NILI was a Jewish espionage network which assisted the United Kingdom in its fight against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine between 1915 and 1917, during World War I. NILI is an acronym which stands for the Hebrew phrase "Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker", which translates as "the Eternal One of Israel will not lie".[1] The British government code-named NILI the "A Organization", according to a 1920 misfiled memorandum in the British National Archives, as described in the book Spies in Palestine by James Srodes.[2]

Avshalom Feinberg and Sarah Aaronsohn of the Nili spy ring, 1916

During the Armenian genocide, the group opposed the Yishuv leadership at the time, and tried to intervene on behalf of the Armenians.[3]

The choice of siding with the British against the ruling power, the Ottomans, was eventually proven right by history, but in taking it the members of Nili went against the majority view of their fellow Jews from the Yishuv, who feared fierce persecution. These fears almost materialised when the spy ring was discovered, and the Jews of Palestine escaped the tragic fate of the Armenians only due to the intervention of the Vatican, the German government and General Erich von Falkenhayn, commander of the Ottoman-German troops in Palestine.[4][5]


Nili (Hebrew: נִילי) is an acronym of a phrase from the First Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 15:29, Hebrew: נצח ישראל לא ישקר, transliteration: Netzakh Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, translation: "The Eternity (God) of Israel will not lie").



Yosef Lishansky of the Nili spy ring

Sarah Aaronsohn, her brothers Aaron and Alex, and their sister Rivka, together with their friend (and Rivka's fiancé) Avshalom Feinberg formed and led Nili[citation needed].

In 1915, even before the group commenced operations, the Turks imprisoned Feinberg on suspicion of spying, which was not true at the time. When Feinberg was arrested for espionage and held in Beersheba, Yosef Lishansky joined Nili in December 1915. Because he was active in the south, he was recruited by Feinberg to pass information to and from Sarah Aaronsohn, who was operating from Atlit[citation needed].

From March to October 1915, a plague of locusts stripped areas in and around Palestine of almost all vegetation. The Turkish authorities, worried about feeding their troops, turned to world-famous botanist and the region's leading agronomist, Aaron Aaronsohn, who requested the release of his friend and assistant, Avshalom Feinberg. The team fighting the locust invasion was given permission to move around the country, enabling them to collect strategic information about Ottoman camps and troop deployment[citation needed].

For months, the group was not taken seriously by British intelligence, and attempts by Aaron Aaronsohn and Avshalom Feinberg to establish communication channels in Cairo and Port Said failed. Only after Aaronsohn arrived in London (by way of Berlin and Copenhagen) and owing to his reputation, was he able to obtain cooperation from the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes[citation needed].

Sarah oversaw operations in Palestine from Zikhron Ya'akov[citation needed].


Attempting to reach Egypt on foot, Avshalom Feinberg was killed and Yosef Lishansky was wounded but managed to reach British lines[citation needed].

From February to September 1917, the steam yacht Managem regularly sailed to the Palestinian coast near Atlit.[6] Lishansky swam ashore to collect Nili information and to pass money sent by American Jews to the starving yishuv. However, the presence of German submarines made the trips too risky and the group switched to homing pigeons.

In the fall of 1917, one of these pigeons was intercepted by the Turks, who were able to decipher the Nili code (based on Hebrew, Aramaic, French, and English) within one week. As a result, the Turks were able to unravel the spy network, whereupon the leadership of the Yishuv and the Hashomer disassociated itself from Nili. One Nili member, Na'aman Belkind, was captured by the Turks and reportedly revealed information about the group[citation needed].

In October 1917, the Turks surrounded Zichron Yaakov and arrested numerous people, including Sarah, who committed suicide after four days of torture. Other prisoners were incarcerated in Damascus. Lishansky and Belkind were hanged. [7][8]


Nili's "irresponsibility" for not coordinating their operations with the Zionist leadership, thereby endangering the Yishuv, was the cause of a longstanding controversy among the Jewish community of the British Mandate of Palestine and subsequently of the State of Israel. The issue was officially resolved in November 1967, when Feinberg's remains were reinterred on Mount Herzl with full military honors, with eulogies delivered by both Speaker of the Knesset and chief chaplain of the IDF.


The Aaronsohn home in Zikhron Ya'akov, Beit Aaronsohn, has been preserved as a museum and memorial to Nili. West of Zichron Yaakov is a moshav called Givat Nili. The settlement Nili in the western Binyamin region is also named for Nili. Many streets throughout Israel bear the Nili name. In December 2015 the Israel Post marked the centenary of Nili with a special stamp issue.[9]


  1. ^ O'Malley, J. P. (14 December 2016). "With Spy Sarah Aaronsohn's Suicide, Israeli History was Rewritten, Claims Author". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  2. ^ Srodes, James (2016). Spies in Palestine. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. p. viii. ISBN 978-1619026131.
  3. ^ Melson, Robert (2002). "The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide (review)". Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. 20 (4): 124–126. doi:10.1353/sho.2002.0075. S2CID 144179420.
  4. ^ "Reply by historian Michael Hesemann". Did a German Officer Prevent the Massacre of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael during World War I?. 9 December 2011. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  5. ^ Holger Afflerbach (1994). Falkenhayn: Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich. Beitrage zur Militargeschichte. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag. p. 485. ISBN 9783486559729.
  6. ^ West, Nigel (2014). Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence (Second ed.). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. p. 628. ISBN 9780810878976.
  7. ^ Jewish Defense Organizations: The NILI Spy Ring. (n.d.). Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved June 22, 2022, from
  8. ^ Naaman Belkind. (n.d.). Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved June 22, 2022, from
  9. ^ "Nili Centenary Stamp Sheet". Israel Post. Retrieved 18 December 2015.

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