Sarah Aaronsohn

How she represents a new interpretation of the role of women in the resettlement and regeneration in Palestine.

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The outbreak of World War I, Turkey's joining of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) in the autumn of 1914 and declaration of war on the Allied Powers, propelled the men and women in the Aaronsohns' milieu to embark upon a route of action designed to benefit from the war by aiding the British to oust the Turks from Palestine. They thought that a new order in the Middle East, under the rule of Great Britain in place of a corrupt Turkey, would help achieve degrees of autonomy for Jews in Palestine.

Aaron AaronsohnFollowing a short period of cooperation with the Turkish authorities, which came to an end in mid-1915, Aaron Aaronsohn, pictured, and Feinberg decided on an active anti-Ottoman policy and established an espionage network, Nili (an acronym for Nezah Israel lo yeshaker, "The Glory of Israel does not deceive," 1 Samuel 15: 29), known to British intelligence as "A Organization." Nili developed into the largest pro-British espionage network in the Middle East.

Upon her return from Istanbul to Zikhron in November 1915 Sarah joined the underground. From at least the end of 1916 until her capture and death in October 1917 she coordinated and virtually conducted its activities in Palestine and the Lebanon area, handling Nili's core of about forty agents, its larger circle of supporters and informers and the organization's finances.

She decoded and sifted information, encoded it and communicated with British intelligence headquarters in Cairo, making contact from the Atlit station with the British warship Managam. She also supervised the transmission by Nili of Jewish American money converted to gold to aid the Jewish population, which was suffering destitution, hunger and dislocation.

In addition she liaised with the Turkish authorities (who were unaware of the underground until late 1917), the increasingly hostile community of her native colony and the formal leadership of the Yishuv which distanced itself from the organization. Though Hebrew sources compiled during the aftermath of the war present her leadership as familial, drawing on her position as the sister of the powerful Aaron Aaronsohn, British and Turkish intelligence sources never regarded her as a strong man's aid and proxy.

She alone of Nili's top hierarchy stayed on in Palestine (Aaron traveling between Europe and Cairo and Feinberg having disappeared in 1916, in an aborted expedition to Egypt). She refused the advice of British intelligence to leave Palestine by sea to save herself, remained in Zikhron after Turkish intelligence uncovered Nili's activities, dispersed the network and was arrested on October 1, 1917. During rigorous interrogation and torture she did not disclose any information.

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Billie Melman is a professor of modern history at Tel Aviv University. She has written extensively on gender and colonialism and in nationalist movements, gender, culture and society, and on the development of women's and gender history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.