to be a biased first draft.
Srodes argues in his latest book that Sarah Aaronsohn was scarcely in her grave before conflicting myths began to form about her legacy. For some she is viewed as the first Jewish-Zionist female martyr for the State of Israel, and annual pilgrimages to her grave began in 1935. However, since her brother Aaron died in a plane crash in 1919 and Alex in 1948, the family’s legacy was easily manipulated.
“Sarah did have many enemies,” says Srodes. “And many of these enemies ended up being the founders of modern Israel, such as David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. They did not want to share credit with her. They had no real time for her or Aaron Aaronsohn’s contributions. So it was easier for them with the Aaronsohns out of the way to write history.
“So immediately after 1948, the standard version of [Israeli] history denigrated the importance of what the Aaronsohns had contributed to the early stages of the State of Israel,” he claims.
“What people like Ben-Gurion and Weizmann said was that the Aaronsohns essentially put everything to risk, and that if the Aaronsohns hadn’t been so headstrong and set up this spy organization, they might have gotten Israel sooner without a British Mandate,” says Srodes.
“But of course that was never in the cards,” he adds.
On July 22, 1922, the League of Nations formally granted the mandate for Palestine to Britain.
If Britain’s rule of Palestine was initially seen as a glorious victory for the Allies, clearly, it was undermined from the beginning by a conflict that still haunts the State of Israel today — a false promise to grant equal rights to both Jews and Arabs.
Moreover, just weeks before Allenby had marched into Jerusalem in July 1917, the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration. The official letter confirming it was sent on November 2, 1917 by the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, president of the English Zionist Federation. It favored the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
“This really is a story of lost opportunities,” says Srodes. “The Turks were Muslims, but they were not Arabs. They looked down on the Arabs. And the Arabs resented that, and that’s one of the tragedies of this story.
“There was a brief window at the turn of the 20th century where Jews and Arabs had a common alliance of sorts that could have been built on, because they had a common enemy in the Ottoman Turks,” says Srodes. “But the fact that it didn’t turn out that way is a real tragedy.”