Sarah Aaronsohn

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

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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."

sarah aaronsohn

Credit: Jewish Women's Archive

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).

Early Life

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).

The evolving civic elite posited itself against the Zionist labor-oriented leadership in Palestine, developing a distinct anti-socialist agenda and a nationalist activism, especially after the outbreak of World War I. The social networks which they and their leaders forged were buttressed by family relations and networks.

The social-familial network which sustained Sarah throughout her youth and adulthood included the older Aaron Aaronsohn and the younger Aaronsohn siblings, the charismatic Avshalom Feinberg of Haderah (1889-1916), described as "the first native-born man," with whom Sarah most probably had a love relationship and who later co-founded Nili; his younger sister Zila (1894-1988), and the Belkind brothers, Eitan (1897-1979) and Na'aman (1889-1917) of Rishon le-Zion.

Sarah and other members of her milieu used a familial vocabulary to describe these relations, referring to themselves as siblings and to the nation as a family of brothers and sisters, thus ignoring their elders and parents. Elite women of the native generation forged their own nationalist language, set of mannerisms, dress and forms of social conduct which created a place for them within the Zionist project, a place which was not necessarily maternal and which was non-domestic.

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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.