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

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

by Gregory J. Wallance
The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring

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

by Gregory J. Wallance


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Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn led a remarkable life. The Woman Who Fought an Empire tells the improbable but true odyssey of a bold young woman—the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine—who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring. 

Following the outbreak of World War I, Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. Sarah, who had witnessed the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. Sarah joined Nili, eventually rising to become the organization’s leader. Operating behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. To protect her secrets, Sarah got hold of a gun and shot herself. The Woman Who Fought an Empire, set at the birth of the modern Middle East, rebukes the Hollywood stereotype of women spies as femme fatales and is both an espionage thriller and a Joan of Arc tale.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640120044
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 03/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 328
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer and writer in New York City, a former federal prosecutor, and a longtime human rights activist. He is the author of Papa’s Game, nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award; America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy; and the historical novel Two Men before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started the Civil War. For more information about the author visit
Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer and writer in New York City, a former federal prosecutor, and a longtime human rights activist. He is the author of Papa’s Game, nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award; America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy; and the historical novel Two Men before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started the Civil War. For more information about the author visit

Read an Excerpt


I Will Be Really Happy When I Am Home

In 1882 Ephraim and Malka Aaronsohn, and their young sons — Aaron, age six, and Zvi, age four — sailed from Romania on the steamer Thetis. They were among several hundred Jews on the Thetis escaping Romania's intensifying pogroms and vice-like restrictions on Jewish economic activity. Many Romanian Jews gambled their futures on America, but the Jews on the Thetis took a bigger gamble. Their destination was Palestine, a backwater region of the province of Syria in the Ottoman Empire, which included what is now Israel. Among Palestine's population were 450,000 Arabs and 25,000 mostly ultraorthodox Jews in Jerusalem and a few other towns. These side-locked Jews lived in Palestine, not in the spirit of Zionism but to study ancient Hebrew texts and die on holy soil.

The Jews on the Thetis, by contrast, dreamed of a "return" to Zion. The Lovers of Zion society in Romania sponsored the families on the Thetis in the belief that Jewish settlements in Palestine would foster in diaspora Jews "holy feelings which the sheer weight of pain, want, and poverty had put to sleep for thousands of years" and lead to a Jewish revival in Palestine. The Thetis Jews were in the vanguard that would pave the way.

The Thetis sailed across the Black Sea, through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, into the Mediterranean, and down to the coast of Palestine. The authorities in Palestine initially would not let the Thetis dock because the Ottoman government in Constantinople, suspicious that Jews were agents for British imperialists with designs on the Levant, had issued an edict against Jewish immigration. The Thetis steamed up and down the Palestinian coast, looking for a hospitable port, while on board the sanitary conditions for the Jews went from merely distasteful to perilously unhealthy. Port officials in Jaffa finally allowed the Jews to disembark.

The Jaffa port officials had an ulterior motive for letting in the Jews. All of them were confined to Jaffa until they paid baksheesh, which was valued more highly by the local Ottoman bureaucrats with their red tarbushes than any pronouncements from Constantinople. The Ottoman bureaucratic bay for baksheesh was heard throughout the empire from minor bureaucracies in remote provinces to its very heart, the civil administrative offices in Constantinople in the block of government buildings called the Sublime Porte.

The Jews, with the assistance of their local contacts, managed to come up with baksheesh, paid off the authorities, and were released after a week. Some sixty families went to Haifa in northern Palestine, where they stayed in a khan — a caravansary or rest stop — which in this case was a large courtyard with stone walls next to a stone house. They had no desire to remain any longer than necessary in Haifa with its many mosques and a few churches and where Jews lived within the Muslim district.

A contingent of Romanian Jews headed south from Haifa, riding mules or sitting on ox-drawn wagons. They reached a narrow mountain path by nightfall, but the weary oxen declined to pull the wagons further. The men disassembled the wagons. Some hoisted the pieces and their belongings onto their shoulders and began to climb the mountain, while others lashed the liberated oxen up the steep path. Behind them came the women, carrying infants or holding the hands of the young children. The band of Jews and their animals climbed in the dark for several hours in a silence broken by the grunting of the oxen and the high-pitched howls and whines of jackals.

