To Spy Out the Land

"We won’t need to die . . . and when the day comes, the boys will turn into green crowned date palms and next to them their girls will petrify into statues of white marble,” wrote the young spy Avshalom Feinberg. While the letter’s recipient, Rivka Aaronsohn, would live until 1981, Feinberg, along with Rivka’s sister Sarah, would die violently within a few years. Some 100 years after the destruction of the Nili spy ring, to which they belonged, two new books tell their story. (Nili was a password taken from Samuel I 15:29, “Netzach Yisrael lo y’shaker,” roughly translatable as “The Eternal One of Israel does not lie.”) 

Published shortly before his death, James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn grew out of a misfiled document the author happened across in the British National Archives while researching a biography of CIA director Allen W. Dulles. Alongside the initials of dozens of civil servants who read the document appropriating 10,000 British pounds (about $600,000 today) for an experimental agricultural site at Atlit, outside the town of Zikhron Yaakov, was a scrawled note, “Considering our moral responsibility for the unhappy fate of the ‘A Organization,’ this is the least we could do.” Like that mislaid government form, the history of the Aaronsohns and the Nili spy ring, which aided the British in their fight against the Ottoman Empire during World War I, has gone through many hands. As Srodes himself observes, “It is an important caution for the reader that not all histories, and certainly not all biographies, on this topic are in agreement. Contradictions of fact, disagreements over interpretation, and individual motives of the historians themselves can confuse.” 

Avshalom Feinberg and Sarah Aaronsohn, 1916.

Avshalom Feinberg and Sarah Aaronsohn, 1916.

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About the Author

Amy Newman Smith is the managing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.


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