By Joseph Lowin
Vol.100 No.2, Media Mention, November/December 2018
One simple definition of zionism is that it is about saving Jewish lives. Certainly that is the express motivation of Jewish spymistress Sarah Aaronsohn. She asserts venehemntly, on more than one occasion, “My only concern is with saving my Jewish brothers and sisters in the land of Israel.” This sentiment flows throughout Wallance’s thoroughly researched and fast-paced book on the battle between England and the Ottoman Empire for control of Palestine.
What sets Wallance’s book apart is his use of alternating frameworks
“The Woman Who Fought an Empire, Gregory J. Wallance’s beautifully written and meticulously researched account of Sarah Aaronsohn’s leadership of the Nili spy network during World War I, casts a long overdue spotlight on one of the most fascinating personalities of the early Zionist era and should be required reading for anyone interested in modern Jewish history.”
– Ronald S. Lauder, President, World Jewish Congress
"A solid, well-researched biography of a remarkable woman."
– Ronald Florence, author, Lawrence and Aaronsohn: T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
The Spy and the Men Who Loved Her
SARAH AARONSOHN with fellow Nili spies Yosef Lishansky (left) and Liova Schneersohn in Cairo, 1917.(photo credit: POTOMAC BOOKS)
Israeli history boasts some powerful female figures, one of the most effective of whom was surely Sarah Aaronsohn.
The saga of this stalwart heroine is documented in Gregory J. Wallance’s new book, The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and her Nili Spy Ring.
Wallance’s saga is a fascinating, entirely readable entry into the history of the Nili spy ring, a group of Jews who spied for the British in hopes of aiding in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Aaronsohn, the leader of the operation, was motivated by witnessing the Armenian genocide on her way from Constantinople to her hometown of Zichron Ya’acov. She feared a similar fate would befall Jews under the Ottomans, and set out to do her part to influence regime change.
The text is accessible and engrossing even for novices of Middle Eastern and World War I history, though it provides sufficient depth into the principal Nili figures to still keep more informed Zionist history aficionados interested.
The book is more about the ring than about Aaronsohn herself, however, and might more aptly be titled “The men who admired the woman who fought an empire.” The book makes it clear that a man had merely to meet Aaronsohn once, or even to hear about her in passing, to fall in love with her. Nearly every nonrelative in the tale is in love with Aaronsohn, old and young, adventurers and intellectuals, bachelors and husbands – it makes little difference; all were enchanted by Sarah’s blond hair and “dainty hands.”
What is most poignant about the book, especially in this modern #MeToo era, is how much this admiration hindered and vexed Sarah, who was devoted to her work and suffered frequent setbacks due to the jealous behavior and emotional outbursts of her male “colleagues.” In comparison to her egocentric brother Aaron, her hot-tempered and impulsive compatriots Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky, her brother’s dreamy and spiritual assistant Liova Schneersohn (all of whom, besides Aaron, seemed to be obsessively enamored of her), she described herself as “stronger than iron and cold as stone.”
“I would never have believed that I could find such strength in myself,” she wrote in a letter.
Wallance observed that Aaronsohn was a much more effective spy than most of those around her, including her more famous brother Aaron, in that she was able to control her emotions and withhold information even from the people she loved most – skills one would think prerequisites for a functional spy.
Aaronsohn’s persistence in remaining calm, methodical and goal-oriented amid the political machinations, egotistical posturing, and frankly pathetic lovesickness of her male compatriots makes her a sympathetic figure to the reader, and (spoiler alert, for the Nili uninitiated) makes her early demise at the hands of another impulsive compatriot who caved when captured all the more tragic and frustrating.
Strangely, although many apt comparisons could be made between Aaronsohn and other women of her time who struggled for the resources, acknowledgment and independence necessary to do their work effectively, Wallance makes just one comparison: to alleged German spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari. Wallance three times makes this analogy, each time seemingly elevating Aaronsohn as a true spy and denouncing Mata Hari as “the nude dancer and courtesan who had no significant espionage achievements.”
