NILI was a Jewish espionage network which assisted the United Kingdom in its fight against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine between 1915-1917, during World War I. NILI is an acronym which stands for the Hebrew phrase “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker,” which translates as “the Eternal One of Israel will not lie. The British government code-named NILI the “A Organization,” according to a 1920 misfiled memorandum in the British Public Records Office as described in the book Spies in Palestine by James Srodes.
The choice of siding with the British against the ruling power, the Ottomans, was eventually proven right by history, but in taking it the members of Nili went against the majority view of their fellow Jews from the Yishuv, who feared fierce persecution. These fears almost materialised when the spy ring was discovered, and the Jews of Palestine escaped the tragic fate of the Armenians only due to the intervention of the Vatican, the German government and General Erich von Falkenhayn, commander of the Ottoman-German troops in Palestine.
Nili (Hebrew: נִילי) is an acronym of a phrase from the First Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 15:29, Hebrew: נצח ישראל לא ישקר, transliteration: Netzakh Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, translation: "The Eternity (God) of Israel will not lie").
In 1915, even before the group commenced operations, the Turks imprisoned Feinberg on suspicion of spying, which was not true at the time. When Avshalom Feinberg was arrested for espionage and held in Beersheba, Yosef Lishansky joined Nili in December 1915. Because he was active in the south, he was recruited by Feinberg to pass information to and from Sarah Aaronsohn, who was operating from Atlit.
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. This enabled them to collect 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, he was able to obtain cooperation from the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes.
Sarah oversaw operations in Palestine from Zikhron Ya'akov.
Attempting to reach Egypt on foot, Avshalom Feinberg was killed and Yosef Lishansky was wounded but managed to reach British lines.
From February to September 1917, the steam yacht Managem 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.
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.
The Aaronsohn home in Zikhron Ya'akov, Beit Aaronsohn, has been preserved as a museum and memorial to Nili. West of Zichron Yaakov is a moshav called Givat Nili. Many streets throughout Israel bear the Nili name. In December 2015 the Israel Post marked the centenary of Nili with a special stamp issue.
- O’Malley, JP. “With Spy Sarah Aaronsohn’s Suicide, Israeli History was Rewritten, Claims Author,” The Times of Israel, December 14, 2006
- . Srodes, James (2016). Spies in Palestine. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, p. viii. ISBN 978-1619026131.
- "reply by historian Michael Hesemann". Did a German Officer Prevent the Massacre of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael during World War I?. IsraelDailyPicture.com. 9 December 2011. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
- Holger Afflerbach (1994). Falkenhayn: Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich. Beitrage zur Militargeschichte. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag. p. 485. ISBN 9783486559729.
- West, Nigel (2014). Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence (Second edition. ed.). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. p. 628. ISBN 9780810878976.
- "Nili Centenary Stamp Sheet". Israel Post. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
- Shmuel Katz, 2007, The Aaronsohn Saga, Gefen Publishing House. ISBN 978-965-229-416-6.
- Heroes of Israel by Chaim 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)
- Ot me-Avshalom by Nava Macmel-Atir, 2009 (Hebrew). ISBN 978-965-482-889-5
- Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn by James Srodes (2016, Counterpoint Press) ISBN 978-1619026131