The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaron­sohn and Her Nili Spy Ring

By – February 18, 2019

The title of Gre­go­ry J. Wallance’s new book sug­gests a straight-up his­tor­i­cal biog­ra­phy. Instead, this work of non­fic­tion is a sweep­ing tale of inter­na­tion­al intrigue and com­plex fam­i­ly dynam­ics, set against the back­drop of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Mid­dle East. In 1915, with the British at war against the Ottoman Empire, a band of young upstarts from Zichron Ya’akov formed the spy net­work Nili, an acronym for the Hebrew trans­la­tion of The Eter­nal One Israel Will Not Lie.”

Led by twen­ty-sev­en-year-old Sarah Aaron­sohn, Nili aid­ed the Brits through covert oper­a­tions and intel­li­gence gath­er­ing. Aaron­sohn was assist­ed by close friends Avshalom Fein­berg, Lio­va Schneer­sohn and Yosef Lis­han­sky, as well as her sib­lings, includ­ing her head­strong old­er broth­er Aaron. A world-renowned botanist, Aaron start­ed gath­er­ing secret mil­i­tary data about the Turks while address­ing their dev­as­tat­ing locust cri­sis. Aaron lat­er land­ed in Lon­don, while Sarah head­ed up Nili oper­a­tions and dic­tat­ed procedure.

The book has all the ele­ments of a John Le Car­ré nov­el — from furtive moon­lit swims out to the steamship Man­agem, to the smug­gling of gold across bor­ders, to car­ri­er pigeons trans­mit­ting mil­i­tary secrets. It’s a sto­ry rich with ten­sion, sus­pense and, from an author’s per­spec­tive, poten­tial. Wal­lance deliv­ers. In clear, read­able prose, he delves into the group’s moti­va­tions and actions, from Cairo to Con­stan­tino­ple and Atlit. The research is exhaus­tive, and the lev­el of detail astound­ing, but not over­whelm­ing. Wal­lance also reminds the read­er that these were not just spies, but bright, ambi­tious twen­ty-some­things with their own desires, both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al. The dynam­ics of the group pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing under­cur­rent to the plot. It was a tight group, but cer­tain­ly not with­out its dra­ma, roman­tic and otherwise.

While the female spy has typ­i­cal­ly been depict­ed as a con­niv­ing seduc­tress à la Mata Hari, Wal­lance por­trays Sarah Aaron­sohn as she was: A young woman of fierce intel­li­gence, stag­ger­ing brav­ery and resource­ful­ness. Men cer­tain­ly were daz­zled by her, but it was her abil­i­ty to out­smart the ene­my and lead a team of under­ground rebels that made her a World War I heroine.

Amy Oringel is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

Discussion Questions

Want­ed: Pow­er­ful women need­ed.” Thus read a Jan­u­ary 1917 news­pa­per ad for the Mossad’s very first female-focused recruit­ment cam­paign in the Intel­li­gence agency’s his­to­ry. Exact­ly a cen­tu­ry ago, before the cre­ation of the State of Israel or its elite inter­na­tion­al espi­onage corps, Sarah Aaron­sohn defied the norms of accept­ed roles for women and ran a dar­ing spy net­work. The Nili spy ring was estab­lished to help the British in their fight against the Ottoman Turks, which the Nili founders hoped would dri­ve them out of Pales­tine. They believed that Jews in Pales­tine would fare bet­ter under the rule of Britain than under the Ottomans, who Aaron­sohn had per­son­al­ly wit­nessed per­pe­trate a hor­rif­ic geno­cide against Armenians.

In recount­ing their sto­ry, Gre­go­ry Wal­lance cap­tures the pas­sion and ide­al­ism that drew Sarah Aaron­sohn and her fel­low Zion­ist activists into a life of espi­onage in order to secure a safer, more inde­pen­dent future for the Jews of the Yishuv. They faced phys­i­cal dan­gers and moral com­plex­i­ties as they trav­eled around the Mid­dle East to gath­er valu­able infor­ma­tion for British intelligence.

Sarah Aaron­son epit­o­mized the arche­type of the native born chil­dren of Roman­ian Jew­ish immi­grants of the First Aliyah. She lived the revival of mod­ern Hebrew, even writ­ing let­ters to Eliez­er Ben-Yehu­da with def­i­n­i­tion­al ques­tions about his new­ly pub­lished dic­tio­nary of mod­ern Hebrew. She was inde­pen­dent, self-assured; she loved the out­doors and being close to the land that she ulti­mate­ly paid with her own blood to secure.