THE WOMAN WHO FOUGHT AN EM­PIRE

Sarah Aaron­sohn and Her Nili Spy Ring

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight / Biography -

Gre­gory J. Wal­lance, Po­tomac Books (MARCH) Hard­cover $32.95 (328pp), 978-1-61234-943-5

Within the Ot­toman Em­pire dur­ing World War I, Sarah Aaron­sohn, her sib­lings, and their friends formed a Jewish spy ring—nili—that col­lected in­for­ma­tion for the United King­dom. Spurred into ac­tion af­ter she per­son­ally wit­nessed Ot­toman crimes dur­ing the gov­ern­ment’s geno­cide against the Ar­me­ni­ans, Aaron­sohn’s ef­forts helped pave the way for the fu­ture state of Is­rael, and her story of­fers plenty of his­tor­i­cal in­trigue.

De­spite its ti­tle, the book fo­cuses equally on Sarah’s coun­ter­parts within Nili. Her brother Aaron, for ex­am­ple, was a top agron­o­mist, and his skill at com­bat­ing out­breaks of lo­custs helped him earn his way into Turk­ish gov­ern­ment cir­cles. Her sis­ter’s fi­ancé, Avshalom Fein­berg, trav­eled from then-pales­tine to Egypt on foot to pass in­for­ma­tion to the Bri­tish. Over time, though, Sarah rose to be­come the head of the spy ring, tasked with jug­gling many dif­fi­cult fac­tions, from a lo­cal Jewish com­mu­nity that feared that Nili’s Bri­tish ties would bring reprisals from the Ot­toman gov­ern­ment to skep­ti­cal or du­bi­ous al­lies.

Wal­lance vividly con­veys the lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges and daily in­trigue of op­er­at­ing a spy ring in that time and place: co­or­di­nat­ing the ar­rival of boats and swim­mers to trans­port letters; send­ing mes­sages by car­rier pi­geon; try­ing to de­ter­mine what in­for­ma­tion was real and how much to re­veal at any point. The story gets more com­pelling as it goes along. Nili’s ef­forts draw Ot­toman at­ten­tion, and evad­ing cap­ture be­comes in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult. The last few chap­ters are par­tic­u­larly grip­ping, as daily sur­vival grows as sig­nif­i­cant as the greater war ef­fort.

Nili didn’t last long enough to see the Al­lied vic­tory in World War I, much less to see the cre­ation of a Jewish state in a for­mer Ot­tomanoc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory. Still, its ef­forts were an im­por­tant part of both out­comes, and Wal­lance’s work thor­oughly demon­strates how.

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