Sarah Aaronsohn

How she represents a new interpretation of the role of women in the resettlement and regeneration in Palestine.

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Having learnt that she would be transferred to Damascus prison and fearing she would break down, Sarah committed suicide, using a pistol hidden in the washroom in a wing in her parental home which Aaron occupied. She lay dying for nearly four days before expiring on October 10, 1917.

Blurring the Role of Women

Her correspondence with her siblings and with other members of Nili reveal her independent thought and refusal to adopt prescribed roles for women. She cross-dressed, occasionally referred to herself in the male gender and admonished underground members for their attempt to idealize her as a female saint.

Her pre-meditated and staged suicide constitutes the first example of a secular, active death of a Jewish-Zionist woman for the nation, unprecedented in both religious martyrdom and in the Zionist tradition established in Palestine. In the latter, women were excluded from full participation in the nation in its ultimate manifestation: a violent sacrificial death, buying the land in blood.

Following her death, Sarah became the center of a cult of commemoration. Annual pilgrimages to her tomb in Zikhron's cemetery started in 1935. The cult, idealizing her as the "hero of Nili" (rather than its heroine), elevated Sarah to a symbol of an activist nationalism and initially blurred her femininity, representing her as a soldier-saint.

She was routinely described as a Jewish Joan of Arc. The analogue with the virgin peasant of Lorraine, liberator of France from foreign rule and burnt by the English in 1431, struck a chord in the same milieu from which Sarah herself emerged: the civic circles. Her myth was also adopted by the Jewish Right in Palestine, serving as a counter, or opposing myth, to that of Yosef Trumpeldor (1880-1920), the "Hero of Tel Hai." The legend of Sarah proved exceptionally resilient. After the Six Day War of 1967 she and Nili were incorporated in the central state-sponsored cult of heroism, officially recognized by Labor and perpetuated in children's literature.

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Billie Melman is a professor of modern history at Tel Aviv University. She has written extensively on gender and colonialism and in nationalist movements, gender, culture and society, and on the development of women's and gender history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.