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 Updated:  October 10, 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.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

It wasn’t the pigeon’s fault: the bird had been poorly trained and frequently stopped for food in unsafe areas on its way to British headquarters in Cairo. Discovered by the Turks in Palestine, the bird was found to be carrying a coded message, which confirmed suspicions that spies were operating in their midst. When Sarah Aaronsohn, then leader of the NILI[3] spies, learned of the pigeon’s fate, she killed the remaining birds—but it was too late.

In Spies in Palestine, James Srodes (author of a fine biography of Allen Dulles[4] ) tells the NILI story. He begins with Ephraim and Malka Aaronsohn, who emigrated from Romania to Syria Palestine—then part of the Ottoman Empire—in the late 1800s with their six-year-old son, Aaron, and other Jewish Zionists. They spoke neither Arabic nor Turkish, but working with the local Arabs, they established what gradually became a prosperous settlement named Zichron Ya’akov, just south of Haifa. Ephraim was an agronomist, a skill at which Aaron later became an expert. After Aaron developed a strain of wheat that survived well in the harsh conditions, he attracted worldwide scientific recognition and financial support from wealthy French and Americans. By the start of World War I, the Aaronsohns had three more sons and two girls, Sarah and Rivka.

The war changed life in Zichron Ya’akov socially, economically, and politically when Turkey sided with Germany and began military actions aimed at the Suez Canal, and later against the British advance into Palestine. Srodes explains how these events led to what became the NILI spy network, initially headed by Aaron, which provided key order-of-battle intelligence to the British in Cairo in anticipation of their support for the Zionist goal of a Jewish homeland. When Aaron went to work with the British in Cairo, Sarah took over the network. Srodes describes the challenges she faced, both personal and operational.

Spies in Palestine offers much praise for the NILI spies, but little concrete information as to the effects of their efforts—though at times Srodes suggests these effects were more important than those of Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab revolt he led. What tradecraft is alluded to is amateurish, but of course that is just what they were: a family of spies learning on the job, with little support from other Jewish settlers in the area who feared Turkish reprisals.

That the NILI network endured over two years was due as much to Turkish corruption and ineptitude as to NILI luck and determination. When the Turks finally came to Zichron Ya’akov and began torturing the inhabitants to learn what they had revealed to the British, those who knew said nothing—and Sarah chose suicide rather than the torture she feared she could not withstand.

The story of the NILI spies has been told before and Srodes adds little new.[5] But he does deal with some of the myths about Sarah; for example, he revisits “one of the tantalizing puzzles of the Sarah Aaronsohn story … [which was) the widely believed romance with T.E. Lawrence [of Arabia).” (p. ix) That myth grew in part out of speculation that the “S.A.” to whom Lawrence dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom[6] was Sarah. “Widely believed” is a stretch, and Srodes himself adds doubt to the dedication and romance stories by repeating an undocumented fable by author Douglas Duff. Duff claimed that when he met Lawrence in 1935, Lawrence asked him if Duff had dedicated a book to Sarah Aaronsohn. When Duff said he had, Lawrence noted it was strange that “both of us [have] a book dedicated to her, without either of us having seen her alive.” (p. 189) That Duff ever met Lawrence is extremely doubtful, and the book he dedicated to Sarah was published after Lawrence’s death.

For those unfamiliar with the NILI spy story, Spies in Palestine is fine account of their contributions and testament to the bravery of Sarah Aaronsohn.

[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.

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 130-131). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

[3] NILI is an acronym taken from I Samuel, 15:29, “the Eternity of Israel will not lie”: Netzach Israel lo leshaker (NILI).

[4] Srodes, James (1999). Allen Dulles: Master of Spies. Washington, DC: Regnery

[5] Engle, Anita (1959). The NILI Spies. London: Hogarth Press

[6] Lawrence, T.E. (1926). Seven Pillars of Wisdom. New York: G.H. Doran


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