Aaronsohn

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

AARONSOHN

AARONSOHN , family of pioneers in Ereẓ Israel. efrayim fishel (1849–1939), one of the founders of Zikhron Ya'akov, was the father of the leaders of *Nili, aaron, alexander, and sarah. Born in Falticeni, Romania, he went to Ereẓ Israel with his wife Malkah in 1882. He was a gifted farmer, which was an occupation he continued until the end of his long life.

aaron (1876–1919), agronomist, researcher, and founder of the Nili intelligence organization. Born in Romania, he was brought to Ereẓ Israel by his parents at the age of six and grew up in Zikhron Ya'akov. He was an unusual personality whose achievements and service to his people have not been fully appreciated.

His outstanding talents became evident from early childhood, and Baron Edmund de *Rothschild, the colony's patron, generously sponsored his academic education at universities in France, Germany, and the United States.

The experimental station in *Athlit, near Haifa, which Aaronsohn founded on his return to Palestine, was a pioneering venture. It was there that his discovery of the ancestry of the wheat grain established his international reputation as an agricultural scientist.

Aaronsohn's range of interests, however, far transcended his daily research. The social and political problems of his people always competed for his attention, but his greatest passion was for Palestine. His knowledge of the country and those adjacent to it, and of the habits of life of Jew and Arab, was unparalleled.

During World War i and afterwards, when he threw himself into the mainstream of Zionist political activity, this knowledge stood him in good stead, broadening his Weltanschauung. But Aaronsohn was not a popular leader. Though endowed with remarkable qualities, which put him head and shoulders above his contemporaries, his individualism operated against him. Temperamental and militant by nature, he was not an easy person to work with.

Aaronsohn's conviction that the Zionist enterprise could flourish best under British protection had matured as early as 1912–13, when he was in New York. He refrained from publishing his views lest they embarrass the Berlin-based Zionist leadership. However, the brutal expulsion of Russian Jews from Jaffa in December 1914 finally shattered his hope that a modus vivendi with the Turk was possible.

During 1915–16 Palestine and its adjacent countries were infested with locusts. Djemal Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army, found that the only specialist competent to organize chemical warfare against the plague was Aaronsohn. The latter's forthright manner and skill won the Pasha's confidence but the closer their relationship became, the more concerned Aaronsohn grew about the future of his people.

With the tragedy that had befallen the Armenians at the back of his mind, he feared that at the slightest provocation Djemal would not hesitate to put an end to Zionist colonization. He therefore reached the radical conclusion that unless Palestine was speedily conquered by the British, the prospect for the survival of the Yishuv was slender.

It was for this reason that he made his way, by devious means, to England, leaving behind him a well-organized network of espionage. His second objective was to elicit some assurances of British sympathy for Zionist aspirations. On neither count was he successful at this stage, but unwittingly he converted his interlocutors at Military Intelligence to his cause.

Among those who fell under Aaronsohn's spell should be mentioned: Major Walter Gribbon, the officer in charge of Turkish affairs at ghq; his close assistant, Captain Charles Webster; and Sir Mark Sykes.

Forty years later Sir Charles Webster testified how much his sympathy for the Jewish national ideal had deepened as a result of his admiration for Aaronsohn and his career:

It was he who gave me my first real contact with one of the Yishuv and I cannot forbear to mention how deep that impression was. It was made not only by the story of his great adventure during the war, but his unexampled knowledge of Palestine and his complete faith that this land could be made to blossom like the rose by Jewish skill and industry.

Such assurances were all the more important at that time because one of the arguments most frequently used was that it was quite impossible for Palestine to accommodate more than a fraction of the numbers which the Zionists claimed could be settled there.

Aaronsohn was equally successful in making converts among British officers both in political and military intelligence in Cairo, which he joined late in 1916. William Orsmsby-Gore, Wyndham Deedes, and Richard Meinerzhagen in particular, proved a source of strength to the Zionists.

Uppermost in Aaronsohn's mind was a swift invasion of Palestine, to crush the Turk and deliver the Yishuv from disaster. It was he who alerted world public opinion to the evacuation of the Jewish population of Jaffa/Tel Aviv in April 1917; a policy which if followed to its conclusion could have resulted in a catastrophe. Exasperated by the sluggish British military advance, Aaronsohn was convinced that if properly handled, a blitz on the Palestinian front was possible.

British Intelligence was faulty and, in spite of all efforts, very little news could be elicited about enemy movements. Even when some information did filter through, it was too stale to be of any use. By contrast, not only did Aaronsohn gather a great deal of information, but by re-establishing contact with his group in Zikhron Ya'akov, he was able to furnish first-hand reports on Turkish troop movements, morale, and conditions behind enemy lines. Moreover, with his well-trained mind, he was able to give useful advice to the British on other matters, including military questions, so much so that it was humorously commented among the General Staff that "Aaronsohn is running the ghq." A co-author of the Palestine Handbook, an indispensable military guide, he was also invited to write for the prestigious Arab Bulletin.

