At noon on December 11 1917, General Allenby dismounted and walked through the Jaffa Gate to take possession of Jerusalem from the defeated Turks on behalf of the British Crown.
Five days later Naaman Belkind and Yosef Lishansky were hanged by the Turks in Damascus. They were members of the intelligence network of young Palestinian Jews, NILI — Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker (the Eternal One of Israel will not deceive) — an epithet taken from the First Book of Samuel.
NILI coalesced around the Aaronsohn siblings — Aaron, Sarah, Rivka and Alexander — and their friend, Avshalom Feinberg, in 1915. Its 40 members, based mainly in Zikhron Ya’akov and Hadera, collected information about Turkish military movements and passed them on to British intelligence.
The Aaronsohns’ parents had emigrated from Bacâu in Romania in 1882 and were founders of the moshav, Zikhron Ya’akov. Their six children were amongst the first generation of native-born Jews in the Zionist return to Palestine.
Djemal Pasha, the governor of Syria and Palestine, was aware of possible subversion from both Arab nationalists and Zionist Jews but he appointed the eldest, Aaron Aaronsohn, a well-known agronomist, to combat the plague of locusts that had beset the Holy Land shortly after Turkey’s entry into the war.
Establishing a research station at Atlit on the coast, Aaronsohn and his sister, Sarah, used the location as a cover for their espionage activities and were able to pass information to a regularly passing yacht, run by the forerunner of MI6.
During a brief unsatisfactory marriage, Sarah had lived in Istanbul and bore witness to the systematic killing of the Armenians by the Turks. Such atrocities, witnessed first-hand, made her determined to resist the Turks on her return to Palestine. Yet the view held by the leadership in Palestine was that any activity would provide the Turks with an excuse to simply murder large numbers of Jews. Many Jews had already been expelled to Egypt. The same fear of wholesale massacre permeated the Zionist leadership in Britain — with the exception of Chaim Weizmann and Ze’ev Jabotinsky — in opposing the formation of the Jewish Legion.
The presence of German U-Boats near Atlit persuaded the Aaronsohns to switch their method of communication to carrier pigeons. Legend has it that one landed in error in Caesarea further down the coast and the Turks were quickly able to unravel the code, based on Hebrew, Yiddish, French and English. The Turks then proceeded to carry out draconian raids on Jewish households in the area. Sarah was arrested on October 1 1917, and her father and brother, tortured in front of her. This was based on the belief that as a woman, she would quickly break down and provide crucial information. She did not, even when the torturers turned their attention towards her. In the belief that she would be taken to Damascus, face further brutality and eventually be hanged, she asked to wash and to change her bloodstained clothes at the family home in Zikhron. Instead she retrieved a concealed pistol and shot herself. It took four days for her to die.
Aaron had already left Palestine in June 1916 in order to directly convey details to the British of a planned Turkish assault on Suez Canal. Travelling via Istanbul, Vienna and Berlin, Aaronsohn eventually boarded a Danish ship which was ‘intercepted’ off the Orkneys.
The subterfuge of Aaronsohn’s ‘arrest’ led to a stay at a hotel in High Holborn in London under an assumed name and interrogation by War Office officials. Aaronsohn offered the services of NILI to the British. His location of water-holes in Sinai later allowed British forces to traverse the desert wilderness with ease.
Aaronsohn was a volatile character, often at odds with Weizmann and the Zionist establishment, yet he clearly influenced many British actors in this drama such as Sir Mark Sykes and William Ormsby-Gore — and such figures were later in a pivotal position to persuade the British cabinet to issue the Balfour Declaration.
In a recent statement, Benjamin Netanyahu considered Aaronsohn’s influence within the British political elite to be decisive in bringing about the Balfour Declaration. Indeed he was anxiously waiting with Weizmann in an ante-room in Whitehall to hear the outcome of the cabinet discussion about the Declaration.
Aaron Aaronsohn did not live to see the fruit of his labours and perished in a flight over the English Channel in 1919.
Avshalom Feinberg similarly attempted to make contact with the British in Egypt by crossing the Negev. He was attacked and killed by marauding Bedouin. Shortly after the Six Day war in 1967, an IDF officer, Shlomo Ben-Elkana discovered Feinberg’s remains in a shallow grave in Sinai beneath a date palm. He was brought back to his family after half a century of not knowing what had happened to him and buried with full military honours on Mount Herzl. The family believes that the date palm grew from the dates that Sarah had given to him to eat on that fateful journey.
The tragic saga of the Aaronsohns and their colleagues became a rallying call for the Zionist Right during the inter-war years. The Left reacted to this and initially refused to accord NILI the recognition that they deserved. The family house, Beit Aaronsohn on Hameyasidim Street in Zikhron Ya’akov, now houses the NILI museum and contains Sarah’s suicide note. She called upon “our own people to remember”. In this year of anniversaries, recalling their self-sacrifice serves as a fitting remembrance of their belief in the importance of an independent sovereign Jewish state.
Colin Shindler’s latest book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History, was published by Rowman and Littlefield.