Yanko Epstein, an occasional Nili helper, refused to enter the research station where Aaronsohn worked because he didn’t approve of her evidently sharing a room with Lishansky. In fact, Wallance writes, Epstein bragged about this in retrospect to Israeli writer Hillel Halkin: “A woman who stoops to spying doesn’t stop there. What is it to surrender your body when you’ve already surrendered all else?” Aaronsohn is unable to get out from underneath this oppressive male gaze even in her own biography. Whether due to editorial selection or lack of material, we hear much more about her from the men around her than from her own words.
“God hasn’t granted me the talent of writing and expressing myself in words, and that’s why many beautiful things and many profound thoughts are buried in the deepest chambers of my heart, without being heard and understood by others,” she wrote in response to an over-the-top love letter from a colleague.
While that might not be a bad trait in a spy, it does leave Aaronsohn and her true feelings rather mysterious and at the mercy of the interpretation of her male hangers-on. The Woman Who Fought an Empire is a tantalizing peek into her life, and a frustrating reminder of how her gender impeded her in various ways, making her accomplishments all the more impressive.
A Turkish officer who observed Aaronsohn refusing to reveal information even after days of severe torture noted that she was worth “one hundred men.” Wallance leaves readers marveling at her accomplishments and wondering, intentionally or not, what more she could have accomplished with colleagues more like herself.
Ariane Mandell Jerusalem Post 2018-05-03)
Wallance vividly conveys the logistical challenges and daily intrigue of operating a spy ring in that time and place."—Jeff Fleischer, Foreword
Within the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Sarah Aaronsohn, her siblings, and their friends formed a Jewish spy ring—Nili—that collected information for the United Kingdom. Spurred into action after she personally witnessed Ottoman crimes during the government’s genocide against the Armenians, Aaronsohn’s efforts helped pave the way for the future state of Israel, and her story offers plenty of historical intrigue.
Despite its title, the book focuses equally on Sarah’s counterparts within Nili. Her brother Aaron, for example, was a top agronomist, and his skill at combating outbreaks of locusts helped him earn his way into Turkish government circles. Her sister’s fiancé, Avshalom Feinberg, traveled from then-Palestine to Egypt on foot to pass information to the British. Over time, though, Sarah rose to become the head of the spy ring, tasked with juggling many difficult factions, from a local Jewish community that feared that Nili’s British ties would bring reprisals from the Ottoman government to skeptical or dubious allies.
Wallance vividly conveys the logistical challenges and daily intrigue of operating a spy ring in that time and place: coordinating the arrival of boats and swimmers to transport letters; sending messages by carrier pigeon; trying to determine what information was real and how much to reveal at any point. The story gets more compelling as it goes along. Nili’s efforts draw Ottoman attention, and evading capture becomes increasingly difficult. The last few chapters are particularly gripping, as daily survival grows as significant as the greater war effort.
Nili didn’t last long enough to see the Allied victory in World War I, much less to see the creation of a Jewish state in a former Ottoman-occupied territory. Still, its efforts were an important part of both outcomes, and Wallance’s work thoroughly demonstrates how.
(Jeff Fleischer March/April 2018)
"Wallance's saga is a fascinating, entirely readable entry into the history of the Nili spy ring, a group of Jews who spied for the British in hopes of aiding in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Aaronsohn, the leader of the operation, was motivated by witnessing the Armenian genocide on her way from Constantinople to her hometown of Zichron Ya'acov. She feared a similar fate would befall Jews under the Ottomans, and set out to do her part to influence regime change. . . . Wallance leaves readers marveling at her accomplishments and wondering, intentionally or not, what more she could have accomplished with colleagues more like herself."—Ariane Mandell, Jerusalem Post
(Ariane Mandell Jerusalem Post 2018-05-03)
"In order to prevent further Turkish atrocities, Aaronsohn and her Nili ring of spies began offering the British, who were fighting the Turks in battles in Egypt, information from behind Ottoman lines. Wallance paints a portrait of a complex woman who performed heroic work during difficult times. For those looking for a book about espionage that has real human lives at stake, this little-known story is a tremendous read."—Lorraine Berry, Signature Reads
(Lorraine Berry Signature Reads 2018-04-12)