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Biography of Aaron Aaronsohn

Biography of Aaron Aaronsohn

Aaron Aaronsohn, (1876-1919) agronomist, was born in  Bacau, Romania and died over the English Channel. At the age of six he was taken by his parents to Palestine. His father was one of the founders of Zichron Ya'akov. Aaronsohn studied in France and on his return was employed as an agronomist by Baron Edmond de Rothschild at Metullah (1895). He made extensive explorations in Eretz Israel and neighboring countries and in 1906 discovered specimens of wild hybrid wheat (triticum dicocoides) at Rosh Pinah, a discovery that made him famous among botanists throughout the world. Triticum dicocoides is thought by many to be related to  triticum dicoccum, the hybrid Emer wheat that was cultivated first in the Middle East and is the basis of agriculture.

Zionism - Aaron Aaronsohn

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The  discovery of triticum dicocoides  and his articles in European journals gained scientific recognition and fame for Aaronsohn. In 1909, he went to the USA at the invitation of the American Ministry of Agriculture. With the support of American Jews, Aaronsohn founded an agricultural research station in Atlit, where he built a rich library, collected geological and botanical samples and inspected crops. He employed Arab workers and promoted their employment on Jewish farms. This led to a serious dispute with the Yishuv, whose Jewish laborers and teachers believed that they should cease to be dependent on Arab workers and guards.

Aaronsohn also discovered the domestic Golden Hamster in Aleppo, Syria.

In 1915, with his assistant Avshalom Feinberg, his sister Sarah Aaronsohn and other members of their families, Aaronsohn organized NILI, a secret intelligence group. NILI assisted in the conquest of Palestine by  British forces under General Edmund H.H. Allenby, thus helping to realize Zionist aspirations. Moving to Cairo, Aaronsohn helped British headquarters there to plan the invasion of Palestine. In particular, it was his information that gave Allenby the means to attack by surprise through Beersheba, using the map of water sources provided by Aaronsohn, and skirting around the strong Turkish force that blocked the advance north from Gaza.

 In 1916 Aaronsohn visited London. He circulated a memorandum on the future of Eretz-Israel (land of Israel), which helped to make the idea of a Jewish National Home in Palestine part of British policy in the Near East.

In 1917, Chaim Weizmann sent Aaronsohn on a political campaign to the United States, where Aaronsohn learned that the NILI  organization had been uncovered by the Ottoman authorities. He was also told of the tragic death of his sister Sarah who committed suicide rather than reveal the names of other NIL members. In the spring of 1918, Aaronsohn returned to Palestine as a member of the Zionist Commission. He was a member the Jewish delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Aaronsohn was killed in an airplane crash over the English Channel on May 15, 1919. Many in the Jewish Yishuv suspected that he was killed deliberately by the British for reasons of state. His research on Palestine flora and some of his exploration diaries were published posthumously.

Ami Isseroff


Sources: New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, ed., Geoffrey Wigoder, Copyright 1994 by Associated University Press, The Jewish Agency for Israel and The World Zionist Organization.

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