Zikhron Ya'akov, Palestine
October 9, 1917
Zikhron Ya'akov, Palestine
Sarah Aaronsohn's story is one of personal courage and risk to further a cause. A Jewish woman who lived in Palestine thirty years before the state of Israel was founded, Aaronsohn risked her own safety to work as an intelligence agent (spy) during World War I. She helped provide vital war information to the British, in the hopes that the British would defeat the Ottoman Turks who ruled Palestine and help the Jewish people establish a homeland there. Though she died violently as a result of her efforts, her work helped save the lives of many British soldiers. She is honored as a hero in Israel and by many Jews around the world.
Child of Refugees
Sarah Aaronsohn's Jewish parents, Ephraim and Malkah, went to Palestine in 1882 as refugees from Romania. Since the first century C. E., when Jews were forced from Palestine by the Roman Empire, Jews had moved into almost every country of the world. Wherever they went, Jews were often viewed with suspicion by non-Jews. Even in places where there had been Jewish communities for centuries, Jews were often treated like hated foreigners. Most jobs were not open to Jews, and violent attacks, called pogroms, happened regularly throughout Europe. Anti-Jewish feeling was so common that it was given a special name, "anti-Semitism." Many countries, especially in eastern Europe, allowed violence against the Jews because it gave the non-Jewish population someone to blame their troubles on. If people blamed the Jews when prices were high or when crops failed, then they would not blame their own governments. Despite these difficulties, Jews carefully kept their religion and customs intact, no matter where they lived.
In the late nineteenth century, many Jews who lived in places where they were treated badly left to try to find better places to live. Many went to the United States, where equality was promised under the law. Many others immigrated to Palestine, the land of their ancestors. Ephraim and Malkah Aaronsohn and their six-year-old son Aaron were among those who immigrated to Palestine. Together with sixty-four other families from Romania, they bought 1,000 acres of land in Palestine and founded the town of Zikhron Ya'akov. Though many of them died of hardship and disease, the people who survived built a thriving community. There, in 1890, Sarah Aaronsohn was born.
A Young Woman with a Vision
Young Sarah was a strongminded and independent girl with big dreams for her country's future and her own role in it. Her childhood was not easy: Her parents had become hardened by their difficult lives, which were filled with hard work and harsh conditions, and they didn't have much time for their children. Her younger sister, Rivka, was more lighthearted than Sarah and seemed to accept the limited roles allowed to girls of her time, who were expected to become wives and mothers. Sarah wanted to be more like her brothers. Her older brother Aaron was a respected scientist, a student of agriculture who had earned a place in history by discovering an ancient wild wheat in the Galilee area of Palestine. Sarah's brother Alex led a defense patrol to guard the village against attacks from neighboring Turks and Arabs. Sarah Aaronsohn longed for her own place in history.
In the spring of 1914, Aaronsohn married a Bulgarian Jew named Chaim Abraham and moved with him to the faroff cosmopolitan city of Constantinople. Aaronsohn hated leaving her beloved homeland, and she was not happy in Constantinople. The marriage had been arranged by her father, and Sarah did not like her new husband. When World War I broke out, she longed to be home with her family, and she left Chaim and returned home to Palestine. On the long journey home, she passed through Anatolia and Syria, which at that time were part of the Ottoman Empire, as was Palestine. (The Ottoman Empire stretched across the Middle East and was controlled by the Turks, though it contained several other countries and ethnic groups.) A large population of Armenians had lived for centuries in Anatolia and Syria, as uncomfortable as most ethnic minorities under Turkish rule. When the Turks began to suspect that the Armenians were helping Russians who were invading Turkish territory, they punished the Armenians severely. Aaronsohn was horrified to witness the slaughter of thousands of Armenians at the hands of the Turks. Seeing this strongly influenced her next actions. If the Ottomans could kill more than six hundred thousand Armenians, what would prevent the same thing from happening to the Jews under Turkish rule?