Their destination was a hilltop perch on Mount Carmel near the coast of what is now northern Israel. The name "Mount Carmel" is a misnomer because there is no specific peak but rather a row of hills that once were the outcroppings of an ancient carbonate barrier reef. At the top of one hill, the Jewish settlers found Arab farm workers, or fellahin, living in decrepit mud-and-wattle huts. With their arrival, the desolate place, known as Zammarin to the Arabs, became one of the first Jewish settlements in the initial modern wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine called the First Aliyah (1882–1903). The new settlers began building huts and clearing fields.

Wealthy Jewish patrons in Romania had purchased the land for the immigrants from Haifa speculators, who plainly got the better end of the deal. The sweeping view of Arab olive groves and the tranquil, blue Mediterranean was splendid, but otherwise Zammarin proved to be an inhospitable home. The Romanian tradesmen, shopkeepers, and peddlers had planned to survive by farming even though few had any agricultural experience. Promised funds did not arrive; it might have seemed to the settlers that rocks flourished better in the fields than their wheat and barley did; and the settlers were beset with malaria, yellow fever, mosquitoes, black flies, snakes, scorpions, and acute homesickness. ("My heart grieves mightily when I remember how we wandered so far away from our family nest," one resident wrote to her sister-in-law in Russia.) The oppressive summer heat and the khamsin — the suffocating, dust-laden desert wind — were especially hard on the settlers.

The sensible ones returned to Romania, and the remaining Jews pawned their Torah scrolls. They survived mainly because of the seemingly divine intervention of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, scion of the French branch of the powerful Rothschild banking family. The baron, who believed that Palestine was the future of the Jewish people and not just their past, gave the settlers desperately needed funds but with the biblical-like condition that "he alone shall be the colony's sole Lord and that all things in its domain be under his rule."

Not having much choice, the settlers agreed to the baron's terms. They even renamed their settlement Zichron Ya'akov (in Jacob's Memory) after the baron's father. Every aspect of their lives was dictated by the baron and his agents, from what crops could be grown to the construction details of their residences. On his inspection visits to Zichron Ya'akov (he sailed to Palestine on his private yacht), the baron scolded a housewife for reading Shakespeare instead of the Bible, questioned the children in the schoolhouse on their grasp of arithmetic, and rebuked a mother for failing to cover a crib with mosquito netting. As he walked to the synagogue, villagers handed the baron petitions "as though he were Caesar approaching the Forum." Any utterance of the baron's name was invariably followed by the phrase, "May God be merciful on him." When the baron departed after one visit, Bedouin horsemen, who had come to see "the Sultan of the Jews," saluted him by firing their rifles into the air.

The modern-day Moses and his flock realized their dream. By 1914 the primitive hamlet had become a prosperous village of nearly a thousand inhabitants and almost a hundred buildings, including a hospital and a bank; it had running water; and it offered horse-drawn coach service to Haifa and Jaffa. The baron recruited the eminent physician Dr. Hillel Yaffe to run a clinic for treating malaria patients. Zichron even boasted vineyards and a winery with huge underground wine cellars, although the wine could not be sold in the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire and had to be exported. Eucalyptus trees imported from Australia provided shade where no trees had ever grown, and the dusty trails had been replaced by passable dirt roads bordered with thorny acacia that, in season, were laced with sweet-smelling yellow blossoms. One American visitor in that period, however, viewing Zichron through the prism of American prosperity, thought it had the look of a squat Russian village.

Even so the settlers could be justly pleased with what they had accomplished, but any candid assessment of Zichron's progress had to acknowledge the baron's indispensable bounty and the economic advantage of an endless source of low-cost labor from the Arab village farther down the slopes of Mount Carmel. As Zichron grew, fewer and fewer Jews worked in the settlement's fields, which more resembled those of plantations whose workers were Arabs.

