Tag Archives: Istanbul

Jew of the Week: Sarah Aaronsohn

Israel’s Joan of Arc

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.

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Words of the Week

Before the Endlessness of God, the highest saint and the lowliest commoner are equal.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788)

Jew of the Week: David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion

David Grün (1886-1973) was born in Poland and at just 14, already started a Zionist youth club with friends to promote immigration to Israel and study of Hebrew. While a student at the University of Warsaw in 1905, he was arrested twice as a member of the socialist Poalei Tzion party. The following year he made his way to the Holy Land and settled there. Just 20 years old, he became the chairman of Poalei Tzion in Yafo. Due to various disputes, Grün left politics and focused on farming in Petah-Tikva and the Galilee. He joined an armed defence group in 1908 to protect Jewish settlements increasingly under attack. In 1912 he temporarily relocated to Istanbul to study law, and it was there that he Hebraized his name to Ben-Gurion (and would convince countless others to do the same over the course of his life, wanting them to drop their old “diaspora” names for a fresh start in a newly resurrected Jewish Homeland). He returned to Jerusalem, only to be deported to Egypt due to World War I, then made his way to the U.S. where he toured for 3 years raising support for the Jewish cause. In 1918 he enlisted in the Jewish Legion of the British Army. After the war, Ben-Gurion resettled in Israel and established the Histadrut, Israel’s first labour union (which is 650,000 members strong today). By 1935, he became the chairman of the Jewish Agency – the largest Jewish non-profit organization in the world – overseeing the immigration and settlement of Jews in Israel. He served in this role until 1948, when he became the new State of Israel’s first Prime Minister. One of his first acts in the ensuing War of Independence was the fusion of all militias into one unified army: the IDF. After the war, he worked tirelessly to establish the state and its institutions, overseeing massive construction projects and mass immigration of Jews from around the world, not to mention an international hunt for Nazi war criminals. Although he worked to create a free, modern, non-theocratic state of Israel, he ensured that the Jewish essence would remain, setting Shabbat as an official rest day, kosher food in all state institutions, and autonomy in religious education. He also focused on Israel’s military might, ordering the creation of special operations units while pushing heavily for attaining nuclear capability. He would serve as prime minister in two stints lasting nearly 14 years, in addition to being minister of defence. After retiring in 1970, he wrote an 11-volume history of Israel’s beginnings, adding to two previous tomes he had written. He passed away shortly after, and is commemorated as the central founder of the modern State of Israel.

Words of the Week

Oil, which saturates everything it comes in contact with, represents innerness. Wine, which causes the heart to spill out its deepest secrets, represents outwardness. Chanukah is oil, Purim is wine.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe