The Jewish world is about to mark the centenary of epoch-changing events that set the stage for Israel’s establishment. There will be major events to mark 100 years since developments like the Balfour Declaration — but the echoes of some of the real drama are found in an unlikely spot.
Last week, I found myself at the cemetery in the winery town of Zichron Yaakov, better known today for its merlot than its military importance, watching a small ceremony to honor a woman who killed herself exactly a century earlier to defend a spy ring that helped change the Middle East.
Sara Aaronson was a leader of the NILI spy ring, which had been passing intelligence to the British, believing that London would take over Palestine from Ottoman rule and pave the way for a Jewish state — and they were proved right. Within a month of her death, the British had turned the fortunes of their Palestine campaign at Beersheba, and issued the Balfour Declaration, which accepted the idea of a “national home” for the Jews.
She was a modern Maccabee, the scholar who led the ceremony suggested. “Yehuda Maccabee was against the Greeks and in the same way Sara Aaronson was against the Ottomans,” Avshalom Kor said.
When Aaronson fatally shot herself in this town, between torture sessions at the hands of the Ottomans, she stopped them from discovering what intelligence she and other firebrand young Jews in the NILI spy ring had told the British, and the identity of sources.
With both the Beersheba and Balfour centenaries coming up next week, the Aaronson ceremony and various conversations in Zichron Yaakov vividly transported me into this era. It was a time when the Brits — the best hope of the Zionists of the day — had limited information on the geography of the country, never mind the enemy capability, and desperately needed every scrap of intelligence they could get their hands on.
And it was a time when water was power. It took a bookish Jewish man, Sara Aaronson’s brother Aaron, with the help of the first-century historian Flavius Josephus, to get things flowing for the British. The senior British intelligence officer Basil Thomson wrote in his memoirs of a meeting with Aaron Aaronson, and quoted him saying: “Why do you bring water for the army from Egypt? It slows your progress. There is water there right in the desert, 300 feet down. All you have to do is drill for it.”
Asked how he was sure, Aaron Aaronson said that he knew the land well and the rocks indicate it, and then gave a more surprising answer: the writings of Josephus corroborate it. The War Office wasn’t keen, but “Aaronson’s obstinacy overcame all obstacles. And eventually at a depth of 300 feet was found enough fresh water for the needs of the army.”
This didn’t just help quench thirst; it opened up a greater number of strategic options for the British, and allowed them to be less predictable to their enemy — and more successful.
One of the most knowledgeable people on local history and NILI in Zichron Yaakov is the New York-born author Hillel Halkin, who moved to the town in the 1970s and spent years trying to solve mysteries that lingered about the spy ring. He published a book, “A Strange Death,” on the subject. When I talked to Halkin, he suggested that NILI and its water knowledge may have convinced the British to change battle plans.
The turning point for the Brits and the Allies was Oct. 31 when soldiers, mostly Australians and New Zealanders, defeated the Ottomans at Beersheba, but “the Turks never really expected the Brits to go to Beersheba, especially without water for the horses in the desert.”
Halkin said that NILI — an acronym for “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker,” which means “the Eternal One of Israel will not lie” — pushed the British towards a Beersheba approach, and the element of surprise it offered. “After the British kept battering away in Gaza and not progressing, NILI urged the Beersheba attack,” he said. “They urged the Beersheba attack, telling the British that Beersheba was weakly defended.”
Aside from NILI’s military importance, the significance of the spies is said to be important for the political backdrop of the Balfour Declaration. Anita Engle, in her book “The Nili Spies” — the source for the Thomson quotes above — wrote about Aaron Aaronson’s 1916 visit to London. He met decision makers, and Engle suggested that a document he distributed there “contains within it the germ of the Balfour Declaration.”
Engle wrote: “It provides the missing link needed for a logical explanation of how the War Cabinet, engaged in what seemed to be a losing war, suddenly came to have the idea of a Jewish National Home pressed on it as a major instrument of policy.” Her theory of NILI as “the missing link” is rather too neat for my liking, but by Sara Aaronson’s grave I certainly got pulled in to a remarkable story, little known outside of Israel, of how a group of young Jews had an impact, the full extent of which we’ll probably never fully quantify, on the military and political direction of one of the great powers of the 20th century.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.