699) Jewish Spies in Ottoman Palestine

Old Zichron's main thoroughfare, is lined with the town's original houses, some of which have been restored; you'll find the Aaronson House, at 40 Hameyasdim St. Aaron Aaronson (1876-1919) was an agronomist of international repute who received his training in France under the aegis of the Rothschilds. He and his sisters, Sara and Rebecca, and his assistant, Absolom Feinberg, with whom he had set up an experimental farm at Athlit, were at the center of NILI, an anti-Turkish spy ring that supplied the British with intelligence during World War I. Feinberg was killed while traveling through Gaza on a desperate mission to contact the British army in Sinai. After the Six-Day War 50 years later, when a search was made so he could be reburied in Jerusalem, the site of his grave in Gaza was identified by a palm tree that sprouted from dates he had been carrying in his pocket when he was ambushed. Both Sara and Rebecca had been in love with Feinberg; Sara was arrested by the Turks and committed suicide . Aaron Aaronson himself, one of the most promising and admired members of the Jewish community in Palestine, died in a plane crash on his way to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I.

Spies for Britain

World War I pitted the British against the Ottoman Empire. Some of the Jews of Palestine were convinced that supporting the British would help bring about a Jewish State. Led by Avshalom Feinberg and Aaron Aaronson, this group recruited other members of the Zichron Ya'acov community to work on behalf of the British. They called their organization NILI (Netzah Israel Lo Y'Shaker). Contact was made with the British, and in 1916 and 1917, NILI transmitted important intelligence information to the British.

Avshalom Feinberg
Feinberg and Joseph Lishansky were ambushed by Bedouins near El Arish in 1917, and Feinberg was killed. In September of that year, a carrier pigeon used by NILI was ambushed. Two weeks later, a member of NILI was arrested and after torture, disclosed some of the group's secrets.

In early October, the Turks surrounded Zichron Ya'acov and arrested Sarah Aaronson (1890-1917). They interrogated her for three days, during which she refused to betray her friends. After three days, she managed to commit suicide. Two of the others Joseph Lishansky and Na'aman Belkind were executed by the Ottomans on December 16, 1917.

Spies for the Turks and Germans
The secret crescent cause By Abraham Rabinovich
At a conference at Tel Aviv University a couple of weeks ago on the Middle East in World War I, lecturers pointed out that while there was indeed sympathy for the Allied cause among many Palestinian Jews, others joined the Turkish-German struggle against the Allies.

Among them, according to an American historian, was the sister of Chaim Weizmann, Mina. A physician, Mina allegedly undertook to serve as a German spy against the Allied cause at the same time that her illustrious brother in England was contributing as a chemist to the British war effort and hanging his hopes for a Jewish homeland on an Allied victory.

The sensational allegation concerning Mina Weizmann — apparently aired publicly for the first time — was made offhandedly by Prof. Donald M. McKale of Clemson University during a lecture on German intelligence activity in the Middle East during the First World War.

The Germans, who encouraged their Turkish allies to attack the Suez Canal in order to draw off British forces from the European theater, had difficulty recruiting local agents to spy on the British forces in Egypt.

"The Ottoman government refused to permit the Germans to operate freely," said McKale. "Subsequently the Germans recruited a number of Jews in Palestine as spies, hoping to exploit the hatred of Russian Jews for czarism.

"One such was Mina Weizmann, a Russian emigre physician in Jerusalem and younger sister of Chaim Weizmann, who lived in London and was the Zionist leader."

CHAIM, who would become Israel's first president, was born in 1874 in Byelorussia, the third of 12 children. Mina was the 11th child, 16 years younger than Chaim. The 12th child was Khilik, father of Israel's current president, Ezer Weizman. Ezer himself was a year old when Mina, his aunt, died.

McKale said in an interview that he had come across a reference to Mina Weizmann while researching German archives for a book on Germany and the Middle East. Mina, who was 24 when the war broke out, had been living in Jerusalem but worked during the war as a doctor in a Cairo hospital where she presumably had access to British military personnel.

She was arrested by the British as a spy, said McKale, and transported to Malta where she was imprisoned briefly.

"Then, most unusually, she was returned to Russia. It is unclear whether she was in fact a double agent working for the British or whether she really was a German spy and that her influential brother assisted in her release."

At least one other Palestinian Jew recruited by the Germans as a spy, Isaac Cohen, turned out in fact to be a British agent, McKale noted.

The American historian said that Mina Weizmann's identity as a German spy had been reinforced by the son of the man who allegedly recruited her, a German agent named Curt Preufer, the subject of one of McKale's books. The elder Preufer would later serve as a senior diplomat under the Nazis.

