NILI


NILI, secret pro-British spying organization, that operated under Turkish rule in Syria and Palestine during World War I, from 1915 to 1917, under the leadership of Aaron *Aaronsohn, Avshalom *Feinberg, Sarah *Aaronsohn, and Yosef *Lishansky. Its name consists of the initial letters of the Hebrew verse "Neẓaḥ Yisrael Lo Yeshakker" נֵצַח יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יְשַׁקֵּר – "the Strength of Israel will not lie" (I Sam. 15:29), which served as its password. In British official documents it is named the "A. Organization." Nili was founded by a number of Jews in the moshavot (Jewish agricultural villages), most of whom were born in the country. Their disappointment with the Turkish authorities' treatment of the Jewish population and fear of a fate similar to that of the Armenians led them to the conclusion that the future of the Jews depended on Palestine being taken over by Britain. In January 1915, Avshalom Feinberg, who worked in Aaronsohn's agricultural experimental station at Athlit, was arrested with a group of young men in Ḥaderah who were falsely accused of having contact with British boats off the coast. After his release, Feinberg presented to his teacher and friend, Aaronsohn, a plan for a Jewish revolt with the aid of the British army stationed in Egypt. Aaronsohn, who held an important position in locust control under the Turkish authorities, rejected the plan as impractical, but accepted Feinberg's basic assumption that the British army should be aided by espionage.

Establishing contact with the British headquarters in Egypt was quite difficult. The first messenger, Aaronsohn's brother Alexander, met with the disapproval of the British Arab Bureau in Cairo and went to the United States, where he conducted propaganda against Turkey and Germany. The second, Feinberg, was promised in August that contact with the group would be maintained, but the British did not keep their word; he was caught by the Turks and released only after strenuous efforts by Aaronsohn. Feinberg's trip to Turkey in February 1916, with a view to contacting British agents in neutral Romania, did not bear fruit either. In the meantime the group was joined by Sarah Aaronsohn, Aaron's sister; Yosef Lishansky, head of a watchmen organization in the southern villages; and others, most of them from Zikhron Ya'akov, Ḥaderah, and Rishon le-Zion. Some of the recruits were enlisted in Aaronsohn's locust control staff, thus being able to move all over the country and enter military camps. Military, political, and economic information was collected in the experimental station in Athlit, but there was no way of transmitting it to the British.

To contact the British, Aaronsohn went on a fictional Turkish mission to Germany, in the summer of 1916; then to neutral Denmark, where he contacted British agents; and finally to London. There he met statesmen and soldiers, and, having gained their confidence, was sent to Cairo, where he served as intelligence adviser and helped in the planning of the British offensive against Palestine. In January 1917 Feinberg and Lishansky, disguised as Bedouin, tried to get to Egypt by land to renew contact with Aaronsohn. They were attacked by Bedouin and Feinberg was killed near the British front in Sinai. Lishansky was wounded but found his way to the British lines and joined Aaronsohn. In February 1917 contact was first established between the espionage center at Athlit and British intelligence in Egypt through Lishansky, who was brought to the coast by a British boat. The connections were maintained by sea for several months and the British received useful information collected by the group, supplemented by Aaronsohn's extensive knowledge of the geographical conditions and the personnel of the Turkish command.

The group also sought to help the Jewish population, many of whom were expelled from Jaffa and Tel Aviv by the Turks during the spring of 1917. Aaronsohn devoted much publicity to this persecution, which was later stopped. Other members helped transfer financial support to the yishuv, a difficult task after the United States broke off relations with Turkey in April 1917. Aaronsohn founded an assistance committee corresponding to the one in Egypt, which was set up by exiles from Palestine at the beginning of the war. Sarah Aaronsohn and Lishansky went to see Aaronsohn in Egypt and brought back £2,000 in gold coins, which they handed over to the political committee of the yishuv. This helped change the attitude of the Jewish population and its leaders, who were afraid of the consequences if Nili's activities were discovered by the Turks. The group was asked to arrange for two representatives of the yishuv to meet Aaronsohn and Zionist leaders abroad, to show that the latter approved of Nili's operations. Aaronsohn met Chaim *Weizmann and his colleagues in London in September 1917 and succeeded in convincing them of the importance of Nili's work as part of the political and military work of the section of the Zionist movement that had called for an alliance with Britain from the beginning of the war. It seemed that Nili was trying to become a political factor in Palestine and the Zionist movement; it made approaches to *Ha-Shomer and other groups.

In September 1917 the Turks caught a carrier pigeon sent from Athlit to Egypt that provided clear proof of espionage within the Jewish population, and the leadership again dissociated itself from Nili's actions. Internal conflicts weakened the organization, and there were grave suspicions over the circumstances of Feinberg's death. One of the group, Na'aman Belkind, was captured by the Turks while trying to get to Egypt and gave his interrogators information on the organization and its operations. On Oct. 1, 1917, Turkish soldiers surrounded Zikhron Ya'akov and arrested numerous people, including Sarah Aaronsohn, who committed suicide after four days' interrogation and torture. Lishansky managed to escape. The authorities hunted after suspects in other villages as well. The prisoners were taken to the Khan al-Pasha prison in Damascus. Zikhron Ya'akov was given an ultimatum: if Lishansky was not handed over, the village would be destroyed. The Jewish leaders decided to hand over the suspects and wash their hands of responsibility for them.

Lishansky took shelter among his former friends in Ha-Shomer and was taken from one village to another. As it was impossible to go on like that for a long period, the Ha-Shomer committee decided that he must die in case he fell into the hands of the Turks and brought disaster to the whole yishuv. Emissaries of Ha-Shomer set out to assassinate Lishansky, but succeeded only in wounding him, and he managed to escape. On his way to Egypt he was caught by Bedouin near Rishon le-Zion and handed over to the Turks. Following his interrogation in Damascus, more people were arrested. Due to the intensive endeavors of Jewish leaders and the secret intervention of German representatives, most of the prisoners were released, but 12 were sentenced to periods of one to three years in prison and 30 were conscripted into the army. Lishansky and Belkind were sentenced to death and were executed on Dec. 16, 1917. The remaining members of the organization went on with their spying activities. Aaronsohn, who was sent by Weizmann on a political and propaganda mission to the U.S., returned to Palestine in the spring of 1918 with the Zionist Commission. With his death in an air accident on May 15, 1919, the group finally broke up.

From a sociological and historical point of view, Nili was an attempt by young people born in the moshavot, under Aaronsohn's leadership, to form an independent political movement that would win the support of the entire yishuv. However, it was unable to appeal to a broad social stratum; hence its rapid dissolution after its leader's death. Its aid in the conquest of Palestine by the British, which was well appreciated, was part of the efforts of the pro-British section of the Zionist movement that was active in 1914–18 and determined policies in the subsequent 20 years.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

E. Livneh (ed.), Nili, Toledoteha shel He'azah Medinit (1961); idem, Aaron Aaronsohn, ha-Ish u-Zemanno (1969); Dinur, Haganah, 1, pt. 1 (1954), 353–68; Yoman Aaron Aaronsohn 19161919 (1970); A. Engle, Nili Spies (1959, 1972).

[Yehuda Slutsky]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.