Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
“Believe me I no longer have the strength to suffer and it would be better for me to kill myself than to be tortured under their bloodied hands…if we do not remember, you should [illegible]. As heroes we died and did not confess. I aspired for my people and for my people’s well-being, and if my people is base–so be it.”
These fragments from the 1917 suicide note of Sarah Aaronsohn, nationalist activist, coordinator and later local leader of the Jewish pro-British underground “Nili” (established to liberate Palestine from Ottoman rule), represent a new interpretation of the role of women within the national project of resettlement and regeneration in Palestine after 1881.
The semi-military role Sarah carved for herself in the underground, her activity and her voluntary death made her an icon and a model of a new “Hebrew” femininity, a model especially cultivated within the so-called civic sector of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine (defined as distinct from the socialist labor sector, dominant throughout the period before the late 1970s).
Sarah Aaronsohn was born on January 5, 1890, in the agricultural colony (moshav) of Zikhron Ya’akov on Mount Carmel, the fifth of six children and older daughter of Efraim Fischel (1849-1939) and Malka (née Glatzano) of Baku, Romania.
Her father, a prosperous grain-merchant, fell under the influence of Hovevei Zion, joining its first group of settlers together with his family, setting out from Galatz in Romania in 1882 to purchase and inhabit lands in Arab Zemerin and found the new colony of Zikhron. The Aaronsohns became one of the colony’s most prominent families, not least because of the career and reputation of Aaron (1876-1919), Sarah’s eldest brother and mentor, a world-famous agronomist and botanist.
Sarah and her siblings belonged to and characterized the second generation of the First Aliyah (1881-1904), the native-born and Hebrew speaking youth in agricultural settlements (moshavot) based on privately owned property and organized around a family economy. The native generation fashioned themselves as a new “Hebrew” elite, establishing a plethora of youth organizations aimed at the revival of Hebrew and of a national culture, as well as clandestine semi-military organizations whose aim was the defense of Jewish property and honor, notably the Gideonim (after the biblical Gideon), founded in Zikhron in 1913 by Sarah’s brother Alexander (1888-1948).