To Whom Did This Spy Dedicate His Legendary Love Letter?

Although Avshalom Feinberg was only 27 years old when he died, he knew a true love or two... or five. Meet the many contenders for the title - “recipient of the most romantic love letter in the Hebrew language”

Avshalom Feinberg, 1915, the Ben Zvi Institute Archive. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel. Right: Raïssa Maritain, courtesy of the Feinberg Family Museum. Left: Miriam Kavshana, courtesy of the family.

The following is a story of unrequited love.

That is probably the best way to describe the Hebrew letter Avshalom Feinberg wrote in 1910 to an unknown lover. Originally titled “A Ballad of a Thousand Kisses,” the letter leaves us with very little information about the curly dark-haired and fair-skinned woman mentioned in it.

Feinberg was among the founders and leaders of the Nili underground. This spy ring was active in what was still Ottoman Palestine during the First World War, passing along intelligence to the British Empire and aiding its efforts to conquer the Land of Israel. Other members of the Nili underground included Aaron, Sarah, Alex and Rivka Aaronsohn.

Did Avshalom really write this ballad for his one and only true love? Did such a person even exist? And if so – who was she?

Quite a few women could have potentially answered this question in the first person. The fact that they all managed to have some connection to Avshalom or at least a plausible case, paints a more rounded portrait of this young Zionist idealist, a master of words and serial heartbreaker.

Here are the known and indisputable facts: the passionate and inspiring poetic ballad was written in October 1910, just after Avshalom returned from Paris, and before he was about to leave for the research station in Atlit to join Aaron Aaronsohn’s agricultural enterprise in Palestine (Aaronsohn had by this point become world famous for his work as an agronomist and botanist. His research also served as a convenient cover for his espionage activities).

If we play detective for a moment, we can use the descriptions on the letter’s second page (which most readers don’t usually get to) to try to figure out the nature of the relationship and the depth of the intimacy between Avshalom and the letter’s intended recipient.

“I want to find this spring and put my lips to it, to glue my mouth to the spring of light and drink my fill, and that would be the thousandth kiss. But the sky does not favor my sinful eyes, the light does not favor my impure, earthly, drunken lips, and therefore this impossible kiss will burn my lips forever and trouble my wanting breast to the last breath.”

העמוד השני מתוך המכתב המקורי הנמצא היום בבית אהרנסון, מוזיאון ניל"י
The second page of the original letter, today in the Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum

Who was the woman for whom Feinberg yearned when he transformed his passionate musings into words on a page? During our search to uncover the identity of this enigmatic figure, several candidates presented themselves. Each of them is from a slightly different time and place, but all have one thing in common: they were all beautiful young women who were at some point certain that they held the key to Avshalom’s heart.


An Aaronsohn Family Love Triangle

The first claimant to the crown is Rivka Aaronsohn, who was officially considered his fiancée. Rivka was Aaron Aaronsohn’s younger sister and she and Avshalom had a close relationship. A co-claimant is her famous sister Sarah, who was apparently the closest thing to a soulmate Avshalom had.

Avshalom’s letters to Sarah and Rivka are full of emotion and various flowery descriptions. He occasionally wrote to both sisters together, using terms of endearment such as “my girls” and “my darlings,” but he also maintained a separate, much more intimate correspondence with each: “To my Sarah.” “To my Rivka.” “Yours, Avshalom”

“Oh! If I could only have flown yesterday before you and lined the whole path with beautiful flowers, placing a kiss on each flower in the hope that your feet would be good enough to touch them, how happy that would have made me.”

מכתב אהבה מאת אבשלום פיינברג אל שרה אהרנסון, יולי 1911. מתוך אוסף אברהם שבדרון, אוטוגרפים, הספרייה הלאומית.
Love letter from Avshalom Feinberg to Sarah Aaronsohn, July 1911. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

But even though Avshalom did not spare any kisses in the letters he wrote to the sisters, and despite the similarities that emerge here and there, the “thousand kisses” letter could not have been written for either of the two.

