Nili

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Nili (Hebrew: נִילִ"י, an acronym of a phrase נצח ישראל לא ישקר (I Samuel 15:29; transliteration: Netzakh Yisrael Lo Yishaker, translation: "The Eternity (GOD) of Israel will not lie") was a Jewish espionage network which assisted the United Kingdom in its fight against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine during World War I.

Establishment[edit]

Sarah Aaronsohn, her brother Aaron, and their sister Rivka, together with their friend Avshalom Feinberg formed and led Nili.

In 1915, even before the group commenced operations, the Turks imprisoned Feinberg on suspicion of spying, which was not true at the time.

From March to October 1915, a plague of locusts stripped areas in and around Palestine of almost all vegetation and the Turkish authorities, worried about feeding their troops, turned to world-famous botanist and the region's leading agronomist, Aaron Aaronsohn. He requested the release of his friend and assistant, Avshalom Feinberg. The team fighting the locust invasion was given permission to move around the country. They also collected strategic information about Ottoman camps and troop deployment.

For months, the group was not taken seriously by British intelligence, and attempts by Aaron Aaronsohn and Avshalom Feinberg to establish communication channels in Cairo and Port Said failed. Only after Aaron Aaronsohn arrived in London (by way of Berlin and Copenhagen) and by virtue of his reputation, was he able to obtain cooperation from the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes.

Sarah oversaw operations in Zikhron Ya'akov.

Demise[edit]

Attempting to reach Egypt on foot, Absalom Feinberg was killed and Yosef Lishansky was wounded but managed to reach British lines.

From February to September 1917, the boat Monegan regularly sailed to the Palestinian shore near Atlit. Lishansky swam ashore to collect Nili information and to pass money sent by American Jews to the starving yishuv. However, the presence of German submarines made the trips too risky and the group switched to homing pigeons.

In the fall of 1917, one of these pigeons was caught by the Turks, who were able to decrypt the Nili code (based on Hebrew, Aramaic, French, and English) within one week. As a result the Turks were able to unravel the spy network. The leadership of the Yishuv and the Hashomer disassociated itself from Nili's actions. One Nili member, Na'aman Belkind, was captured by the Turks and reportedly revealed secret information about the group.

In October 1917, the Turks surrounded Zichron Yaakov and arrested numerous people, including Sarah, who managed to commit suicide after four days of torture. Other prisoners were incarcerated in Damascus. Lishansky and Belkind were hanged.

Importance[edit]

The Chief of British Military intelligence at the War Office Major General George Macdonogh has been quoted as saying in his lecture in 1919 at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich:

You will no doubt remember the great campaign of Lord Allenby in Palestine and perhaps you are surprised at the daring of his actions. Someone who is looking from the side lines, lacking knowledge about the situation, is likely to think that Allenby took unwarranted risks. That is not true. For Allenby knew with certainty from his intelligence (in Palestine) of all the preparations and all the movements of his enemy. All the cards of his enemy were revealed to him, and so he could play his hand with complete confidence. Under these conditions, victory was certain before he began.[1]

Controversies[edit]

Nili's "irresponsibility" for not coordinating their operations with the Zionist leadership, thereby endangering the Yishuv, was the cause of a longstanding controversy among the Jewish community of the British Mandate of Palestine and subsequently of the State of Israel. The issue was officially resolved in November 1967, when Feinberg's remains were reinterred on Mount Herzl with full military honors, with eulogies delivered by both Speaker of the Knesset and chief chaplain of the IDF.

Remembrance[edit]

The Aaronsohn home in Zikhron Ya'akov has been preserved as a memorial to Nili. West of Zichron Yaakov is a moshav called Givat Nili. Many streets throughout Israel bear the Nili name.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Nili: unsung heroes (Horsefeathers)

Further reading[edit]

  • Shmuel Katz, 2007, The Aaronsohn Saga, Gefen Publishing House. ISBN 978-965-229-416-6.
  • Heroes of Israel by Haim Herzog, 1989. ISBN 978-0-316-35901-6.
  • Nili Daniella B. by D&C 5767/2007. ISBN 978-0-220-20070-1.
  • The Gideonites; the story of the Nili spies in the Middle East by Dvorah Omer (Hebrew)
  • The Nili Spies by Anita Engle (Hebrew)
  • Nili by Jacob Poleskin-Yaari (Hebrew)
  • Sara, Nili Hero by Dvorah Omer (Hebrew)

External links[edit]