Three Tales of the Jewish Spy Ring That Helped the British Take Palestine from the Ottomans

June 22 2018

In the midst of World War I, a few Jews in the village of Zikhron Yaakov formed a clandestine group called NILI, which relayed information about the placement of Ottoman forces to General Allenby’s army in Egypt, helping to ensure the success of his invasion. Just weeks before the British offensive began, Ottoman counterintelligence cracked the spy ring and captured and brutally tortured Sarah Aaronsohn, one of its leaders. Aaronsohn managed to kill herself rather than risk giving up any secrets. Reviewing two recent biographies of Aaronsohn—James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine and Gregory Wallance’s The Woman Who Fought an EmpireAmy Newman Smith highlights what they reveal about their heroine’s character:

Wallance’s narrative allows Sarah to step out of the shadow of her famous brother [Aaron Aaronsohn] and her headstrong colleagues, showcasing her intense focus and sense of duty to her fellow Jews. In Wallance’s telling, NILI was not only the scientist-diplomat Aaron’s project. He describes Sarah’s horrified eyewitness reports on the Armenian genocide as just as central to NILI’s founding as [her collaborators’] hatching plans to aid the British for Zionist ends. Where Aaron paid bribes to and joked with Djemal Pasha, Sarah was convinced that Djemal “would match, if not exceed, the brutality of the dozens of sultans who had ruled the Ottoman empire over six centuries.”

Newman Smith also contrasts the two books with Hillel Halkin’s 2005 book on NILI, A Strange Death:

Halkin, [in contrast to both Wallance and Srodes], underscores how, by defining a life as “historic,” historians elide much that makes a life. His Sarah is not an untouchable heroine, but rather a woman whose “heroism and passion” are “perfectly human.” . . .

Where Wallance and Srodes both place their trust in the established archives, Halkin shows us memorial books from small settlements, township-council notes, pictures found in abandoned buildings, and the memories of those who lived through NILI and the aftermath, as malleable and unreliable as those memories might be. The established narrative is that fear of the Turks motivated those Jews who opposed NILI, even to the point of betraying it. Halkin bids us to look deeper, . . . [by] showing how small-town feuds and rivalries, past hurts, and insults intersect with historical events.

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More about: Edmund Allenby, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Ottoman Empire, World War I

By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria