Spies In Palestine

Title:                      Spies In Palestine

Author:                 James Srodes

Srodes, James (2016). Spies In Palestine: Love, Betrayal, And The Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press

LCCN:    2016040205



  • Who was Sarah Aaronsohn? — Friends in America — The three pashas — Love and war — Plagues of war and locusts — Success and setback — Sarah takes command — Sarah gets her orders and NILI gets its name — Sarah and NILI make a difference — The net closes.


Date Posted:      March 8, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

In more than half a century of reading intelligence literature, seldom have I encountered an operative with the raw courage of Sarah Aaronsohn. Whatever spy trade-craft the woman knew was self-taught. She had to contend not only with hostile neighbors, but with Turkish security officers who delighted in fashioning new and gruesome ways to torture adversaries.

Ms. Aaronsohn’s story is grippingly told by James Srodes in an account that also explores, in brisk and incisive language, a phase of the Great War that historians tend to skim past the attempts of Kaiser Germany and allied nations of the Ottoman Empire to seize the Suez Canal, cutting Great Britain’s lifeline to India and the East.

The hamlet of Zichron Ya’akov was a prosperous farm village just south of Haifa in a land then known as Syria Palestine, populated chiefly by Jewish immigrants from Europe. Among them was the Aaronsohn family from Romania. Patriarch Ephraim was a staunch Zionist bent upon creating a Jewish homeland. He was also a skilled agronomist, a talent shared by elder son Aaron.

Survival meant coaxing a living from dry land; Aaron’s discovery of a wheat variety suitable to the climate brought him international fame, and the attention of the Rothschild family, major Zionist bene-factors. The Rothschilds lavishly supported Aaron’s research, evoking jealousy among fellow residents.

Born in 1890, Sarah was a village beauty. “With a high, proud bosom and small waist, Sarah’s firm stride testified to her long girlhood spent as an active horsewoman…” Romance eluded her. An early love with a villager failed, as did marriage to an older city merchant.

Back in the village, she was drawn into a multi-party struggle for power that defies brief description—a political mishmash involving Germans, the Turks, various Arab groups and (briefly) the French, over British-controlled Palestine-Syria. The Aaronsohn family cast its lot with the British, fearing being put under anti-Semitic German rule.

Their chief adversary was an especially barbaric Turk governor named Pasha Ahmed Djamal. His hatchetman, intelligence chief Aziz Bek, “exceeded his master in the studied art of cruelty.” To root out opposition in both the Jewish and Arab communities, his thugs swept through Syria Palestine, impressing young men into the Turkish military, and destroying any means of livelihood, even small farms.

The Aaronsohn family, led by patriot Ephriam and son Aaron, took the lead in establishing an intelligence network to alert the British on Tuirkish military activities. Sarah’s outgoing personality allowed her to elicit information from unsuspecting Turk officials.

An early spying coup, ironically, was made possible by a severe locust infestation. The Aaronsohns and other villagers worked with Turkish soldiers to dig huge ditches into which locusts were bulldozed and covered, in hopes the infestation could be curbed.

All the while, the Jews quietly gathered a wealth of information—“the order of battle, the size and number of weapons, and especially hints as to the plans of the Turkish attack on Suez,” all of “vital importance to the British planners in Cairo.”

Resultantly, Djamal Pasha’s attack on Suez was a “shambles from the start,” with broken vehicles, dead livestock and faltering troops scattered over a long trail.

The band of Jewish spies eventually encompassed some 75 persons. Sarah’s chief role was that of coordinator: to assemble intelligence into a form in which it could be passed to Cairo. One mode was carrier pigeons. Recruits mapped roads, bridges and fortifications. Written messages were encrypted from keys employing Hebrew.

At its peak, the network had agents throughout the Turkish regime—clerks, telephone operators, physicians, even a code clerk, the ultimate source for any intelligence apparatus. As Mr. Srodes writes, “No general ever went on the attack with a better grasp of the enemy and his strength.”

Handling all this information took a toll on Sarah, who suffered bouts of malarial fever and malnutrition. But she persevered, despite her knowledge that Turkish counterintelligence was tightening its vise on her group, torturing members into naming names. Fearing reprisals because of the spying, neighbors pointed accusing fingers at the unusual activity of the Aaronsohn family.

Eventually, Sarah heard the inevitable night-time knocks on the door, and then delivery into Turkish hands. She was forced to watch the brutal torture of her father and a brother. And here emerged the ultimate act of bravery. “Instead of meekly denying all knowledge, Sarah taunted them. She alone was responsible for the spying and she would live to see all of them destroyed for their brutal tyranny and persecution of the Jews.”

I shan’t describe what happened to Sarah the next three days. Through her torment, she shouted defiance. “You are murderers, blood-thirsty wild animals. I, a weak woman, decided to defend my people lest you do to us what you did to the Armenians.”

A museum in Sarah’s village honors her “life and heroic deeds,” whose “courage and leadership made her a woman ahead other time.” Mr. Srodes drew upon archives there and in the British Foreign Office to put together a sobering and highly readable account.

Disclosure: Mr. Srodes and I have been friends since the late 1960s. Friendship aside, his book is an engaging five cloak/ five dagger read.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3 Winter 2016-17, pp. 109-110). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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