Love, Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn
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A brief history of Jewish spies aiding the British in Palestine.

In the late 19th century, Ephraim and Malkah Aaronsohn and their children settled in Zichron Ya’akov, one of many Palestinian villages established in the 1880s by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, a convert to Zionism, who aspired to grow vineyards in the desert. Srodes (On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World, 2012, etc.) traces the family’s history as they confronted an inhospitable climate, turmoil in the Ottoman Empire, anti-Semitism, infighting among Zionists, and World War I. Despite the subtitle, the main character in this tense narrative is Aaron Aaronsohn, the feisty, often overbearing eldest brother. Drawing on sources such as Patricia Goldstone’s Aaronsohn’s Maps (2007) and Ronald Florence’s Lawrence and Aaronsohn (2007), Srodes offers little new. Aaron was a prodigy who taught himself botany, geology, and hydrology; noting his intelligence, the baron sent him to agricultural college in France, hoping to reap the rewards of his learning. Later, he was invited to study in America, where he connected with some prominent Jews, among them Felix Frankfurter, Henry Morgenthau, Louis Brandeis, and Oscar Straus. Besides developing his knowledge of agriculture, Aaron proved a stellar fundraiser for Jewish settlements. Srodes devotes much of the book to revealing the spy network in which Aaron and his sister Sarah played a major role. Facing the Turkish army, the British lacked accurate maps of the region. Aaron provided them and also intelligence gathered from dozens of Jewish spies. In 1917, with Aaron away, Sarah took over and expanded this network. She and a colleague traveled throughout the area posing as Germans, gathering what Srodes deems “priceless details.” Later in 1917, Sarah was tortured and died, making her a martyr for Israel. The author claims that T.E. Lawrence dedicated his Seven Pillars of Wisdom to her, although he has found evidence that Lawrence never met her.

Srodes establishes Sarah’s bravery, but she remains a mysterious presence, overshadowed by her brother.

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61902-613-1
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2016


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