Roots of a Nation

The Beauty Who Led Israel’s First Spy Ring

A century ago Sarah Aaronsohn was at the center of one of the most dangerous —and most effective—intelligence gathering operations in the Middle East.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

She knew the end was coming. A warning had come that a column of the occupying Turkish Ottoman army was heading out from its base at the nearby Palestinian port of Haifa with orders to find her. It was late September 1917, the time of Yokkut, the Festival of the Tabernacles, and the young colony of Zikhron Yaakov had been celebrating a bountiful harvest. Now the music stopped and the people melted away.

Sarah Aaronsohn was 27 years old, from the most prominent family among the founders of Zikhron Yaakov in the first wave of Jewish settlers who arrived in the 1880s; they came from Romania. Only a few people in the town knew that the Aaronsohns’ home was at the center of an elaborate network of spies that she headed.

For more than a year British army intelligence chiefs in Cairo had been receiving astonishingly detailed reports on Turkish military dispositions throughout Palestine from a network who called themselves the NILI—an acronym for a phrase in Hebrew from the prophet Samuel, “the strength of Israel will not lie.”

In Egypt, General Edmund Allenby had assembled a force of British, Australian, and Arab armies who were being prepared for a final campaign to destroy the Ottoman Empire, driving from Egypt through Gaza and all the way to Jerusalem and then to Damascus.

As the Turks approached, Sarah knew there was no escape. She had to stay to take care of her 68-year-old widowed father. Also, it was unclear how she had been betrayed, how much the Turks knew, and how they knew it.

Zichron Yaakov sat on the Mediterranean littoral between the coast and the lower slopes of Mount Carmel, south of Haifa. The land was unusually fertile for Palestine, with flourishing fruit orchards and fields of grain. This was no accident of nature: Sarah’s 40-year-old brother, Aaron, had made his name internationally as an agronomist by pioneering new strains of dry climate crops.

In fact, for many months and right under the nose of the Turks, Aaron had used his agricultural research station at Athlit, on the coast close to Haifa, as a cover for intelligence gathering. British warships anchored offshore at night to collect troves of intelligence delivered by small boats. In Cairo the source of the reports was known simply as “an inhabitant of Athlit.”

However, as Sarah awaited the arrival of her pursuers Aaron was in London. He was there to witness a historic agreement between the British government and the international Zionist leadership that specified, as part of the postwar settlement of the Middle East, Palestine would be recognized as a sanctuary for the Jewish people.

But 18 months earlier, on his first visit to London, Aaronsohn had shown scant interest in Zionism—and the Zionists in him. He was there being assessed for his value to British intelligence, not as an activist in the cause for a Jewish home in Palestine. Indeed, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, had said of him that his views “on Palestine matters are not altogether the right ones.” Another Zionist had warned the British that Aaronsohn was “an ambitious man” and was not to be trusted.

By then, though, the British not only trusted Aaronsohn but put a high value on his work as a spy. Most significantly, Sir Mark Sykes, a British official at the center of the territorial carve-up being planned to replace the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, was impressed with his scientific knowledge and intellect.

As well he might be. Aaronsohn had gone to extreme lengths to reach London in the middle of the war. First, he had persuaded the most powerful Turkish overlord in the Middle East, General Jemal Pasha, based in Damascus, that he should go to Berlin (Germany was supporting the Ottomans in the war) to meet with some of his scientific peers on future agricultural developments in Palestine.

Once in Berlin, having made covert contacts with the British, he persuaded the Germans that, again in the cause of science, he should move on to the United States (this was October 1916, before the U.S. had entered the war). He sailed from Copenhagen on the transatlantic liner Oskar II, but according to plan the ship was intercepted by the Royal Navy as it was passing the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. On the thin pretext that Aaronsohn was a stowaway he was, with the agreement of the Danish captain, transferred to a British warship and then taken to London.

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All of this was designed to prevent Jemal Pasha from knowing that Aaronsohn had switched allegiance—and, therefore, also to leave his family in Palestine free of suspicion. It seemed to work.

Aaronsohn was already better known in the U.S. than in Britain. He had come to the attention of agronomists there by discovering in Palestine a surviving specimen of the original wild wheat from Biblical times. By blending this with modern species of wheat he produced a hybrid that could flourish in near-desert conditions. In 1909, at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture he studied dry-farming in Utah, where the climate and soil were similar to Palestine.

Since the 1880s Zichron Yaakov and the settlements around it were funded by the French branch of the Rothschild banking family (Yaakov was named for Jacob, Baron Edmund de Rothschild’s father). The research station at Athlit, also funded by the Rothschilds, transformed the local farming, but the Aaronsohn family, cosmopolitan and secular, annoyed some of the religious settlers by employing Arabs and by their evident prosperity: In 1912 Aaron imported Palestine’s first car from America.

When world war came to the Middle East in 1914 Aaron, as an Ottoman citizen, was conscripted into the Turkish army. His connections allowed him to complain to Jemal Pasha about the rough treatment of Jews by the army in Palestine and Jemal relented, releasing Aaron to continue his work at Athlit just at a moment of catastrophe: In the winter of 1914-15 a plague of locusts on a Biblical scale stripped bare all the crops of Palestine.

In the eyes of the Aaronsohn family it was like a metaphor for Ottoman rule—the army was notorious for confiscating food supplies and leaving the population hungry. At this point Aaron and Sarah decided that the only future for Palestine lay in an Allied defeat of the Turks, and that they should use espionage as a weapon to help achieve that.

The network was at first led by 25-year-old Absalom Feinberg, a charismatic Palestinian-born son of settlers who had wide connections among the Arabs. Feinberg used forged papers to make a sea voyage from Palestine to Port Said in Egypt and propose the spying plan to the British. He was lucky to find one of the most imaginative of the British intelligence officers, Lieutenant Leonard Woolley, who realized that the NILI spies were in a unique position to provide a goldmine of information about Turkish military planning.

Within two weeks of Feinberg returning to Palestine, a British warship was sending a small boat ashore at Athlit to collect the first package of intelligence.

This system worked well for a while, but late in 1916 Woolley was captured by the Turks when they sank a British ship. The Turks were patrolling the coast more alertly and Feinberg decided that he should personally take the next reports to Egypt by disguising himself as an Arab and crossing the Turkish lines south of Gaza, using Bedouin guides. Details of what followed remain hazy but apparently the Bedouin tried to rob Feinberg and he was killed.

Sarah Aaronsohn felt the loss deeply. In 1914 she had married a Bulgarian Jew living in Constantinople, but the marriage did not last. In Zichron Yaakov she and Feinberg grew close. The effect of her beauty—she was fair-skinned, blue-eyed, with golden hair—on those around her was documented by another member of the spy ring who, after Feinberg’s death, wrote to her: “I see you sitting quiet and wonderful, with your wonderful white hands and slim fingers, of such loveliness and beauty as I have never seen.”

As she took over from Feinberg the spying was becoming more dangerous—not only collecting the intelligence but getting it to Cairo was increasingly problematic. The British advised the use of carrier pigeons and provided a code to be used for messages sent by the wing.

In the spring of 1917 Sarah made her own way safely to Cairo to join Aaron. The British attack on Palestine was planned for the fall, and the NILI had given invaluable information on the Turkish defenses. In June Sarah decided that she should return to the family home and provide one final burst of intelligence, while Aaron was giving his own detailed review in person to General Allenby. In fact, Aaron tried to persuade his sister not to return. He thought the risks were now too great. She did not agree.

The network had eyes where Allenby had none. T.E. Lawrence had defeated the Turks in his spectacular attack on Akaba, the strategically vital port at the head of the Red Sea, the feat that began the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. After that, in early June, Lawrence, with only two companions, had gone deep behind the Ottoman lines gathering intelligence. But the NILI network, directed by Sarah, provided a far deeper view of how, as the Turks retreated from Arabia, they were preparing a defensive wall to prevent the fall of Jerusalem—and of Damascus.

