Book Club Discussion Topics
1. Sarah Aaronsohn grew up in the 1890s in Palestine at a time when women, including in the Jewish settlements in the Ottoman Empire, had an inferior political and social status. For example, Jewish women in Palestine were not allowed to vote at settlement meetings and were expected to stay at home and take care of the children, cleaning, cooking and sewing. Yet Sarah became a bold, determined, and independent-minded young woman who led a mostly male spy ring. What about Sarah accounts for this -- was it the character she was born with, family influence, her environment, or some other factor?
2. Avshalom Feinberg is one of the book’s most striking characters -- a fearless young man, imaginative, even a poet in several languages. Before the start of World War I in 1914, Sarah’s sister Rivka became engaged to Avshalom (although they never married) and Sarah married another man and moved to Constantinople. In 1916 Sarah and Avshalom were fellow spies in Palestine and were often together; Rivka was then in the United States. Do you think Avshalom and Sarah were in love during this period or were they just devoted friends? When Avshalom was killed in the desert, Sarah was grief stricken and never appeared to get over his death. What does the following passage from a letter Sarah wrote some months after Avshalom’s death tell us about her feelings towards him:
"And if there were a few people who could understand me, there aren't many of them left. The dearest and most special one who knew and understood me so well is no longer with us. . . . I prefer not to speak of him, because the heart aches too much and silence, in this case, is a better cure than words."
3. The book mentions Mata Hari, a pre-war nude dancer and later a spy in World War I, but points out that she wasn’t much of a spy but still managed to get herself executed for espionage. Her execution made her a legend and inspired the cultural stereotype of woman spies as femme fatales who first weaken men through seduction into disclosing secrets and then betray them.
Is that stereotype reflected today in shows like Homeland or movies like Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence? For example, in an episode in Homeland, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) seduces a teenage Pakistani asset and then uses the love-struck boy as bait to catch a terrorist but succeeds only in getting the boy killed. Profitable entertainment, but does the femme fatale stereotype promote a misogynistic image of women? Is that something that the #MeToo movement, with its many Hollywood actresses, should object to?
4. Sarah was spying for the British because she thought a British victory over the Ottomans would mean the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine that would protect the Jews from being slaughtered by the Ottomans, as happened to the Armenians. But didn’t that lead ultimately to the creation of the state of Israel and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Would the Palestinians regard Sarah as a heroine?
5. In the book a meeting takes place in Cairo between Sarah’s brother Aaron, a Zionist, and T.E Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, an advocate for Arab independence. Does that meeting, which did not go well, suggest that Arabs and Jews had irreconcilable interests and that conflict between them was inevitable? Or, could the two men, and others, have laid the groundwork, as the modern Middle East took shape during and after the war, for the two sides to find a way to co-exist that might have avoided much bloodshed and suffering? In this regard, pay close attention to the language of the Balfour Declaration on p. 239.
6. Is Sarah Aaronsohn someone whom women today, especially young women, could look to as a role model? Who are the best role models for women in light of #MeToo?