Book review: The Woman Who Fought an Empire

Gregory J. Wallance’s new biography of Sarah Aaronsohn reveals her devotion to her work and frustration at being underestimated.

SARAH AARONSOHN with fellow Nili spies Yosef Lishansky (left) and Liova Schneersohn in Cairo, 1917. (photo credit: POTOMAC BOOKS)
SARAH AARONSOHN with fellow Nili spies Yosef Lishansky (left) and Liova Schneersohn in Cairo, 1917.
(photo credit: POTOMAC BOOKS)
Israeli history boasts some powerful female figures, one of the most effective of whom was surely Sarah Aaronsohn.
The saga of this stalwart heroine is documented in Gregory J. Wallance’s new book, The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and her Nili Spy Ring.

Wallance’s saga is a fascinating, entirely readable entry into the history of the Nili spy ring, a group of Jews who spied for the British in hopes of aiding in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Aaronsohn, the leader of the operation, was motivated by witnessing the Armenian genocide on her way from Constantinople to her hometown of Zichron Ya’acov. She feared a similar fate would befall Jews under the Ottomans, and set out to do her part to influence regime change.
The text is accessible and engrossing even for novices of Middle Eastern and World War I history, though it provides sufficient depth into the principal Nili figures to still keep more informed Zionist history aficionados interested.
The book is more about the ring than about Aaronsohn herself, however, and might more aptly be titled “The men who admired the woman who fought an empire.” The book makes it clear that a man had merely to meet Aaronsohn once, or even to hear about her in passing, to fall in love with her. Nearly every non-relative in the tale is in love with Aaronsohn, old and young, adventurers and intellectuals, bachelors and husbands – it makes little difference; all were enchanted by Sarah’s blond hair and “dainty hands.”
What is most poignant about the book, especially in this modern #MeToo era, is how much this admiration hindered and vexed Sarah, who was devoted to her work and suffered frequent setbacks due to the jealous behavior and emotional outbursts of her male “colleagues.” In comparison to her egocentric brother Aaron, her hot-tempered and impulsive compatriots Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky, her brother’s dreamy and spiritual assistant Liova Schneersohn (all of whom, besides Aaron, seemed to be obsessively enamored of her), she described herself as “stronger than iron and cold as stone.”
“I would never have believed that I could find such strength in myself,” she wrote in a letter.
Wallance observed that Aaronsohn was a much more effective spy than most of those around her, including her more famous brother Aaron, in that she was able to control her emotions and withhold information even from the people she loved most – skills one would think prerequisites for a functional spy.
Aaronsohn’s persistence in remaining calm, methodical and goal-oriented amid the political machinations, egotistical posturing, and frankly pathetic lovesickness of her male compatriots makes her a sympathetic figure to the reader, and (spoiler alert, for the Nili uninitiated) makes her early demise at the hands of another impulsive compatriot who caved when captured all the more tragic and frustrating.
Strangely, although many apt comparisons could be made between Aaronsohn and other women of her time who struggled for the resources, acknowledgment and independence necessary to do their work effectively, Wallance makes just one comparison: to alleged German spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari. Wallance three times makes this analogy, each time seemingly elevating Aaronsohn as a true spy and denouncing Mata Hari as “the nude dancer and courtesan who had no significant espionage achievements.”
Yanko Epstein, an occasional Nili helper, refused to enter the research station where Aaronsohn worked because he didn’t approve of her evidently sharing a room with Lishansky. In fact, Wallance writes, Epstein bragged about this in retrospect to Israeli writer Hillel Halkin: “A woman who stoops to spying doesn’t stop there. What is it to surrender your body when you’ve already surrendered all else?” Aaronsohn is unable to get out from underneath this oppressive male gaze even in her own biography. Whether due to editorial selection or lack of material, we hear much more about her from the men around her than from her own words.
“God hasn’t granted me the talent of writing and expressing myself in words, and that’s why many beautiful things and many profound thoughts are buried in the deepest chambers of my heart, without being heard and understood by others,” she wrote in response to an over-the-top love letter from a colleague.
While that might not be a bad trait in a spy, it does leave Aaronsohn and her true feelings rather mysterious and at the mercy of the interpretation of her male hangers-on. The Woman Who Fought an Empire is a tantalizing peek into her life, and a frustrating reminder of how her gender impeded her in various ways, making her accomplishments all the more impressive.
A Turkish officer who observed Aaronsohn refusing to reveal information even after days of severe torture noted that she was worth “one hundred men.” Wallance leaves readers marveling at her accomplishments and wondering, intentionally or not, what more she could have accomplished with colleagues more like herself.