At some time early in September the Turkish governor of Caesarea, on the coast south of Athlit, was feeding his pigeons in the courtyard of his residence. He noticed an intruder, another pigeon that had paused for a rest. There was a band on the bird’s foot. The governor caught the bird and removed the band.

Inside the band was a coded message that the governor could not read. He guessed the pigeon’s destination: British army headquarters in Egypt. But who had dispatched it? Turkish intelligence could not crack the code. They passed it to the German military command working alongside Jemal Pasha in Damascus, and from the work of the Germans the origin was pinpointed: Zichron Yaakov.

The Turks had not identified Sarah as the network’s leader. When they arrived they were looking for another NILI agent, Joseph Lichansky. Sarah protested that she knew nothing of Lichansky. Doubting this the soldiers grabbed her father and subjected him to one of their favorite punishments, bastinado—beating the soles of the feet with a club.

When this failed to get Sarah to respond they took her to a nearby house that they had requisitioned and tortured her for five more days, including applying red hot bricks to the soles of her feet and her breasts. Still she disclosed nothing. They allowed her to return home under house arrest but warned that she would be taken to Damascus where they said other members of the ring were captive.

At home she slipped into a bathroom where she had hidden a pistol and shot herself once through the mouth. She died three days later. Before taking the gun she left a letter which said, in part:

“I’ve been given the most murderous beatings. They have tortured me with terrible tortures. They chained me with iron chains. They want to send me to Damascus. There they will certainly hang me… but all their cruelties to us are in vain. We will not talk.”

Two days after she died a telegram arrived for her from Chaim Weizmann in London: “We are doing our utmost to secure a Jewish Palestine under British auspices. Your heroic sufferings are greatest incentive our difficult work. Our hopes are great. Be strong and of good courage until Land of Israel liberated.”

In London Aaron Aaronsohn had been witness to the prolonged and difficult negotiations between the Zionists and the British government. There were many vocal opponents to any commitment to create a sanctuary for the Jews in Palestine. Among the most vocal, in both London and Cairo, were officials who spoke for the Arabist policy that was shaping the future of both Arabia and Syria.

One of the most outspoken Arabists was Gertrude Bell (who later designed the new state of Iraq) who said: “The pious hope that an independent Jewish state may some day be established in Palestine no doubt exists… it is perhaps more lively in the breasts of those who live far from the rocky Palestinian hills and have no intention of changing their domicile.”

Unaware of Aaron Aaronsohn’s work, like many other officials, Bell persisted in the belief that Palestine was basically barren. But other Arabist objectors took a more geopolitical view, summed up by one of them: “A Jewish state in Palestine would mean permanent danger to a lasting peace in the Middle East.”

But the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, was committed to a deal with the Zionists and one that would end up with his name on it as the Balfour Declaration.

A first draft of the declaration read that the British government “accepted the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.”

There were other variations until the final version was agreed early in November 1917, saying that the British would “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Aaron Aaronsohn had remained aloof from the “grand game” of the Middle East political settlements. There was a mile of difference between “reconstituted as the national home” and “the establishment in Palestine of a national home” and he had no quibble with the careful avoidance of any mention of a future nation state. He was the only person in the room for whom Palestine was already his homeland. To him the British had simply become the best guarantors of the future for the pioneering generation of Jewish settlers who had never felt safe under the Ottomans.

Aaronsohn had done something far more tangible than wrangle over diplomatic language. He had, literally, shown how to put down the roots of a viable colonization. He died in May 1919, in an airplane crash in the English Channel on his way to the Versailles peace negotiations—a crash that was never adequately explained.

In 1888 the population of Palestine had 24,000 Jews. By 1930 it had grown to 200,000 Jews.