Born in Romania, raised in Palestine and educated in France, Aaron Aaronsohn was a citizen of the world and a renowned agronomist and botanist.
He was a also Zionist visionary whose Nili spy network assisted the British in wresting Palestine from the centuries-long grip of the Ottoman Empire.
A linguist fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, English, French and German, he was a figure of notoriety and admiration. Nearly 90 years after his sudden death in an airplane crash over the English Channel, his name barely registers a blip on the screen.
Patricia Goldstone, an American writer, rediscovers him in a thoroughly researched biography, Aaronsohn’s Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East.
Aaronsohn is best known today for two stellar achievements. He funnelled vital intelligence to Britain that enabled the British army to conquer Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva, and he discovered a wild hybrid wheat (triticum dicocoides) that botanists consider the historical basis of agricultural in the region.
Yet, in her considered judgment, Aaronsohn should also be remembered for having drawn up a detailed plan for Palestine’s national borders and for having produced the first comprehensive water maps of the Middle East.
Aaronsohn, a Greater Israel advocate, believed that the frontiers of Palestine should stretch northward to the Litani River in Lebanon and include the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, large tracts of Transjordan and the headwaters of the Jordan River in Syria.
Proceeding from this assumption, he recommended that the water resources of the area should be shared by Jews and Arabs alike to create a foundation for co-operation and prosperity.
Water, in his view, could restore Palestine to greatness and support millions of new inhabitants once its economic development was assured. Until then, he observed, to the chagrin of Zionist purists, that Jewish immigration should be strictly controlled.
Aaronsohn’s vision of a peaceful Middle East, in which Jews and Arabs would happily coexist, was a pipe dream, dashed on the rocks of reality.
Yet with Israel’s seizure of the headwaters of the Jordan River during the Six Day War, Aaronsohn’s conception of its northern border was partially realized.
Aaronsohn was brought to Palestine in 1882, when he was six years old. His Orthodox parents, part of the First Aliyah, were among the founders of Zichron Yaakov. What they found in Palestine – an Ottoman backwater mired in poverty and neglect – was not the biblical Land of Milk and Honey, but a forlorn nation of marshes, swamps, malaria and typhus.
Although he was steeped in the Talmud, Aaronsohn, a freethinker, was irreligious, as was his sister, Sarah, who would play a pivotal role in the Nili espionage network.
As Goldstone points out, Aaronsohn’s view of the Arabs was shaped by his close exposure to them. “He learned their language, responded to their friendship and entered their homes to partake of their holidays.” As a result, he concluded that Jews and Arabs could and should be allies in developing Palestine.
After Aaronsohn finished his studies in France, Baron Edmond de Rothschild – a Zionist luminary to whom the 1917 Balfour Declaration was addressed – sent him to Metulla, a new agricultural colony in northern Galilee, to be an agronomist.
He did not remain there for long, soon being dispatched to conduct a comprehensive survey of Palestine’s water resources. French surveyors, in vain, had attempted to finish a similar survey in 1801. He succeeded where they had failed because, being a native born son, he had a much better grasp of the lay of the land. Aaronsohn next joined geological and botanical surveys of the Dead Sea and the Transjordanian desert.
In 1906, while on a field trip to the Jewish settlement of Rosh Pina, he found the wild wheat of his dreams, thus achieving international fame as a scientist. Impressed by his discovery, the American department of agriculture invited him to the United States.
With the support of American Jews, Aaronsohn established an agricultural research station at Atlit, near Haifa, the first such facility in the Middle East.
Within a few years, he improved the cultivation of cereals resistant to inclement weather, disease and parasites, and developed a new strain of sesame, five new types of barley, a gluten-rich wheat, a new table grape and an olive richer in oil. In addition, he perfected the ancient techniques of dry farming, which was suitable in regions of low rainfall, and pioneered the use of windmills to generate electrical power.
Stung by the Ottoman expulsion of Russian Jews from Jaffa in 1914, he and his associates, including his sister and assistant, Avshalom Feinberg, organized the Nili network. At its peak, it consisted of 23 active members and a web of collaborators.
When the Ottomans summoned him to Damascus to take charge of a campaign to eradicate a locust plague that threatened the breadbasket of Palestine, he accepted. Aaronsohn used his position and his access to Turkish military and civil authorities to gather intelligence material.
Armed with this data, he helped the British plan the invasion of Palestine. Working on a military handbook on southern Palestine, Aaronsohn showed them where to find sufficient water for their advance through the Sinai to Palestine. Not surprisingly, the British army’s director of intelligence attributed Gen. Edmund Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem in 1917 to Aaronsohn.
Aaronsohn’s triumph was tempered by the death of his sister, Nili’s chief of operations. Captured by the Turks, she committed suicide rather than reveal the names of Nili operatives.
He learned of her demise while in the United States on a mission to promote the political objectives of the Zionist movement. He was hired to do that job by Chaim Weizmann, who would soon become the president of the World Zionist Organization.
Aaronsohn, a member of the Jewish delegation to the 1919 Paris peace conference, was killed while flying to the French capital.
Had he lived a little longer, he would surely have been bitterly disappointed. In 1920, France and Britain agreed that all but one of the sources of the Jordan River would be in Syria rather than in Palestine. Aaronsohn apparently never understood that the imperatives of politics take precedence over everything else.
Goldstone, in telling Aaronsohn’s story, draws a complex portrait of an extraordinary individual. But her feat is marred by a glaring factual error – the Baghdad Railway did not bring the first Zionists to Palestine, as she claims – and by rash commentary concerning current tensions between Israel and Syria.