An hour and 70 kms north of Tel Aviv, en route to Haifa on highway 2 you find the pastoral town of Zichron Ya’acov. The quaint surroundings and picturesque dwellings are a surprising background of a life altering botanical discovery and espionage.
Between 1915 to 1917 during WWI from their home in Zichron Ya’akov, Aharon Aaronsohn and his sister Sarah created a Jewish espionage network known as N.I.L.I. – an acronym for “Netsah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker”, meaning “The Eternal One of Israel will not Lie”. The group sided with the British against the Turks who occupied the Holy land at the time. The core group comprised of the Aaronsohn family – Sarah, Aharon, Alex , Rivka, her fiance Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky.
In 1915, prior to Avshalom Feinberg joining the group, he was falsely arrested by the Turks. When a plague of locusts invaded the Land of Israel at the time, Aharon Aaronsohn, a world renown agronomist, was approached by the Turks to deal with the problem. He agreed on condition that they release Feinberg who was his assistant . The Turks consequently acceded to his request and Feinberg was released from detention.
The Turks turned to Aaronsohn since he discovered specimens of wild hybrid wheat in Rosh Pinah, a town in the upper Galilee near Safad. The discovery made him famous among botanists throughout the world. The specimen is thought by many to be related to the hybrid Emer wheat that was cultivated first in the Middle East and is the basis of agriculture. As predicted by Aaronsohn, the discovery revolutionized the production of cultivated wheat. This discovery enabled people to grow wheat in a designated area and obviated the need for them to go in search for wild wheat, thereby enabling the mass production and harvesting of a staple food.
Aarosohn’s status as a world renown agronomist, geologist & botanist, allowed him to move freely and unsuspiciously through Europe, the U.S.A and the Middle East. As a result he was in charge of operations abroad. Because of his background he was able to map out wells across the Negev desert that were concealed and heavily guarded by the Turks.
From Cairo he secretly liaised with the British. However it was only after he arrived in London and was able to meet with the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes that the British fully realized the groups worth.
The group encountered a lot of opposition by the local population as well as from the Zionist leadership, the latter of which objected to the fact that the group did not coordinate there activities with them.
Sarah Aaronsohn, who oversaw operations in the Land of Israel, witnessed the Turkish genocidal massacre of the Armenians whilst returning home from Constantinople. News of massacre unnerved the local population. They feared a Turkish victory would subject them to the same fate as that of the Armenians.
Initially information was passed from the shores of Atlit to and from the steam yacht “Managem” which positioned itself within swimming distance off the coast line. Due to the presence of German submarines in the area, it was decided instead to use homing pigeons to convey information.
Tragically one of these pigeons was caught at a Turkish governors house in Caesaria and the message was decoded. This resulted in mass arrests of the group, who were then mercilessly tortured.
The Turks tortured Sarah Aaronsohn for a number of days but could not break her. They then decided to send her to Damascus for further torture. Prior to her departure she asked if she could go to her house in Zichron Ya’akov to clean herself up to which the Turks acceded.
Whilst in the house she managed to commit suicide by using a pistol that was concealed within the house. Tragically she did not die immediately but suffered for a number of days thereafter until death finally relieved her pain.
Ron Traub is a certified Israeli tour guide and can be reached by email at [email protected].
Published under special arrangement with Mida