Book Review: The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring


by Gregory J. Wallance

Lincoln: Potomac Books,, 2018. Pp. xvi, 294. Illus., map, notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1612349439

A Jewish “Girl” Spy vs. the Ottoman Empire

Wallance, is a former prosecutor, human rights advocate, novelist, and historian, who had produced the first biography of Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917), a young Jewish woman who developed and managed one of the most successful spy rings of the First World War.

Born in he Mount Carmel region of what was then Ottoman Palestine, her parents were immigrant from Romania. Unhappily married to an much older merchant in Constantinople, in late 1915 the well educated young woman decided to return to her parents. While traveling by rail from Constantinople to Palestine, she witnessed evidence of the atrocities that formed part of the Armenian genocide, later telling of seeing hundreds of bodies, at times horribly tortured. Concluding that the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire, widely suspect of harboring Allied sympathies, and already occasionally subjected to local pogroms, might well suffer a similar fate, she resolved to work for an Allied victory.

Upon returning to Palestine, Aaronsohn joined Nili, a pro-Allied espionage network organized by one of her brothers. She soon became Nili’s most critical player. Wallance covers many daring spy missions, with cameo appearances by such notables as T.E. Lawrence and Edmund Allenby, as he follows the adventures of Aaronsohn and the Nili Ring. Aaronsohn’s agents helped provide valuable information on the state of Ottoman forces, the defenses of Beersheba, and more, and was widely admired by her British contacts, one saying that few Britishers had played the game “to a finer finish.”

Finally captured by the Ottomans, who by chance intercepted one of her carrier pigeons and were able to decipher the message it bore, she was subject to brutal torture. Fearing she might betray others, she put a pistol in her mouth and fire, inflicting a mortal wound and died in agony days later.

The Woman Who Fought an Empire is a remarkable story, well told.


Note: The Woman Who Fought an Empire is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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