Spy, Agronomist, Entrepreneur: The Israeli Legacy of Aaron Aaronsohn

Aaronsohn, who died a century ago, was a father of invention – and of an underground group fighting the Turks during World War I

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Aaron Aaronsohn, 1876-1919, a botanist, agronomist, geologist and member of the anti-Ottoman underground during World War I.
Aaron Aaronsohn, 1876-1919, a botanist, agronomist, geologist and member of the anti-Ottoman underground during World War I.Credit: Aharonson House Museum
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

On November 25, 1916, during World War I, the agronomist, scientist and founder of the Nili underground movement Aaron Aaronsohn was onboard the British ship Karmala sailing from London to Egypt. As the founder of the pro-British and anti-Turkish group, his objective was to transfer intelligence to British military commanders in Egypt, ahead of the conquest of Palestine and the defeat of the Ottomans.

But while onboard, Aaronsohn busied himself with different topics. As he wrote in his diary, “There is some wind. Still, I walk a lot. My pedometer registered 32 kilometers [20 miles] yesterday. Today I walked 17 before lunch.”

Later in the journey, he discussed in his diary his concerns about German submarines and mines, but also remained preoccupied with his pedometer, perhaps not much of a surprise.

>> Read more: 1890: WWI spy who would choose British overlords over Turkish is bornAn extraordinary man to match the tall tales

“His entrepreneurship and contributions to the modernization of Israel in economics, agriculture in particular, were immense,” says Prof. Ran Aharonson. He is Aaronsohn’s grand-nephew and a researcher at Hebrew University's Geography Department who has written several articles about his great uncle.

Aaron Aaronsohn, who died exactly a century ago, helped introduce many technologies to the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1920s. He was the first person to own a car, was one of the first to own a bicycle, and was among the first importers of modern agricultural equipment and mechanical pumps. He set up a modern plant for producing oil and a network of meteorological stations.

Aaronsohn immigrated to the Holy Land from Romania when he was six years old. At 18, he was sent to study agriculture in Grignon, France. While in Paris he fell in love with the then-new invention the bicycle; he bought one for his sisters Sarah and Rivka.

Ran Aaronsohn has a photograph of the two sisters beside their bicycles in the family yard in Zichron Yaakov. Later, while in Cairo working for the British army during World War I, Aaronsohn's bicycle was his main mode of transportation.

After returning from his studies he was an agricultural director for Baron Rothschild in Metula in the north, but he quickly clashed with the baron’s officials. So at the age of 24, he struck out on his own, playing a key role in the modernization of the land.

Aaron Aaronsohn, 1876-1919, a botanist, agronomist, geologist and member of the anti-Ottoman underground during World War I. Credit: Aharonson House Museum

With a member of the German Templer community, Abraham Dick, he launched a business for importing and selling machines and agricultural products. He also went to the world agricultural exhibition in Paris to stay up to date on the technology.

A tidy 20 francs a day

Soon he was importing agricultural machines he had seen in Paris, including reapers, harrows and American combine harvesters. According to Ran Aaronsohn, his great uncle and German partner employed modern marketing methods such as a network of agents, selling on credit and importing machines that had been taken apart and were put back together on the purchaser’s property.

In that period there were few farms big enough for American reapers, so Aaronsohn provided reaping services also to midsize farms, mainly to Arab landowners.

In a letter, Aaronsohn wrote that even some of the best people in the business “don’t even know about the existence of some of these machines, which could revolutionize agriculture in this country.”

In the letter he meticulously calculated the profits he expected to make from importing those gadgets. “A net profit of at least 20 francs a day per machine, totaling 3,000 francs of assured income from five machines,” he wrote.

In his calculations he apparently didn’t take into account breakdowns, a shortage of replacement parts and knowledge of the land. In one case the farmers of Yavne’el in the north complained about faults in the new reapers; it seems that in this case he suffered losses.

He soon established a new company, this time in partnership with Moroccan-born David Haim. “The Haim & Aaronsohn Co., Jaffa,” said newspaper advertisements of the day. “Machines for working the land and practical industrial uses, and licensed to sell kerosene engines.”

Aaron Aaronsohn in Grignon, France, sometime between 1894 and 1896.Credit: Aharonson House Museum

The company sold a variety of machines and agricultural products: gasoline-operated pumps, a centrifuge for separating cream and making butter, fertilizers, and imported species of vines and seeds.

Tooling around in his Model T

Ran Aharonson counts endless initiatives Aaronsohn was involved in. He established a company thought to be the first to operate a mechanized oil press. He tried to set up a modernized wine press. He experimented in growing oranges without irrigation, and planned to set up a sugar industry and raise silkworms. He had plans to launch public transportation between Haifa and Jerusalem, and to mine minerals from the Dead Sea.

In 1912 he bought and imported a Ford Model T, becoming the first owner of a private car in the country.

“After your experience on the roads of Palestine do you believe it’s possible to go by car to Atlit, Haifa and other places? I’m doing that now,” he wrote Julius Rosenwald, one of the American donors to an experimental agricultural station at Atlit that Aaronsohn established and managed. “The little Ford is a small and brave car that saves me a lot of time, besides giving me a lot of pleasure.” The letter is in the Aaronsohn House Museum in Zichron Yaakov.

Aaronsohn was also a pioneer in the study of the ecology of the country. He warned against the excessive use of pine trees in foresting the land and suggested protecting indigenous forests, warning about the extinction of local species.

Michael Blecher, an ecologist at the Ein Gedi nature reserve, just published a Hebrew-language study about Aaronsohn’s ecology studies. He notes that, despite the pioneer’s great sensitivity, he had no qualms about importing the Washingtonia palm, which turned out to be one of the most harmful invasive species in the country.

In 1915, Aaronsohn was called by the Turkish governor of Palestine and Syria to head a team to combat a locust invasion in the Middle East. His diary is full of descriptions of his methods for battling the pest, including inventions for spreading pesticides.

As World War I progressed, Aaronsohn was more and more active in gathering intelligence as part of the Nili underground. He began to neglect his commercial and technological endeavors.

The Turkish authorities, who recognized his skills, sought to recruit him, and Aaronsohn told them about a way to make motor oil from vegetable oil. For that he received a permit to move freely around the Ottoman Empire. Using this permit he managed to travel to Denmark and from there, on an American boat, to cross the lines to the British side.

After the British conquest of Palestine, he remained a senior adviser to the British army, and on May 15, 1919, he flew in a two-seat military plane over the English Channel from London to Paris. The plane never reached its destination and was presumed to have crashed.

“In his death there is also something related to technology – this was only 10 years after the first crossing of the channel by plane,” Ran Aaronsohn says. “He sat there with a helmet on, exposed to the wind. It was part of his love for innovation.”

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