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Jewish Defense Organizations: The NILI Spy Ring

NILI was a secret, pro-British spying organization, which operated under Turkish rule in Palestine during World War I, under the leadership of the world-renowned agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn. NILI is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker,”meaning The Eternal One of Israel will not lie (Samuel I 15:29), which served as its password.

Aaronsohn’s family was part of the early settlement of Zikhron Ya’akov, which was first established in the 1880’s. Aaronsohn had achieved wide acclaim for discovering a weather-resistant form of primitive wheat. With the support from an American-Jewish organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Aaron established an experimental agricultural station at Atlit, a small coastal village next to the Carmel Mountains, where he conducted research on dry farming.

With the outbreak of World War I, so too came the deportation of Jewish residents by the Turks, among various other oppressive measures, mounting famine, and the news of Turkish slaughter of masses of Armenians. Aaronsohn and his siblings were prompted to act. They hoped to aid the British to invade Palestine from their base in Egypt, ease the burden of suffering upon the local Jewish population, and inform the world of the Turkish oppression of local Jews, all in the hopes of advancing the Zionist cause for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Aaron’s agricultural research provided the cover for him and his co-conspirators to move freely about the country, under the guise of organizing campaigns against locust infestation. The British intitially rebuffed the group’s overtures. It was only in late 1916, when Aaron crossed Turkish lines and the Sinai to reach Cairo, did he convinve the British the value of his Jewish spy ring.

For most of 1917, Aaron remained in Cairo as a liaison, while his sister Sarah, brother Alexander, close friend Avshalom Feinberg, and Joseph Lishansky formed the core of the spy organization. More than 20 others also participated in the group.

The spies communicated by signal lights with a small British frigate anchored off the Atlit coast every two weeks. The spies switched to homing pigeons after the frigate eventually stopped coming, and it was by this method that NILI was able to provide the new regional British commander, General Edmund Allenby, with information about Beersheba and the Negev desert, in preparation for a surprise British attack inland. Details on weather patterns, Turkish fortifications and troop movements, railroads, desert routes, and water-sources location were all among the information the NILI spies were able to pass on to the British.

In September 1917, one of the homing pigeons, bearing a coded message, landed on the house of the Turkish governor in Caesarea. Intense searches and persecutions followed, and by the fall of 1917, the members of NILI organization had all been virtually rounded up.

One by one, the group began to be discovered and captured, some giving the others up under the stress of torture. Avshalom Feinberg had earlier been shot by a Bedouin trying to cross through Sinai to Egypt. One of the group, Na’aman Belkind, was captured by the Turks, along with Joseph Lishansky, and the prisoners were incarcerated in Damascus. Lishansky and Belkind were sentenced to death, and Lishansky was hanged in the public square.

Turkish soldiers also surrounded the moshav Zikhron Ya’akov and arrested numerous people, including Aaronsohn’s sister, Sarah, who committed suicide after four days of torture. She surrendered to spare her aging father sure torture by the Turks.

In October 1917, the British army, with the help of the Australian cavalry, surprised the Turks with their raid on Beersheba, and opened the way into Central Palestine. Jerusalem surrendered in December, and 400 years of Ottoman rule came to an end. The conquest of Beersheba would have been almost impossible without the massive amount of information provided by the NILI spies.

Aaron, NILI’s founder and leader, remained in Cairo. He survived the war and became active in the campaign to increase British and Zionist relations after the Balfour Declaration was written in November 1917. He died in a plane crash in May 1919, on his way from London to the Paris Peace Conference.

Years later, when Israel conquered the Sinai during the Six Day War, an elderly Bedouin led an IDF officer to a spot known locally as Kabir Yehudi (the Jew’s grave), where one lone date palm grew. There the remains of Avshalom Feinberg were exhumed and identified; the tree had evidently sprouted from a date seed that was in his pocket. Nearly 50 years after he was shot in the Sinai, Feinberg’s bones were laid to rest in the military cemetary on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

A museum dedicated to NILI was recently opened in the old center of Zikhron Ya’akov. On display are hundreds of photos, original letters, explanations and dioramas which explain the story of the Jewish spy ring during World War I.

Sources: <Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education; Allan Rabinowitz, “Spies who opened the door, ” Jerusalem Post, (April 28, 2002).