The baron's other settlements took root as well, such as Petah Tikva, Rishon LeZion, Rosh Pinah, Hadera, and others; they were all part of an archipelago of tiny Jewish islands gamely struggling in the Ottoman Empire. By 1914 the Jewish population of Palestine was approximately eighty thousand people, including a new Jewish settlement next to the port of Jaffa called Tel Aviv. The Jews of Zichron and the other settlements, collectively referred to as the yishuv, went about their lives as Ottoman subjects.

Aaron and Zvi Aaronsohn had been born in Romania. The rest of the Aaronsohn children were born in Palestine. Two more boys, Samuel and Alexander, were followed by the first girl, Sarah, in 1890. The last Aaronsohn child, Rivka, was born two years later.

The family's affectionate name for Sarah was Sarati, "my Sarah." Much of Sarah's youth was devoted to household chores, from washing the stone floors, to scrubbing the wooden dining table with sand and water, to endless sewing and mending of the family's clothes, such as her brother Zvi's shirts for his pending wedding. In Mandrakes from the Holy Land, novelist Aharon Megged imagines Sarah as a teenager, helping to prepare and serve a family dinner while wearing "a festive white dress and a large bow tie on her breast, her light hair gathered on her nape by a black ribbon."

Sarah was educated at the village school, where she learned French, Hebrew, and Arabic, plus some history, religion, and agronomy. Paris was then the world center of literature, science, art, music, and fashion, and French culture radiated like bright sunlight even into remote Palestine. The franc was common currency in the Jewish settlements, even though the official currency of the Ottoman Empire was the lira, and Zichron Ya'akov, much to the pride of its inhabitants, became known as "Little Paris." The curriculum at Sarah's school was modeled on the programs of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, founded by a French statesman in 1860 to, among other purposes, promote the education of Jews in the Middle East. But formal schooling for girls ended at age twelve, and thereafter Sarah was self-taught, reading books in several languages. Sarah, who lacked any trace of the Romanian shtetls, saw herself not as a child of struggling settlers in a malarial backwater town but as a pioneering Jew and audacious redeemer of a long-lost dream. While Yiddish was the primary language of the Aaronsohn home, the family talked enthusiastically of the reintroduction of Hebrew as a spoken, everyday language in Palestine.

When the first modern Hebrew dictionary appeared, Sarah and Rivka, then ages fourteen and twelve, wrote its author, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, to express their gratitude for the "first five books of your great dictionary, and to tell you that we cannot wait for you to publish the next ones." In their letter, the sisters pointed out that currently Hebrew is limited to "very general terms" and that "we do not have a name for each flower and plant, for each bird, for all the little insects that buzz in our ears when we walk in the fields." The sisters blamed the schools of the pioneer Jewish settlements, where children were not "educated to look and observe." If children were encouraged to collect plants, insects, and stones and to bring them to school, "then a name would be found for each one of these." Once they too had failed to pay attention to the objects around them, but their big brother Aaron had changed that. "Our brother never returns home from his journeys without bringing many plants, stones, pieces of metal, etc. He looks after them as though they were pearls, writes down on a little note the origin of each object and gives it a strange name. We can almost say that he hugs and kisses them. He really loves spending time with them. Little by little we are being infected with his 'craziness.'"

The sisters expressed their gratitude to Ben-Yehuda "for making our love for the language even stronger." Then, politely, almost apologetically, the sisters inquired, "Might we also dare draw your attention to some doubts and questions?" Sarah and Rivka proceeded to identify certain definitions they didn't understand or, implicitly, didn't agree with. Helpfully, they provided a list of questions for the great author to answer. Ben-Yehuda was so impressed that he published the sisters' letter in his newspaper, Hashkafa.

Sarah matured into a striking young woman. Her blue eyes, oval face, erect posture, and full, sensuous figure would have found approval in the Belle Époque of Paris but not so in straightlaced Zichron Ya'akov. The slightly upward tilt of Sarah's head signaled her independent-mindedness, which was not an attitude Jewish women in the settlements typically displayed. The Jewish pioneer spirit in Palestine was not so bold as to grant women political and social equality with men. In 1886 when young women in the settlement of Petah Tikva demanded the right to vote at settlement meetings, even their own mothers opposed them.

Characters in the novels of Nehamah Pukhachewsky, a woman who came to Palestine in 1889 from Russia, reflect the bitterness of pioneer women at their inferior status. The character Zipporah Dori, a farmer's wife, attended a settlement assembly convened to address a vital issue. But "they would not allow me to speak. Their reason was that I was only a guest at the meeting and not an official participant. Grievously offended, I wondered ... cannot a poor wretched soul like me contribute anything?" She answered her own question: "A woman has no rights whatsoever. ... A woman's place is in the kitchen, behind the stove and not among the chosen delegates of the people!"

Jewish gender role expectations were lost on Sarah. She reportedly was among the first women in Palestine to decline to wear corsets, was an excellent shot and horsewoman, hunted with men from the village, and argued about politics and the future of Palestine with her brothers. Sarah often rode her fast mare into the countryside by herself, taking only a pistol for protection. "My mare was so swift, it was like flying," Sarah recalled years later for a visitor to the Aaronsohn home, with evident delight at the memory. "With my feet in the [stirrups] I'd stand erect and throw away my wide straw hat and then catch it sailing through the air." Sarah sewed her own dresses, which many Zichron women secretly admired, but she also occasionally wore men's agricultural clothes without concern for what anyone might think. Young men tended to fall in love with her.

For all her independent-mindedness, Sarah's identity was knitted into that of her family. In small towns there is often a family that stands apart, perhaps because the children are striking in appearance, a member has a claim to distinction, the clan acts like royalty, or the family has a grand house. In the case of the Aaronsohn family, it may have been all of the above. The Aaronsohn children were unusually good-looking. At a young age Sarah's older brother Aaron gained worldwide recognition as an agronomist and became an influential figure in the Ottoman Empire. Sarah's mother, Malka — an otherwise practical, no-nonsense woman — raised her children to think of themselves as royalty. Malka's own mother had insisted that the family had descended from King David.

By the early 1900s Ephraim and Malka had freed themselves from dependence on the baron and had become independent farmers. The family lived in Zichron's equivalent of a château, a rose-colored stucco house with a tile roof on an avenue lined with tall cypresses. The well-furnished interior included a living room with comfortable sofas and armchairs and a Persian rug; a dining room with a table covered by an embroidered tablecloth and a tall dark wood cabinet filled with crystal wine glasses, decanters, and such; and a snug kitchen with a large pantry containing porcelain plates and serving dishes decorated with bright red and purple flowers or elegant gold trim.

Aaron Aaronsohn was the dominant figure in that family. In 1893 agents of Baron de Rothschild, in the manner of talent scouts, spotted Aaron's promise and sent the brilliant but often combative fifteen-year-old — "how are you ever going to do anything if you quarrel with everybody?" his father once asked him — to France to study agronomy. Two years later Aaron returned to Palestine as a trained young scientist known for hard work (he rarely slept more than four or five hours a night, rising before dawn to read scientific periodicals or do research). For a time Aaron worked as an agricultural instructor at Metula, one of the baron's settlements, and later went into business as an importer of agricultural equipment.


Excerpted from "The Woman Who Fought an Empire"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Gregory J. Wallance.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
A Note on Terminology,
Major Characters,
1. I Will Be Really Happy When I Am Home,
2. Two Cannot Take Three Places — What Is Missing Is Missing,
3. Don't You Feel That a New Generation Is Born?,
4. What Sights Her Eyes Have Seen,
5. They Must Attack Immediately,
6. The Wait,
7. Aaron Aaronsohn's Journey,
8. One of Your Men Came across the Desert,
9. What about Avshalom?,
10. Black Nights,
11. What I Have Done, I Have Done Purely for My People and My Country,
12. To Sarah,
13. We Are Watched by a Thousand Eyes,
14. Everywhere I Turn I Feel His Absence,
15. The Situation Is Getting Worse,
16. She Is Worth a Hundred Men,
17. The Boys Will Turn into Green Crowned Date Palms,

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