It was not before the arrival of General *Allenby that full use was made of Aaronsohn's suggestions. Allenby based his Beersheba operation on exhaustive intelligence data provided by the Aaronsohn group from behind the Turkish lines, which pointed to that sector as the weakest link in the enemy's defenses and one where a British onslaught was least expected. Perhaps the most crucial information was that the wells in the region had been left untouched.

The British won a resounding victory but the Aaronsohn group was less fortunate. Their ring was uncovered by the Turkish authorities at the end of September. Eighteen months later Ormsby-Gore, paying tribute to the Aaronsohn family, wrote:

They were … the most valuable nucleus of our intelligence service in Palestine during the war. Aaronsohn's sister was caught by the Turks and tortured to death, and the British Government owes a very deep debt of gratitude to the Aaronsohn family for all they did for us in the war … Nothing we can do for them … will repay the work they have done and what they have suffered for us.

General Macdonogh, the director of Military Intelligence, confirmed that Allenby's victory would not have been possible without the information supplied by the Aaronsohn group.

In Brigadier Gribbon's opinion it saved 30,000 British lives in the Palestine campaign. General Clayton considered the group's service "invaluable," while Allenby singled out Aaronsohn as the staff officer chiefly responsible for the formation of Field Intelligence behind the Turkish lines. Sir Mark Sykes acknowledged that it was Aaronsohn's idea of outflanking Gaza and capturing Beersheba by surprise that was the key to Allenby's success.

The Foreign Office, too, had formed a high opinion of him, and his presence in London in autumn 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was still in the balance, assisted in creating a favorable climate of opinion for the Zionist cause.

Aaronsohn made a valuable contribution to the work of the Zionist Commission in Palestine in 1918, and his expertise was eagerly sought by the British and Zionist delegations to the Paris Peace Conference.

On May 15, 1919, Aaronsohn died tragically when a military aircraft taking him from London to Paris crashed in the Channel.

[Isaiah Friedman (2nd ed.)]

alexander (1888–1948), one of the founders of Nili. In 1913 he founded a short-lived semi-clandestine group for sons of farmers, called Gidonim, in his birthplace Zikhron Ya'akov. A precursor of Nili, the group had as one of its purposes the defense of the settlement. In 1915 he went to Egypt as an emissary of Nili to establish contact with the British Command. From there he went to the U.S., where he was active as an anti-Turkish and pro-Ally propagandist, and wrote With the Turks in Palestine (1917), a book on his personal experiences, exposing the evils of Turkish rule. After World War i he founded and for a time headed *Benei Binyamin, an organization of second-generation farmers in Palestine. He contributed to the Jerusalem newspaper Do'ar ha-Yom and published his memoirs, as well as booklets on Nili and its members. During World War ii he served with the British Intelligence Service in its operations against Germany.

sarah (1890–1917), martyr heroine of Nili. Born and educated in Zikhron Ya'akov, she married Hayyim Abraham, a Bulgarian Jew, in 1914, and moved to Constantinople. Her married life was unhappy and, in 1915, during World War i, she returned to her family's home. En route, she passed through Anatolia and Syria, and was an eyewitness to the savage persecution of the Armenians by the Turkish authorities. On her return to Zikhron Ya'akov, her brother Aaron enlisted her into Nili's intelligence activities against Turkey. When he left the country, she supervised the agents' operations and relayed information to the British in Egypt. Later, she was responsible for receipt of the gold sent through the Nili organization for help to the yishuv. In April 1917 she secretly visited Egypt to consult with her brother Aaron and the British Command. Warning her of the danger that threatened her in Ereẓ Israel, they begged her to remain in Egypt, but she refused, and returned in June. In September, on learning that the espionage network had been uncovered by the Turkish authorities, she ordered its members to disperse, while she remained at home in Zikhron Ya'akov to avoid incriminating rumors, thus facilitating the escape of her fellow members. Arrested in her home on Oct. 1, 1917, she was subjected to brutal torture for four days, but disclosed nothing, and finally put an end to her suffering by shooting herself. In reverence to her memory, pilgrimages are made to her grave in Zikhron Ya'akov on the anniversary of her death.

[Yehuda Slutsky]

bibliography:

A. Engle, Nili Spies (1959); H. Yoffe, Dor Ma'pilim (1939), 586–90; A. Aaronsohn (Ḥayyal Pashut, pseud.), Sarah Shalhevet Nili (19432); M. Smilansky, Mishpahat ha-Adamah, 2 (19542), 82–88; Dinur, Haganah, 1, pt. 1 (1954), 358–72; pt. 2 (1956), 730–37; 2, pt. 3 (19642), index; E. Livneh (ed.), Nili, Toledoteha shel He'azah Medinit (1961). aaron: Dinur, Haganah, 1, pt. 2 (1956); 2, pt. 3 (19642), index; M.b.H. Hacohen, Milḥemet Ammim, 1–5 (1929–30), index; M. Smilansky, Mishpaḥat ha-Adamah, 2 (19542), 95–98; E. Livneh, Aaron Aaronsohn (Heb., 1969). add. bibliography: I. Friedman, The Question of Palestine, 1914–1918: British-Jewish-Arab Relations (19922), 120–23, 127, 130, 184, 187, 203–5, 207, 272–74, 280, 300.

You Might Also Like


You Might Also Like