By Yale Kramer

June 2005


Every once in a while Horsefeathers encounters a good story that is both surprising, counter-intuitive, and relatively unknown in this part of the world.


When we hear of Jews who have left their mark on the modern world we are most often told about great physicists, doctors, scholars, musicians, bankers. The story I heard recently is about a group of young Jewish men and women who became amateur spies, men and women not only of sensibility but of action, and great courage, a group led by a charismatic leader whose strength and knowledge played a powerful part in the victory of the Allies in World War I in the Middle East.



 Before the outbreak of the war in 1914 the Jews of Palestine were poised to be loyal to the Ottoman Empire, which controlled all of the Levant at that time. But as soon as Turkey became an ally of the Central Powers it became apparent that the Germans were the real masters of the country.


It also became clear to Aaron Aaronsohn, the leader of the Palestinian Jewish community, that the German aspirations to seize and control the Middle East would make any Zionist hope of a Jewish Palestine virtually impossible. He decided that the Turkish-German hold over Palestine must be broken, and that the British Government would be the best hope for a Jewish Palestine.


To achieve these ends he formed a group with the name of NILI, an acronym based on the initials of its Hebrew password: Netzach Israel Lo Yeshaqer, “The Glory of Israel shall not lie down,” a phrase from the Book of Samuel. The leaders of NILI were a triumvirate of outstanding men—besides Aaron Aaronsohn, a scientist of international reputation, there were Absalom Feinberg, a brilliant poet and an extraordinarily courageous man, and Alex Aaronsohn, Aaron’s younger brother, who achieved some fame later in America as an author and lecturer.


One of the biggest problems that the leaders of NILI had was to contact and convince the officers of the British Military Intelligence in Cairo that this group of eager amateurs, officially citizens of the Ottoman Empire, and Jews to boot, had something of value to offer the mighty British military. For over a year, from 1915 to well into 1916, Alex Aaronsohn and then Absalom Feinberg made many attempts to get past the gatekeepers of British Intelligence and were met with disdain and insolence on each occasion.


It wasn’t until Aaron Aaronsohn himself decided to break through to the people at the top that contact was finally established. Aaronsohn was not one to be taken lightly. A giant of a man with a booming voice, he was by then world famous as an agronomist and the leading expert in Middle Eastern agricultural science. After a long, dangerous, and secretive journey from Palestine by way of Berlin and Copenhagen, he arrived in London and, through his commanding presence and reputation, he was able to convince diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and through him Lloyd George that NILI was an important source of military intelligence.


Having been a scientific protégé of the Baron de Rothschild, Aaronsohn was used to dealing with important men. Eventually he came to know and work with all of the major players in the Middle East from Djemal Pasha, Governor General of Palestine, to General Edmund Allenby. Here, from his diary, is an excerpt about one of Aaronsohn’s meetings with T.E Lawrence:


“Sunday, August 12th, 1917.



 I had a chat with Captain Lawrence this morning. Our interview was devoid of amenitity. He has been too successful at an early age—and is infatuated with himself. He gave me a lesson on our colonies—the mentality of the people—the feelings of the Arabs, etc., etc. As I was listening to him I could almost imagine that I was attending a conference by a scientific anti-semitic Prussian speaking English….One would gather from the above interview that nothing can be done in Judea and Samaria where Faisal will never gain access. There might be something to do in Galilea. But Lawrence will conduct his investigation by his own methods in order to learn of the mentality of the Jews in Galilean colonies. If they are in favour of the Arabs they shall be spared, otherwise they shall have their throats cut. He is still at the age where people do not doubt themselves—happy young man! He is plainly hostile to us…”


What did NILI do to help the Brits win the war in the Middle East? They were able to create a network of “agents” everywhere in Turkish Palestine: Medical officers in the Turkish Army, engineers who were at the head of road building and water supply, recruiting officers, commissariat officers. Others were on the front lines collecting first- hand data about military positions, guns, etc. Even the strategies of the Turkish GHQ were discovered.


The net result was that the British acquired an accurate assessment of the Turkish order of battle by the middle of 1917, as well as a clearer picture of the degree of Turkish disorganization and the poor morale of the Turkish forces. But perhaps most important of all was what Aaronsohn himself was able to contribute strategically because of his knowledge of the Sinai desert. He knew that there was water available in the Sinai and where it was located. This intelligence was crucial in Allenby’s breaking through the Turkish front by a concentrated attack against Beersheba.


Eventually NILI came to be regarded as the Brits’ best and most reliable source of intelligence. This is suggested by Major General George MacDonough, Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office, who gave a lecture in 1919 at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich: “You will no doubt remember the great campaign of Lord Allenby in Palestine and perhaps you are surprised at the daring of his actions. Someone who is looking from the side lines, lacking knowledge about the situation, is likely to think that Allenby took unwarranted risks. That is not true. For Allenby knew with certainty from his intelligence (in Palestine) of all the preparations and all the movements of his enemy. All the cards of his enemy were revealed to him, and so he could play his hand with complete confidence. Under these conditions, victory was certain before he began.”


A few years later, Raymond Savage, Deputy Military Secretary to Allenby, told a New York press conference: “It was very largely the daring work of young spies, most of them natives of Palestine, which enabled the…Field-Marshal to accomplish his undertaking effectively.”


But despite NILI’s contribution to British Military intelligence, it was Aaron Aaronsohn’s powerful influence on Allenby which shaped the latter’s strategy in the 1917-18 Palestine campaign. Aaronsohn knew Turkish Syria and it rulers as perhaps no other man then did and could articulate a compelling view of the political and military situation which Allenby was able to exploit victoriously.


Aaron Aaronsohn died mysteriously in May of 1919 during a flight over the English Channel at the age of 43. At the time he was an important participant in Anglo-Zionist affairs and had he lived he would doubtless have made significant contributions to the development of Israel.


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