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The Woman Who Fought an Empire

Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring

Gregory J. Wallance

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Imprint: Potomac Books
Published: 03/2018
Pages: 328
Subject: History
eBook ISBN: 9781640120044


Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn led a remarkable life. The Woman Who Fought an Empire tells the improbable but true odyssey of a bold young woman—the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine—who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring.  Following the outbreak of World War I, Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. Sarah, who had witnessed the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. Sarah joined Nili, eventually rising to become the organization's leader. Operating behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. To protect her secrets, Sarah got hold of a gun and shot herself. The Woman Who Fought an Empire, set at the birth of the modern Middle East, rebukes the Hollywood stereotype of women spies as femme fatales and is both an espionage thriller and a Joan of Arc tale.  


Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer and writer in New York City, a former federal prosecutor, and a longtime human rights activist. He is the author of Papa's Game, nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award; America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy; and the historical novel Two Men before the Storm: Arba Crane's Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started the Civil War. For more information about the author visit


"Wallance vividly conveys the logistical challenges and daily intrigue of operating a spy ring in that time and place."—Jeff Fleischer, Foreword

"In order to prevent further Turkish atrocities, Aaronsohn and her Nili ring of spies began offering the British, who were fighting the Turks in battles in Egypt, information from behind Ottoman lines. Wallance paints a portrait of a complex woman who performed heroic work during difficult times. For those looking for a book about espionage that has real human lives at stake, this little-known story is a tremendous read."—Lorraine Berry, Signature Reads

"Wallance's saga is a fascinating, entirely readable entry into the history of the Nili spy ring, a group of Jews who spied for the British in hopes of aiding in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Aaronsohn, the leader of the operation, was motivated by witnessing the Armenian genocide on her way from Constantinople to her hometown of Zichron Ya'acov. She feared a similar fate would befall Jews under the Ottomans, and set out to do her part to influence regime change. . . . Wallance leaves readers marveling at her accomplishments and wondering, intentionally or not, what more she could have accomplished with colleagues more like herself."—Ariane Mandell, Jerusalem Post