NILI — The Other Side of the Balfour Declaration

“Never, never, never give up” [Winston Churchill]

Much is owed the brilliant author and historian, Shmuel Katz, for his exposure of the Aaronson family and the NILI spies during WW1. This he did through 3 books, Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, Lone Wolf and The Aaronsohn Saga. From Lone Wolf, “At the end of October, 1916, Aaron Aaronson, arrived in England to offer his services in the hoped – campaign in Palestine.” Emphasis is laid on the fact that Aaronson’s role in furthering the Zionist cause during this crucial period has never received the recognition that is his due – he “was a natural scientist of world repute” had “an unequaled knowledge of Palestine” in all its natural aspects.

As recently as 24/07/2017, we learn from an Arutz 7 piece by former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy that through his new study the NILI spy network, they “may have” played a key role in advancing the document which helped create the Jewish state. Much of what Halevy has studied and reports appears as an absolute confirmation of what Katz had stated in his books. Included are the following key items:
[1] Aaronsohn——was one of only two Zionists [Weizmann was the other] invited to the British government session on October 31, 1917.
[2] Colonel Walter Gibbon———suggested that it was “largely owing to the information provided by the Aaronsohn network that General Allenby was able to conduct his campaign in Palestine successfully.”

Halevy is of the opinion that Samuel Aaronson, Aaron’s brother, received a draft copy of the Balfour Declaration because of the NILI effort. It was felt that by smuggling the draft into Palestine it would encourage NILI operatives on the ground to double their effort in gathering more information.

Efraim Halevy’s concluding remark speaks volumes: “NILI proved how a handful of determined people can transcend their immediate condition, and through the power of their convictions, win over powerful international figures to support their cause.”

Writing in Lone Wolf, Shmuel Katz informs us that at the end of October, 1916, Aaronsohn arrived in England to offer his services in the hoped-for British campaign in Palestine. He, in this role, really came to the fore in utilizing his unequaled knowledge of Palestine in all its natural aspects. It was in 1915 that he, with a group of followers in Zichron Yaakov, had launched the NILI intelligence organization to serve Britain from behind the Turkish lines.

On November 11, 1918, WW1 ended and after the war, members of the British military establishment led by General Allenby expressed enormous praise on Aaronson. General Gribbon asserted that his advise “saved the British 30,000-40,000 casualties”. Sadly, a few weeks prior, the Turks succeeded in penetrating NILI, subsequently hanging two of its members, Yoseph Lishansky and Na’aman Belkind in Damascus in public. This atrocity was compounded by the capture and torture of Aaronson’s younger sister Sarah by the Turks, following her assumption of leadership of the organization in his absence. She then elected to commit suicide rather than expose herself to giving away information under torture.

Where Weizmann failed, Aaronsohn had the “ear of the British command” which led to their liberation of Southern Palestine. He displayed great knowledge and wisdom while working with Allenby’s staff in Egypt resulting in the strategic key to breaking the deadlock before Gaza. In this, he was able to utilize the invaluable intelligence provided by his NILI organization . Thus, he earned a unique prestige within the British establishment

As a further indication of the influence exerted by Aaronsohn relates to Mark Sykes of Sykes-Picot fame. He had been a self-confessed anti-Semite until, in Cairo he met a proud nationalist Jew in Aaron Aaronsohn, from whom he learned more about Zionism in London. In 1919, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen was Allenby’s Chief Political Officer, involved in the creation of the Palestine Mandate. He too, confessed to an original anti-Semitism which evaporated after he met Aaronsohn and other members of his family in Palestine and had seen some of the Jewish agricultural settlements in Southern Palestine.
Meinertzhagen made no secret of his feelings towards Jews and stated,” My views on Zionism are those of an ardent Zionist” shortly after assuming his post in Cairo.

Shmuel Katz in “Battlefield” describes the prevailing dilemma facing the Jews prior to the commencement of WW1 – Britain and Tsarist Russia or Germany and Turkey? Anti-Semitism existed to a greater extent in the former than the latter. However, the three Zionist leaders at the time, Weizmann, Jabotinsky and Aaronsohn were independently of one mind in that Jewish restoration could only be built “on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.”

In the given period, only Aaronsohn lived in Palestine and he had been chosen by the Turkish government to direct the campaign against the locust plague existing during the first year of the war. Soon after the war began, Aaronsohn became aware of the extermination in cold blood by the Turks of approximately two million Armenian subjects of their empire. Simultaneously, the Jews in Palestine were being subjected to terrorization, despoliation and deportation.

The contribution of Aaronsohn and his NILI organization towards the British war effort “proved indispensable.” His “encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain” in all its aspects – population, climatic vagaries, water problems, transport problems – was unique. The overall contribution of NILI was not without numerous tragedies. Apart from the loss of Sarah Aaronsohn, Avshalom Feinberg, Aaronsohn’s chief collaborator, was killed by Bedouins while attempting to reach Egypt while Naam Belkind and Yosef Lishansky were hanged in Damascus. There were other Jews who were imprisoned and tortured.

The significance of Aaronsohn’s war effort drew the attention of Allenby himself. “He was mainly responsible for the formation of my Field Intelligence Organization behind the Turkish lines.”

