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October 5: A Spy Among the Turks

October 4, 2015

SarahAaronsohnPalestine-born Sarah Aaronsohn, who became a spy serving the British against the Ottoman Empire after she witnessed a massacre of Armenians by the Turks while she was en route to Haifa, shot herself on this date in 1917 to avoid further torture after having been captured. She died four days later. Aaronsohn and her siblings and friends organized and ran Nili, a Jewish spy ring. After a plague of locusts destroyed crops in Palestine, the Ottoman government, worried about feeding its troops, turned to the well-known botanist Aaron Aaronsohn, who was Sarah’s brother. His status as an advisor empowered the spy group’s activities. Self-educated, Sarah Aaronsohn was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, and French, and could also conduct herself in Arabic and English. She was the network’s key member in Palestine and Lebanon, “handling Nili’s core of about forty agents, its larger circle of supporters and informers and the organization’s finances,” writes Billie Melman at the Jewish Women’s Archive. “She decoded and sifted information, encoded it and communicated with British intelligence headquarters in Cairo... She also supervised the transmission by Nili of Jewish American money converted to gold to aid the Jewish population, which was suffering destitution, hunger and dislocation.”

“She cross-dressed, occasionally referred to herself in the male gender and admonished underground members for their attempt to idealize her as a female saint. Her premeditated and staged suicide constitutes the first example of a secular, active death of a Jewish-Zionist woman for the nation...” —Billie Melman