Preufer's son, who lives now in the US, told McKale that his father and Mina had meetings in a hotel.

"There is an implication that the two of them had an affair," said McKale.

ANOTHER speaker at the symposium, Dr. Jacob Markovizky of Haifa University, noted that leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, encouraged Jewish youth after the outbreak of the World War I to enroll in the Turkish army.

"The Jewish elite, including teachers, felt that the mobilization of able-bodied young men into the Turkish army would be a tangible expression of Jewish loyalty to the Ottoman Empire. The Yishuv hoped that, in return, the Turkish authorities could, some day, recognize aspirations for a Jewish homeland in Palestine."

Students from prestigious high schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were pressured by the Yishuv leadership to enlist in the Turkish army for the sake of the long-term benefit of the Jewish community.

Some even became officers, but about one-fourth of the enlistees, feeling no sense of identity with the Ottoman empire, eventually deserted their units. Most of these were from Tel Aviv. Enlistees from Jerusalem were for the most part persuaded by the distinguished educator David Yellin to serve out their term, said Markovizky.

"There was no collective punishment against the Jews of Palestine or even of Zichron Ya'acov."

Prof. Gideon Biger
Prof. Gideon Biger of Tel Aviv University said that Israeli and other Jewish historians have been distinctly ungenerous to the Turks in making them out to be "the big bad wolf."

Acts of villainy attributed to the Turks during the World War I in fact constituted moderate, even civilized, behavior in the context of war, he said.

WHEN fighting broke out in 1914, there were 85,000 Jews in Palestine, most of whom had arrived in the decades after 1882. Most did not adopt Ottoman citizenship, preferring to retain citizenship of their home country, with the protection that offered.

With the outbreak of war, some of these home countries — like Britain, France and Russia — became enemies of Turkey. Their nationals were given a choice of becoming Ottoman subjects or leaving the Ottoman Empire. If they became subjects, they would be liable to draft but, as a gesture, the Turks said they would defer draft for a year.

About 15,000 foreign Jews who refused to take Ottoman citizenship were forced to leave the country. Noting that Israeli history books refer to this as "the cruel deportation," Biger said that no country behaved more gently to citizens of enemy states during a war.

"The Turks gave them the opportunity to become loyal citizens or to leave the country, which was at war with their motherland. During the Second World War the Americans arrested all the Japanese who lived in the US and sent them to concentration camps although they were US citizens and had lived there for a generation.

"During the Second World War, the British sent all the Germans who lived in Palestine to Australia, since they were seen as potential spies. The Turkish activities in this situation were the normal activities of a country at war."

LIKEWISE, the expulsion of Jews from Tel Aviv by the Turks in 1917 is recalled as a traumatic, anti-Jewish event in memoirs which shaped the perception of the period among Israelis today.

Reality was quite different, said Biger.

The British Army had reached southern Palestine from Egypt earlier that year and had tried unsuccessfully to break through the Turkish line at Gaza. As the British prepared for another assault, the Turkish authorities feared that it might include a landing by sea north of Gaza. A likely target was Jaffa, which was also a departure point for an assault on Jerusalem.

Therefore, the Turkish authorities ordered all inhabitants to evacuate the city and go inland "partly to avoid British cooperation with the local Arabs and partly to protect [Jaffa's residents] from the possible [British] attack," said Biger.

Some 50,000 Arabs duly packed their belongings and trekked inland. So did the small population of the new Jewish suburb, Tel Aviv.

"All the houses were closed and stood unharmed for seven months," said Biger. "The Turkish regime even helped by supplying food. A group of young people, armed by the Turks, was left in Tel Aviv in order to protect the houses, which remained unharmed until the inhabitants came back."

Sarah Aaronson
THE MOST emotion-laden grievance against the Turks involved their crackdown on the Nili spy ring, founded by a group of young Jews in Zichron Ya'acov to help the Allied war effort. The ringleader, Aaron Aaronson, managed to escape but the Turks hanged other members of the ring and tortured Aaronson's sister, Sara, who finally shot herself.

The known facts are correct, said Biger, but the prevailing Jewish attitude is too narrow.

The only people punished by the Turks, he noted, were those actually involved in the ring — and only after a military trial. There was no collective punishment against the Jews of Palestine or even of Zichron Ya'acov.

"No house was burned and anyone can visit today the original house of the Aaronson family. The woman who committed suicide was actually a spy who received the 'usual treatment' of spies during war."

Eighty years onward, said Biger, it is time to understand that Turkish actions during the First World War were the result of circumstance and not of anti-Jewish sentiment. This new perception may not just be a function of passing time but of Israel's current warm strategic relations with Turkey.