The Aaronsohn sisters were disqualified due to a discrepancy in the dates. The letter is dated October 18, 1910, and Feinberg would only meet the sisters later on.

The source of the confusion over this point is likely due to the fact that the letter was found among documents belonging to the Aaronsohn family, and is today deposited in the Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum.

Did Avshalom originally write the letter to an unknown woman, before later rededicating it to the red-haired Rivka or to the fair-haired Sarah? We’ll probably never know for sure.


The Paris Affair

Avshalom spent almost five years of his life in the French capital (from 1904 to 1909, with short breaks in Switzerland and Palestine). During his studies in Paris, he met Jacques and Raïssa Maritain through his revered aunt Sonia Belkind, establishing a strong friendship with the couple and becoming a frequent visitor in their home.

Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher and thinker. Raïssa Maritain was the daughter of a Jewish family that had immigrated to France from Russia at the end of the previous century, fleeing local persecutions of Jews. She met Jacques at the Sorbonne, fell in love with the gentle-faced young man and married him in a Christian ceremony against her family’s wishes.

The young couple had a strong bond. Raïssa testified in her diary that everything she did in her life and all the spiritual wealth she accrued was thanks to her husband. Jacques, in turn, later wrote that she was his inspiration, and that every one of his successful creative endeavors was due to her.

And yet, when Avshalom arrived at their home, he fell in love with the dreamy and beautiful young woman and she with him. Her sentimentality found an echo in the heart of this idealistic young man who was so different from her serious husband. Despite her failed attempts to lure him to Christianity, when they eventually parted, it was with the pain of lovers who know they will most likely never meet again.

Rumors and gossip about his French love followed Avshalom upon his return to Palestine. Despite this, he continued to maintain a correspondence with Jacques, writing to him from Hadera, Zichron Ya’akov and Atlit. Some of the letters, in fluent French and Yiddish, can be found in the archive of the philosopher André Neher, deposited at the National Library of Israel, but as far as we know, no personal letters to Raïssa were found among them.

Is it possible he wrote the letter for her but never sent it?

The dates certainly fit, as does the context: the unrequited love and the great distance that separated them, preventing Avshalom’s metaphorical kisses from reaching her.

ראיסה מריטן, באדיבות מוזיאון בית פיינברג
Raïssa Maritain, courtesy of the Feinberg Family Museum

The Beautiful Nurse from Jaffa

Miriam Kavshana was a young girl and an ardent Zionist when she and her older brother arrived in the Land of Israel from Plonsk, Poland. Other family members joined them later, but in the interval, Miriam worked as a nurse at the hospital in Jaffa.

There, as she would tell her family, she met Avshsalom. He was a young and charismatic patient; she was a dedicated and beautiful nurse. What could possibly happen?

We could not find any documentation of Avshalom’s hospitalization at that time, as few patient records remain from those years. Miriam’s relatives, however, have preserved a poem that was found among her papers. It was written by Avshalom Feinberg to a girl by the name of Miriam.


“It has been several days and several nights

that I have been lusting to see you Miriam

but to my great and bitter sorrow

this has proven to be

despite all of my toil, impossible

yet still, a glimmer of hope remains…”

 – The opening lines of the poem Avshalom dedicated to a “Miriam”


But by 1911, Miriam had apparently moved to Yavniel, near the Sea of Galilee, with Haim Yaffe, whom she would soon marry.

Was Avshalom really in love with her? Was the “Ballad of a Thousand Kisses” written for her, precisely because he could no longer claim her heart, after Haim had taken her up north?

מרים כבשנה בצעירותה, באדיבות המשפחה
Miriam Kavshana in her youth, courtesy of the family

If so, one can only wonder what the happily married woman must have felt when she read these words, which may have been intended for her.


Tsila’s Girl

In family conversations, Avshalom’s beloved little sister Tsila brought up another name: Segula Beckman Razili. In the archives of the Khan Museum in Hadera there is another letter that Avshalom wrote to Segula, as well as an envelope addressed to her in his own handwriting.

Did the envelope ever contain the famous ballad? It is empty now, and the address on its back does not hint at its past contents.

