Nicole Levin
Historic Preservation Lawyer

Espionage in the Holy Land

Picture of Sarah Aaronsohn Taken in 1910 by Shlomo Narinsky. From the Pikiwiki site.

Imagine living under a brutal totalitarian regime. The local unelected authorities can basically do whatever they want. If they need something, they can confiscate it from your store without compensation. They can summon you to their offices on a whim, day or night, and ask you to provide some service or perform an impossible task without pay.  Refusing is not an option.

That was life for the residents of Eretz Yisrael under Ottoman rule. It didn’t matter whether you were Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. Everyone was subject to the caprices of the Ottoman authorities.

With the start of World War I, Ottoman rulers suspected treachery at every turn, and regarded the local population as traitors. The Anglo Palestine Company (the Jewish bank that later became Bank Leumi) was closed down. It was forbidden to use Hebrew signs. Jews that did not have Ottoman citizenship were told to leave or were deported. Trade and commerce came to a halt. The army confiscated animals and crops. People were starving.

News of the persecution and murder of the Armenian people spread.  Many Jews feared that they would be next. How much longer could this life under a cruel totalitarian regime go on? How much longer could people suffer under a government that abused its citizens and saw no reason to invest in schools, hospitals, or other critical infrastructures?

This situation gave rise to NILI, a Jewish spy ring established by Sara Aaronsohn, her brother Aaron Aaronsohn, Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky. The name is an acronym of a phrase from the First Book of Samuel, Netzakh Yisrael Lo Yeshaker  (The Eternity (God) of Israel Will Not Lie). Aaron Aaronsohn was a well-known agronomist who ran an agricultural experimental station at Atlit, near Zichron Ya’akov, where he lived. He had travelled the length and breadth of the Holy Land and discovered emmer, believed to be the mother of wheat; the discovery gained him international acclaim in his field.

The British were then stationed in Egypt, and Aaronsohn felt that they should replace the Ottomans as rulers of Palestine. He travelled to Egypt to meet the British,  and provided them with valuable intelligence on roads, rivers, the location of towns, and even water sources in the desert for the troops that would need to move northward. While Aaronsohn sat in Egypt, his sister, Sarah, ran the spy ring from the experimental station in Atlit. Members of the ring gathered information about troop movements in Palestine and the information was passed on to the British by a boat that anchored periodically off the coast of Atlit or by homing pigeons. The information supplied to the British by Nili was invaluable and played an important part in the British victory in Palestine in World War l.

The homing pigeons eventually led to the discovery of these activities by the Turks, who had suspected for some time that a Jewish spy ring was operating in Palestine.  One day, one of the homing pigeons went astray and was captured by the Turks, who began to investigate more thoroughly. These investigations, which were accompanied by threats of collective punishment should the Jewish community refuse to cooperate, led to NILI: Many people in the Yishuv were aware of Nili’s activities; someone must have given them away. Whether this person was from the Yishuv or perhaps Na’aman Belkind, a member of NILI who was captured by the Turks and tortured, it is not known.

What happened to the people of the spy ring after their discovery? Avshalom Feinberg was already dead- killed in the Sinai desert while trying to reach Egypt—though no one knew for certain at the time. News of his death reached his friends later; his body was discovered decades later, after the Sixth Day War. Yosef Lishansky was suspected of killing Feinberg; he was only completely cleared of these charges when Feinberg’s remains were found and identified. When the Turks discovered the spy ring, Sarah Aaronsohn and her father were arrested and brutally tortured. During this ordeal, Sarah shot herself and died on October 17, 1917. She was 27 years old. This month marks 132 years since her birth.

Yosef Lishansky flew from justice, avoiding both the Turks and the Jewish leadership.  The Turks were looking for him because of his involvement in the NILI spy ring, and the Jews believed he had killed Avshalom Feinberg. The Hashomer organization suspected him of stealing gold that Meir Dizengoff brought to Palestine to feed hungry Jews during the war. Under the guise of helping him escape the Turks, they attempted to kill him; Yosef Lishansky escaped his Hashomer escorts but was eventually picked up by the Turks and executed in Damascus together with Na’aman Belkind. The gold was never found although many conspiracy theories exist about its whereabouts.

What did the people of the Yishuv think of NILI? Some people agreed with the actions of its members and admired them. Others were terrified of collective punishment should the Turks discover the spy ring, and therefore felt that the members of NILI had endangered the whole community.

The story of NILI reflects the fragile nature of Jewish communal life in the Yishuv. There was a debate as to whether Jews should take a proactive role in ridding the land of the Turkish rule. If the British won the war, then this would turn out to be the right move.   However, If the Ottomans were victorious, then what horrific punishments would rain down on the residents of the Yishuv? Would the Zionist achievements of the past 50 years be completely erased?

Did one small group of people have the right to endanger the Yishuv by their actions? Was relaying information about NILI and its members to the Turkish authorities an act of patriotism that would save the Yishuv from destruction? Was it right to endanger the life of another Jew by reporting him to the authorities for espionage? These were some of the moral dilemmas that faced the Jews of the Yishuv during World War l.

It was this ambiguity towards NILI that cast a shadow on its legacy for many years afterwards. After Feinberg’s remains were brought for burial at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, the remains of other NILI members were also interred there as well. It was then that the members of NILI began to be recognized as courageous individuals whose activities helped rid the country of Ottoman tyranny.

It is important to note that Aaron Aaronsohn, using his extensive contacts and charisma, was instrumental in promoting Jewish rights to a homeland within the framework of the Sykes- Picoult treaty and the Balfour Declaration. He died in an airplane crash over the English Channel on May 15th, 1919. He was 42 years old.

Like other stories of espionage, the story of NILI is filled with bravery, love stories and legend:  the possible love affair between Sarah and Avshalom; Aaron’s secret voyage from Egypt to Atlit on board a British war ship; the possible murder of Feinberg by Lishansky; the missing gold, and finally a possible love affair between Sarah and Sir Lawrence of Arabia. All this is set against the backdrop of a world war and the sleepy backwater that was the Holy Land. There’s certainly enough material here for a Hollywood film. Where are you, Steven Spielberg?

About the Author
Nicole is one of very few real estate lawyers in Israel who specializes in the restoration and preservation of historic buildings. For over thirty years, she has supported clients in Israel and abroad in complex real estate projects that include property transactions of all types; development and planning; investment and tax issues; and project management. Her expertise in historic restoration enables her to advise entrepreneurs and investors in all aspects of conservation and preservation, such as legislation, economic incentives, modern building preservation technologies, and legal processes and documentation. She has an LL. B from Bar Ilan University and passed the Israeli bar exam in 1983. In addition, she earned a B.A. in Conservation Studies from the Western Galilee College in Akko and an M.A. in Preservation and Development of Landscape and Cultural Assets from the Bar Ilan University.