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 Empire—Amy 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.