Sarah and her brother Aaron, along with others like Absalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky, began to believe that the best hope for the Jewish people lay with the British. If the Jews helped the British invade and occupy Palestine, perhaps the British would reward the Jews by allowing them to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Toward this end, they formed a secret group that would spy on the Ottoman Turks and pass useful information to the British. They named the group Nili, the first letters in the Hebrew phrase "Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker" ("The strength of Israel will not lie." 1 Sam. 15:29). This verse from the Bible became the password for Nili.
The Dangerous Life of a Spy
In February of 1917, Nili made its first contact with the British, in Cairo, Egypt. Over the next few months, the spies of Nili continued to collect information and pass it to the British; they usually traveled by boat from Palestine to Egypt. They knew that the risks they took were great, and after several months, Aaron begged his sister to stop working with Nili, for her own protection. Sarah Aaronsohn refused; she felt that the work of Nili was too important to her and to the Jewish people.
In September 1917, the Turks captured a carrier pigeon with evidence of a Jewish spy ring in Palestine. When Sarah Aaronsohn learned that the Turks had discovered Nili, she helped the other members of Nili escape by remaining at home herself, to give the appearance of normality. She was at home weeks later when the Turks came and arrested her. She was tortured for three days, but she firmly refused to give her captors any information. On the fourth day, October 5, she was taken to her own house again to prepare to be transferred to the Turkish prison in Nazareth. Left alone for a few minutes and fearful that she could not withstand more torture, Sarah Aaronsohn shot herself with a gun she had kept hidden in a secret panel in her house. She died four days later.
Though most of its agents were caught and killed or imprisoned, Nili had accomplished its goal. By December 1917, the British, led by General Edmund Allenby had captured Palestine and issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to help establish a Jewish "national home" in Palestine. Unfortunately, the British also had promised the Palestinian Arabs their independence in exchange for helping the British defeat the Ottoman Turks; and all the while, the British and the French were planning to divide the region between themselves once the war was won. These contradictory promises set the stage for decades of unrest in the region, for both Jews and Palestinians lay claim to the same geographical regions known as the "Holy Land."
In Israel, the Jewish state that was eventually created in Palestine, Sarah Aaronsohn finally has her place in history. She is a national hero, whose story is taught to schoolchildren. Many people visit Sarah Aaronsohn's grave, in her hometown of Zikhron Ya'akov, on the anniversary of her death, to remember one woman's great sacrifice to help her people.
For More Information
Cowen, Ida, and Irene Gunther. A Spy for Freedom: The Story of Sarah Aaronsohn. New York: Lodestar Books, 1984.
Engle, Anita. The Nili Spies. London: Frank Cass, 1997.
Berman, Mark. "REED, edited by Avi Tsur." [Online] http://reed.kfarolami.org.il/resources/landmark/history/nilisara.htm (accessed April 2001).
Zionism: The Debate over a Homeland
Each year, on the Jewish holiday of Passover, many Jews celebrate with a ritual meal called a seder. The seder traditionally ends with participants saying "Next year in Jerusalem!" These enthusiastic words symbolize the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine. However, among Jews there has always been disagreement over how literally this ritual salute should be taken.
Sarah Aaronsohn and her family were Zionists, Jews who believe that Jewish people should have a national homeland, rather than living as ethnic and religious minorities in other countries. Zionism got its start in the United States and Europe in the late nineteenth century, led by Jewish thinkers such as the Hungarian Theodor Herzl, the German Max Nordau, and the British Israel Zangwill. Constant outbreaks of antiJewish violence made life intolerable for many European Jews, and some began to think that the solution might be for Jews to create a new homeland of their own. These thinkers called themselves Zionists, because Zion was one of the names of the ancient biblical Jewish homeland.
The first Zionist World Congress took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Among the topics debated was the location of the new homeland. While some insisted that Palestine was the only logical place, others spoke in favor of areas in South America or Africa. Some questioned whether it was fair for Jewish settlers to take over a land where other people were living. Still other Jewish leaders objected to the whole idea of Zionism, saying that instead of leaving the countries they lived in and establishing a new state, Jews should fight for acceptance and full citizen rights for Jewish people in every country. More than a century after the Zionist World Congress first met, these same issues still arise as problems whenever Zionism is discussed.