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


A University of Michigan Professor Exposes the Full Implications of Academic Boycotts of Israel

Sept. 26 2018

A few weeks ago, Professor John Cheney-Lippold of the University of Michigan told an undergraduate student he would write a letter of recommendation for her to participate in a study-abroad program. But upon examining her application more carefully and realizing that she wished to spend a semester in Israel, he sent her a polite email declining to follow through. His explanation: “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” and “for reasons of these politics” he would no longer write the letter. Jonathan Marks comments:

We are routinely told . . . that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study-abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. . . .

Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the [Michigan] student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights [and] freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”

Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney-Lippold could have found out by using Google. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent “resistance” but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.

That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an international day of solidarity with the “new generation of Palestinians” who were then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis—all civilians—dead.

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More about: Academia, Academic Boycotts, BDS, Israel & Zionism, Knife intifada