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 evolving civic elite posited itself against the Zionist labor-oriented leadership in Palestine, developing a distinct anti-socialist agenda and a nationalist activism, especially after the outbreak of World War I. The social networks which they and their leaders forged were buttressed by family relations and networks.

The social-familial network which sustained Sarah throughout her youth and adulthood included the older Aaron Aaronsohn and the younger Aaronsohn siblings, the charismatic Avshalom Feinberg of Haderah (1889-1916), described as "the first native-born man," with whom Sarah most probably had a love relationship and who later co-founded Nili; his younger sister Zila (1894-1988), and the Belkind brothers, Eitan (1897-1979) and Na'aman (1889-1917) of Rishon le-Zion.

Sarah and other members of her milieu used a familial vocabulary to describe these relations, referring to themselves as siblings and to the nation as a family of brothers and sisters, thus ignoring their elders and parents. Elite women of the native generation forged their own nationalist language, set of mannerisms, dress and forms of social conduct which created a place for them within the Zionist project, a place which was not necessarily maternal and which was non-domestic.


Sarah herself never completed her formal education. However, encouraged by her brother Aaron, she studied languages and was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish and French, had reasonable command of Arabic and taught herself English.

She was also apprenticed in agronomy and botany, often accompanying Aaron on his travels through Palestine, collecting flora, minerals and soils for his accumulating collection, cataloging it and supervising the experimental agricultural station and farm which he established in Atlit, near Zikhron, with the support of American Jewish leaders such as Henrietta Szold.

Like other women in her native milieu, Sarah became an accomplished rider and shot, conducting an active outdoor life. Traveling through the land developed her sense of territoriality, so central to the make-up of the national identity of the native Hebrews and their notion of activism.

In the spring of 1914, probably following the rift between herself and Feinberg and his engagement to her younger and less dynamic sister Rivkah (1890-1981), Sarah married the affluent and older Bulgarian merchant, Chaim Abraham (n.d.-1954), and followed him to Istanbul. The marriage quickly foundered both because of a lack of shared interests and due to the impact of world and regional events on the couple's private life.

Becoming Spies: Nili

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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.