Not much is known about Segula’s life, except for the fact that in 1918 she married Haim Resnik (later Razili).

Tsila was very close to Avshalom. Even when they were not in the same place at the same time, they maintained an extensive correspondence (in which the various women are described very differently from the romantic metaphors that filled his love letters). She probably knew him better than most of his friends, and it is logical to think that he shared his innermost thoughts with her.

There is only one problem with this theory: according to family sources, Segula was born in 1896. A simple calculation leads to the conclusion that in 1910 she was only 14 years old. Anyone reading the entire letter, beyond the highly publicized opening, will find this fact quite disturbing.


So, for whom were the thousand kisses really meant?

Does it even matter for whom the ballad was written?

The image that emerges from cross-referencing these stories with what we know of Avshalom’s role in Zionist history, is that of a young Jewish man whose heart overflowed with feelings of love. Love for his people, for his country, for his family. And yes, also for the girls and women he met in his life.

Thanks to his rich and expressive linguistic talent, even decades later, we can almost touch those warm feelings that were so abruptly ended.

Thankfully, Avshalom’s beautiful ballad to an unknown lover was preserved for future generations by songwriter Mirit Shem-Or who rearranged the words to music written by Svika Pick. The song, today a well-known Israeli classic, was performed by Yehoram Gaon in 1986.

“I did not commit treason, I committed suicide” – Uri Ilan’s Secret Notes

The story of the captured soldier who chose to end his life for fear of revealing secrets to the enemy

Using an improvised, hand-made implement, Sergeant Uri Ilan recorded his story on pages torn from a book. His account began with his capture by Syrian forces and ended with his own death. The notes, which Ilan hid in his shoes, were discovered upon the return of his body from captivity, the day after he hung himself. As the notes explained, he took his life for fear that he would break under enemy torture and reveal secrets that could damage national security.

One of the ten notes left behind by Uri Ilan, on which he wrote: “Vengeance upon their representative at the armistice talks Uri.”  The writing is pierced into the lower half of the inside title page of the book Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”) by Yitzhaq Shami


The night of December 8, 1954, Uri Ilan and four members of his squad set out on foot from Kibbutz Dan in order to replace a battery in a listening device in the northern Golan Heights as part of “Operation Cricket.” At the time, the Golan Heights were under Syrian control – this mission was taking place behind enemy lines. Not long after they set out- something went wrong and the the five were discovered by the Syrian army near Kibbutz Kfar Szold. They were captured and first taken to Quneitra. From there they were transferred to the infamous al-Mezzeh prison in Damascus, where the soldiers were placed in individual cells.

Uri Ilan survived fifty-three days of brutal torture in captivity. Isolated in his dungeon cell, and unaware of the efforts to free the squad members, he believed that the others had been executed and that he was next. On January 13, 1955, he was found hanging in his cell in the Damascus prison. Frightened by the soldier’s suicide, the Syrians called in the UN representative. After the representative confirmed the sham report that described no signs of violence on Ilan’s body, his remains were transferred to Israel the same day. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan was present when the body was returned to Israel and he was among the first to read the messages the deceased soldier had hidden on his body. The first note contained Hebrew words pierced into the paper: “Look through my clothes for my will Uri.”

“Look through my clothes for my will Uri” – the Hebrew words were pierced into page 72 of a copy of Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”)


Uri Ilan, who did not have access to writing utensils, had used an improvised wooden toothpick to poke his messages into the pages of the Hebrew book Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”) by Yitzhaq Shami. Seven of the ten notes called for revenge on his captors. At Ilan’s funeral, Dayan quoted Ilan’s words from one of the notes: “I did not commit treason, I committed suicide.” These words were etched into collective Israeli memory, becoming symbols of personal sacrifice.

Uri Ilan’s coffin being carried for burial. Photo: Government Press Office


Dayan eulogized Sergeant Ilan at his funeral: “Uri Ilan carried the mission of the security of his people on his young body and with the power of his own determined will, until he reached the limit of his ability and his will prevailed over his body. Uri reached the end of his journey. A note attached to his cold corpse returned to the homeland bears his final cry: ‘I did not commit treason!’ The army flag bows before you – Hebrew soldier, Uri Ilan.”

