Aaron Aaronsohn (1876 - 1919)
Born in Bacau, Rumania, Aaron at age six was brought to Palestine by his parents who formed part of the pioneer group that founded the agricultural colony Zikhron Ya'akov (1882). Early in his childhood, Aaron exhibited a love of nature. He learned to recognize every flower, every stone, and every blade of grass in his vicinity.
The agricultural school near Jaffa proved too rudimentary for Aaron who by the age of sixteen was already remarkably self-taught .
After several years of working with the agricultural experts sent to Zikhron Yaakov by the colony's benefactor, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, he received from the latter a scholarship to study in France . He attended the Institute of Montpellier, and the agricultural college at Grignon. Returning to Palestine in
1896 with a degree in agronomy, Aaronsohn became an instructor at the newly founded colony of Metullah in the northernmost region of the Galilee. His refusal to accept the rule of the colony's administrators eventually led to his dismissal. Undaunted by the experience, he found work as manager of a large farm in
Anatolia, Turkey. Two years later, Aaronsohn returned to Palestine. In 1901, Aaron together with some friends founded a bureau which specialized in making agricultural and technical surveys for potential Jewish settlements.
In 1904, Aaronsohn participated in a geological expedition led by the German professor Max Blanckenhorn which explored the Dead Sea region. The following year he helped survey and map an area along part of the route later followed by the Hejaz railroad. Aaronsohn also took part, along with Professor Otto Warburg of Berlin, in a botanical exploration of Palestine. He was soon acknowledged by his peers as an expert on Palestine's flora and geological structure. It was said of him that he could read fossils as a pious Jew reads the scriptural portions of the week.
While trekking about the Upper Galilee in 1906, Aaronsohn discovered wild wheat ("triticum dicoccoides"), the earliest known prototype of bread-producing grain, a finding of some consequence not only for agronomists, but for the historians of civilization. The finding of this primitive ancestor of common wheat, together with his articles in various professional journals earned for the young scientist an international reputation. He was invited to come to the United States by Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson. Aaronsohn accepted the offer (1901).
In America he lectured, met with fellow agriculturists, and wrote articles for the Department of Agriculture. He also became the darling of the American Jewish establishment, numbering among
his acquaintances such notables as Judge Julian Mack, Professor Cyrus Adler, Henrietta Szold, Judah L. Magnes, Louis Marshall, Paul Warburg, Samuel L. Fels, and Julius Rosenwald.
A fund was created by some of Aaronsohn's admirers to finance an agricultural experimental station in Palestine under the agronomist's direction.
Aaronsohn chose for the station's location a site at Atlit on the coastal plain of Palestine, slightly north of Zikhron Ya'acov.
At Atlit, Aaronsohn collected a large technical library, kept collections of geological and botanical specimens, and tested a variety of crops. He also explored various means of reviving
Palestine's soil, and carried out extensive research on dry-farming techniques.
In 1914, World War I erupted. Aaron, as a consequence of his connections with American
governmental circles, and his reputation as a prominent scientist suddenly found himself in a position of considerable importance to the Yishuv. He was appointed to a three-man committee responsible for allotting financial aid to Palestine from the United States . Although frequently at odds with the Zionist Organization's leadership, Aaronsohn worked closely with their representative in Palestine, Arthur Ruppin, to alleviate the suffering of the Jewish community.
The spring of 1915 brought on an invasion of locusts which threatened the region's crops. The Ottoman authorities called upon Aaronsohn to apply his scientific skills in combatting the scourge in Palestine and Syria.
The agronomist accepted the challenge and concentrated his efforts, with some success, in destroying the eggs of the locusts.
The corruption that Aaronsohn encountered among Turkish officials during his campaign against the locusts, and the Ottoman regime's persecution of the Jews and their institutions contributed to a growing awareness on his part that neither the Land of Israel nor the Jewish settlements had a future under the brutish Turkish administration.
Together with Avshalom Feinberg, his assistant at the Atlit Station, he organized a small group of followers, consisting mainly of members of their families and comrades (the backbone of the Nili espionage ring). Almost casually they began collecting strategic information on the Turco-German army in Palestine. Aaron Aaronsohn in his position as scientific advisor to the Turkish commander on the locust problem was able to move about freely throughout Palestine and Syria, and in the process gathered information which he believed was invaluable to the Allies when and if they decided to invade the Holy Land.
The Nili network, having gathered a considerable amount of hard and exact intelligence, searched for ways to transmit this information to the British military in Egypt. Aaronsohn firmly believed that the British would be persuaded by the Nili material of their error in not invading Palestine. In July 1915, Alexander, Aaron's brother, was chosen to attempt to contact the British. Some weeks later a British frigate cruising at
night off the promontory at Atlit brought back Avshalom who was dropped off by a launch. It was agreed that the vessel would return at regular intervals to pick up information packets prepared by the Nili network.
In December of 1915 the Nili band was augmented by the return to Zikhron Ya'acov of Sarah Aaronsohn. In early 1916, the British officer in charge of the liaison with Nili was taken prisoner by the Turks. His detention resulted in the complete breakdown of communications between Nili and the British.
Aaronsohn now strongly felt that the rescue of Palestinian Jewry had become a matter of top priority, and that it was vital for the British to understand that unless the Holy Land was liberated the Jews and the country's other inhabitants would not survive. Considering the gravity of the situation, Aaronsohn decided to personally inform the British what was transpiring in Palestine. In August 1916 he arrived in Berlin where he met with American Zionists.