“The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” by Gregory J. Wallance— A Remarkable Life

Wallance, Gregory J. “The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring”, Potomac Books, 2018.

A Remarkable Life

Amos Lassen

Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn only lived to the age of twenty-five but those years contain a remarkable life. Gregory J. Wallance shows us just how remarkable that life was in “The Woman Who Fought an Empire”, the story of a heroic and  a bold young woman who was the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine and who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring.

Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. He did so after the beginning of the first World War. Sarah, had seen the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and she believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. She joined Nili and eventually became the organization’s leader. As they worked behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. In order to protect her secrets, Sarah shot herself.

Sarah Aaronsohn’s leadership of the Nili spy network during World War makes her one of the most fascinating personalities of the early Zionist era but somehow over the years she has slipped between the cracks. Unfortunately, this is a little known story about a truly impressive young woman who had been shocked by the atrocities she witnessed which were carried out by the Turks against Armenians. Sarah Aaronsohn and her brother stood up to several members of their Jewish community in Palestine and risked torture and death to provide information to the British.

We do not learn as much about Sarah’s personality as I hoped we would since I have been familiar with her story for years. (I had an aunt who was a member of Nili). We see that Sarah was a very intelligent and extremely tough woman who could easily become a feminist role model.

Wallance has done great research to bring us this story and while this is basically Sarah’s story, we also get insights into some of the key historical personalities and sociopolitical forces that helped shape the modern Middle East.

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