The Spies of Eretz Yisroel

By Robin Jacobson. 

On our first day in Israel seven years ago, my family spent an all-too-brief hour in Zikhron Ya’akov, a picturesque hilltop village near Haifa. So jet-lagged were we that we only remember dimly stopping before the famous Aaronsohn house, the hub of a Jewish spy ring during World War I.  This year being the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, I imagine returning to that house – and this time, going inside! In the meantime, my curiosity about the spies, World War I, and the seeds of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been partly satisfied by some interesting books in our library: The Aaronsohn Saga by Shmuel Katz, Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, Lawrence and Aaronsohn by Ronald Florence, and A Strange Death by Hillel Halkin. Here are just a few highlights from the dramatic story of the spies:

From Agriculture to Espionage

Born in Romania, Aaron Aaronsohn (1876-1919) grew up in Zikhron Ya’akov, then an agricultural colony. The name Zikhron Ya’akov (memory of Jacob) honors James Jacob Rothschild, a choice that pleased Rothschild’s son, Edmund, who financed the colony.

Aaronsohn became a preeminent agricultural scientist, famous for discovering the “mother of wheat” – an ancient form of wheat dating from biblical days – on the slopes of Mount Hermon. With support from American philanthropists, Aaronsohn established a Jewish Agricultural Experimental Station dedicated to turning arid Palestine into a fertile land.

At the start of World War I, Palestine was governed by Turkey, which joined the Central Powers against the Allies of England, France, and Russia. With Jews on both sides of the war, the World Zionist Organization adopted an official policy of neutrality. Nonetheless, Aaronsohn, his sister, Sarah, and a small band of Jews decided to work secretly for the British. They were moved to action by the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915.  Only a British take-over in Palestine, the clandestine group believed, would save the Jews from a comparable disaster. Trading on his international prestige, Aaronsohn persuaded suspicious British officers to trust the Palestinian Jews to serve as spies.

Success and Betrayal

The password and name of the secret group was NILI, an acronym formed from the biblical verse, “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishaker” or “the strength of Israel does not deceive.” NILI members collected strategic information about Turkish troop movements and fortifications – intelligence that proved vital to British victories in Palestine. The agricultural work of Aaronsohn and his staff provided a perfect cover for roaming the country.

In September 1917, the Turks intercepted a carrier pigeon that revealed the existence of a spy ring.  As rumors of a Turkish investigation grew, the Zikhron Ya’akov village council angrily ordered Sarah Aaronsohn (Aaron was out of the country) to stop her “traife (unclean) work” in espionage. But it was too late.

On October 1, 1917, Turkish soldiers surrounded Zikhron Ya’akov. They arrested and tortured many people, including Sarah Aaronsohn.  After days of brutal beatings, Sarah shot herself to avoid divulging the names of her comrades.  When the Turks discovered that a NILI leader named Yosef Lishansky had escaped, they gave the village an ultimatum: unless Lishansky returned, the Turks would destroy the village. Frightened and angry at NILI for putting them in peril, community leaders swore on the synagogue’s Torah scrolls to find Lishansky (who was later hanged by the Turks). For years, the village remained bitterly divided between those who had supported NILI and those who had not.  As for Aaron Aaronsohn, he died in a plane crash en route to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.