The Aaronsohns were pioneers who immigrated from Romania to Israel in 1882. The father, Ephraim Fischel Aaronsohn, was one of the original founders of the settlement called Zichron Yaakov. Baron Rothchild was the patron of this early settlement and he would later send Ephraim’s son, Aaron, to France for his education. Aaron studied agriculture, and upon returning to Zichron he set up an experimental agricultural station, and became engrossed in research. The discovery of wild wheat by Aaron Aaronsohn in 1906 caused a sensation in the agricultural world and his articles published in European journals gained Aaron scientific acknowledgment and international recognition.

In 1909, he went to the United States at the invitation of the American Ministry of Agriculture. There, he met with prominent community leaders such as Louis D. Brandeis, Nathan Strauss and Judge Felix Frankfurter. With their support, Aaronsohn founded the American Agricultural Experimental Station in Athlit, and employed Arab workers, an action which antagonized a Jewish community hoping to be self sufficient.

At the outbreak of World War I, given his various connections to the United States, Aaronsohn was in a position to distribute financial assistance to the distressed population in Israel. In 1915 he organized a response to the plague of locusts in the Jewish settlements and in Syria.

The corruption he encountered during his interactions with the Ottoman authorities, the persecution of Jewish settlers and the Armenian massacre, convinced Aaronsohn of the necessity of disengaging from the Ottoman empire. He also realized that due to the nature of his work and the mobility it afforded him he was in a rather unique position to be able gather strategic information about the Turks. He understood the importance of taking action.

Aaronsohn, his sister Sarah, his friends Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky, and twenty other members comprised the main group known as NILI, committed to oppose Turkish oppression and fight for an independent Jewish State. The NILI planned to gather intelligence about the Turkish army and deliver it to British headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. Once Aaronsohn was able to convince the British of the viability of his plan he was sent to Cairo as an operative.

Aaronsohn’s work became invaluable to the British. He oversaw the voyages of a British spy ship and helped to plan at attack on Beersheba with General Allenby. He attempted to draw world attention to the plight of the Jews.

His philanthropic organization provided funds to the economically distressed people who were grateful for the assistance but wary of his espionage involvement.

 Sarah Aaronsohn assumed many of the daily responsibilities of the agricultural station in her brother’s absence and the role of field leader in intelligence gathering. It was a very risky ordeal. When, in 1917,  the Turks intercepted a British homing pigeon and were alerted to the existence of the NILI spy group and began to track them down. Sarah was captured, tortured near her home. For reasons unknown, she was permitted to go home to wash and change clothes. Realizing she faced more torture upon returning to Turkish custody she retrieved a hidden gun in her house and shot herself in the mouth. She died four days later.

Aaron Aaronsohn was in the United States at the request of Chaim Weizmann when he learned of his sister’s death. He returned to Palestine in the spring of 1918 as a member of the Zionist Commission and in 1919 he was a Jewish delegate to the Paris Peace Conference.  On May 15th, 1919,  Aaronsohn was killed in an RAF plane crash over the English Channel while on his way to the Peace Conference. His death still remains a controversial mystery.

The Freedom Fighters of NILI chronicles the heroic efforts of the Aaronsohns and the NILI spies in their fight for freedom. Their story is documented by interviews with historians and descendants of NILI members, photographs, new and archival footage, and personal letters.
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