A large number of Turkish academics and ex-military officers participated in the two-day symposium in Tel Aviv. Israeli participants then traveled to Istanbul for the symposium's second half.

Thanks to Mavi Boncuk

The Official Word from Israel
From the web site of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, featuring an article from Me'ir Pa'il (entitled "Hashomer to the Israel Defense Forces Armed Jewish Defense in Palestine"), we get an interesting perspective.

In Palestine under Ottoman rule, young men who lived in the moshavot around Zikhron Ya'akov formed an organization called the Gideonites. During the war, this organization served as the basis for NILI (the initials of netzah yisrael lo yeshaker — I Sam. 15:29), which engaged in active espionage for Great Britain, under the leadership of the agronomist Aaron Aaronson. On the other hand, during the war several thousand Jewish residents of Palestine were inducted into the Turkish army; a few of them were trained and appointed as officers and NCOs in the Turkish army. Examples are Moshe Sharett, Dov Hoz (who later deserted to the British army), Alexander Aaronson, and Elimelekh Zelikovich (Avner); the latter eventually became a senior commander in the Haganah.

Important developments in the military sector of the Zionist enterprise took place during World War I in the British army, which fought against the Turks. The first of these developments occurred in Egypt in 1915, when the Zion Mule Corps was formed, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, an Irishman, and Captain Joseph Trumpeldor. The Zion Mule Corps joined the British Expeditionary Force that landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelles (May 1915) and saw action there until the British were forced to evacuate their strongholds (January 1916). Almost all the soldiers of this corps were Jews who had been expelled by the Turkish authorities from Palestine because of their alien citizenship.

Only after the setback in Gallipoli and relentless petitioning in British government circles in London by Jabotinsky, Rutenberg and Trumpeldor did the British War Office agree, in September 1917, to the formation of a new infantry regiment based on nearly one hundred veterans of the Mule Corps who had come to Britain, plus Jewish emigres from Russia who had settled in Britain and agreed to join a Jewish combat unit. Thus, the 38th Royal Fusiliers came into being in southern England under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson, the former commander of the Zion Mule Corps, which had been dismantled. In February 1918, the 38th Fusiliers was transferred to Egypt, and took part in the British offensive of September 1918 under General Edmund Allenby. The regiment, then stationed in the Jordan Valley near Jericho, participated in crossing the Jordan river eastward in the direction of Salt. Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky was a deputy commander of this regiment, with the honorary rank of lieutenant.

A second Jewish regiment, the 39th Royal Fusiliers, was formed in Britain immediately after the 38th shipped out. The 39th Fusiliers, composed of Jewish volunteers from the United States and Canada, plus Jewish emigres from Russia, was sent to Egypt in April 1918 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Eliezer Margolin, who had led a battalion in the Australian expeditionary force on the French front. During its maneuvers in Egypt, this regiment began to absorb Palestinian Jewish volunteers who had enlisted in the British army after the British occupied the southern half of Palestine. The trained half of this regiment fought alongside the 38th Royal Fusiliers in September 1918.

A third Jewish regiment, the 40th Royal Fusiliers, was created on the basis of Jewish volunteers from the United States and Canada (including David Ben-Gurion and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, who had been expelled from Palestine by the Turks, as well as Dov Joseph and Nehemia Rabin). This regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel, reached Egypt in August 1918 and began to take on Jewish volunteers who had come over from Palestine (including Eliyahu Golomb, Dov Hoz, Berl Katznelson, and several members of Hashomer). The 40th Royal Fusiliers was transferred from Egypt to Palestine, but too late to see action.

Almost all the members of the three Jewish regiments were discharged immediately after the end of World War I in November 1918. Those from Britain and Palestine returned to their respective countries and some of those from North America settled in Palestine to realize their Zionist convictions.


On David Ben-Gurion, from a bio in the World Zionist Organization web site:

Ben-Gurion's studies were curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War and he returned to Eretz-Israel , encouraging Jews to request Ottoman citizenship. The alternative was expulsion on suspicion of being enemy aliens. Despite Ben-Gurion's orientation, he was expelled from Eretz-Israel by Djemal Pasha, head of the Ottoman forces in that country. In Alexandria he met Josef Trumpeldor and Vladamir Jabotinsky who were both working for the establishment of a Jewish Legion within the British army. Ben-Gurion opposed the initiative as he was concerned with its implications for the Jews who remained in Eretz-Israel. After Eretz-Israel had been captured by the British, Ben-Gurion called on Russian Jews in the United States to join the Legion and was instrumental in establishing and recruiting for the 40th Fusiliers. He himself enlisted in the Legion and arrived in Eretz-Israel in the summer of 1918, when he campaigned for the unity of the labour movements in Eretz-Israel.

© Holdwater

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