Shmuel Katz’s “The Aaronsohn Saga” dedicated as it is to the subject matter obviously provides the complete story of this much underrated chapter in history. The Aaronsohn family emigrated from Romania in 1882 and founded the moshav in Zichron Yaakov. The children were amongst the first generation of native-born Jews in the Zionist return to Palestine. The secret pro-British spy organization founded by Aaron Aaronsohn was a dedicated family endeavor with siblings Sarah, Rivka and Alexander participating, including their close friend Avshalom Feinberg.

NILI, established in 1915 consisted of 40 members and was primarily based in Zichron Yaakov and Hadera. its purpose was to collect information on Turkish military movements for forwarding to British intelligence. Aaron, a well-known agronomist was able to establish himself with Diemal Pasha, the governor of Syria and Palestine, who was in need of an expert to combat the plague of locusts that had beset his territory after Turkey’s entry into the war.

Using his research station at Atlit on the coast as a cover for their espionage activities, Aaron and his sister Sarah were able to direct information regularly to a passing yacht run by the forerunner of M16. Aaron left Palestine during June 1916 for the purpose of conveying details to the British on the planned Turkish assault on the Suez Canal. His location of water-holes in the Sinai ultimately allowed British forces to traverse the desert wilderness with ease.

Sarah found herself living in Istanbul as a consequence of an unhappy marriage where she bore witness to the Armenian carnage of the Armenians by the Turks. The shear brutality and cruelty had an enormous adverse effect on her making her determined to increase her efforts in supporting the British against the Turks upon her return to Palestine. This, despite the position of establishment Jewry, but not Chaim Weizmann nor Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Later, Sarah described viewing hundreds of bodies being loaded onto trains, and witnessing the brutal murder of up to 5,000 Armenians, whose bodies were then piled onto trains, piled in a pyramid with kindling and set on fire.
When British troops stopped sending the frigate to collect NILI messages, they used homing pigeons.

During September, 1917, one of NILI’s pigeons landed on a house owned by the Turkish governor of Caesarea. The message was located by Ottoman officials and decoded it, becoming aware of NILI. This caused them to aggressively seek out members and leaders of the organization as a matter of priority. One by one, Turkish militia men rounded up members of NILI.

Sarah was arrested on October 1,1917 and observed her father and brother tortured in front of her. Contrary to the expectations of her Turkish savages, she did not provide them any crucial information. In the belief that she would be transferred to Damascus, face further brutality and ultimately be hanged, she requested permission to change out of her bloodstained clothes at the family home in Zikhron. She then retrieved a concealed weapon and shot herself in the mouth. She did not die instantly but lingered for 3 excruciating days prior to expiring on October 10, 1917.

Shmuel Katz particularly acknowledged Sarah’s contribution. “It is impossible to see and write of Sarah only as a lesser payer – as Aaron’s deputy – in the drama of NILI—-or even as merely NILI’s commander in the field. That task itself demanded qualities of a very high order. They soon revealed themselves – and
revealed that Sarah was a great historic personality in her own right.” Indeed, two chapters in the book are devoted to her, “The death of Sarah” and “Sarah’s last letter [October 9, 1917].”

Over the years, Aaronson faced by Jewish and English opposition. Only with Jabotinsky was he always in agreement. In his diary, he wrote, “The British officers in the Administration have friendly feelings for Islam and are opposed to the Jews. The Arabs are becoming more and more brazen. It seems, as Sykes himself admits, that Jabotinsky’s interpretation [of the situation] is not mistaken at all.”

While Jewish leaders of the community in Palestine showed disdain for Aaronsohn, Weizmann differed, knowing for the tasks ahead that, there was nobody as capable, knowledgeable and professionally equipped as Aaronson. Nor could his unequaled standing with the British be set aside.

At noon on December 11, 1917, General Allenby dismounted his horse and walked through the Jaffa Gate to take possession of Jerusalem from the defeated Turks on behalf of the British Crown. Ironically this preceded the Turks hanging of Naaman Belkind and Yosef Lishansky in Damascus by 5 days.

The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917; was on January 26,1918, and for the next two years, not even published in Palestine. Thus, for the Palestine population it did not exist. The military administration ignored it completely and acted according to a code of its own – one directed against any manifestation of Zionist development. The British officers at that time, had all previously served in Arab populated countries.

Aaronsohn was denied a place in the delegation at the Council of Ten January 27, 1919 historic event. However at a dinner following the meeting including prominent Zionists and 3 British officers – Gribbon, Meinertzhagen and Ormsby-Gore , all of whom had worked with him, Gribbon stated, “The Jews must remember that no man has done more than Aaron to make the conquest of Palestine by the British possible.”

Amid the Zionist’s preparations for presentation at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference arose the shocking blow to Aaronsohn and the Zionists of the death of Mark Sykes, his closest friend and confident in Britain on February 4, 1919, as a result of the raging worldwide influenza epidemic

Aaron Aaronsohn did not live to see the fruit of his labors, tragically perishing in a flight over the English Chanel on May 15, 1919. Recalling once again, life’s mystery as to why “bad things happen to good people.”

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.
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