The note that was made public: “I did not commit treason / I committed suicide.” pierced into page 103 of a copy of Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”)


When the Chief of Staff offered the notes to Uri’s mother, Fayge, she refused and replied memorably, “He wrote them for the IDF, he did not write them for me.” The Uri Ilan Archive is preserved at Bar-Ilan University. The notes found on his body are kept in the IDF & Defense Establishment Archives.

Footage from Uri Ilan’s funeral, January, 1955:


The notes displayed in this article appear courtesy of the IDF & Defense Establishment Archives.

When the Irgun Decided to Be Judge, Jury and Executioner

Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach were executed after being sentenced to death by drumhead court martials organized by the Irgun | Their death sentences on the alleged charge of treason were delivered by a self-sanctioned, non-transparent body, lacking any oversight | Delving into the details of the cases reveals a violent and controversial procedure in which military organizations permitted themselves to execute people without conclusive evidence | A look back at a darker side of the pre-state era

Members of the Irgun patrolling on the border of Jaffa, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On a March morning in 1947, residents of Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel – awoke to find a new announcement from an “Irgun Tribunal” heralding a double execution carried out by its members. These were frenzied days when the Jewish settlement was battling the British Mandate government and its attempts to prevent Jewish immigration. The Irgun and Lehi underground organizations saw the British as their greatest enemy, and anyone suspected of collaboration, even if that person was a Jew, became a potential enemy in their eyes.

The statement released that morning announced the execution of two Jews — Kadia Mizrahi of Rehovot and Leon Mashiach of Petah Tikva — on the charge of informing to the British. These were two more names in a long list, but a thorough examination of the announcement can teach us quite a bit about the phenomenon as a whole.

Irgun poster announcing the executions of Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach (Hebrew). This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Executions within the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine were not a new occurrence. The first political assassination was that of Jacob Israël de Haan in 1924, and dozens more Jews were sentenced to death by various organizations on charges of treason, passing on information and collaboration with the Arabs or the British, before the State of Israel’s establishment in May of 1948.

The phenomenon is sometimes attributed only to the Lehi and Irgun, with the thinking being that their hardline positions led them to commit such violent acts, but in fact, the Haganah also assassinated Jews for similar reasons on several occasions. The difference was that the Haganah carried out its executions “quietly,” whereas the Irgun and Lehi chose to publicly announce theirs. Throughout most of the 1940s, the majority of the executions of Jews on these and other charges were indeed carried out by the Irgun and Lehi, while the Haganah during this period attempted to maintain a policy of cooperation with the British, as World War II and the Holocaust were both underway.

And for the slanderers/informers let there be no hope, traitors to their people” – an Irgun poster that made reference to the execution of informers. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The announcement distributed in March 1947 begins with a description of Kadia Mizrahi’s guilt: “A whore who is corrupt to the core, a traitor to her people, a servant of the enemy, a professional informant who betrayed Jewish citizens, even her own son, to the British secret police.” It goes on to say how conclusive evidence was presented to the court (whose members remain unknown to this day) and that after Mizrahi had been warned about her behavior on previous occasions, she was executed.

Kadia was born in Israel to a Yemenite immigrant family. Her fate was sealed early on in life when she haphazardly married a youth her family did not approve of. The marriage was annulled, but from that day forward, she was an outcast. She was later married to Avraham Shriqi (whose name was Hebraized to Mizrahi) and became a homemaker, while also earning some money working in the homes of wealthier families in the area. The couple had five children. In 1945, Kadia did the unthinkable at the time by asking the Rabbinical Court for a divorce from her husband. Her request was eventually granted, along with a plot of land in the Marmurek area (Rehovot).

Following her divorce, Kadia lived alone after her ex-husband gained custody of the children in order to avoid paying child support. She adopted a lifestyle that was frowned upon by just about everyone aside from herself. She enjoyed dressing in nice clothes, dancing, sitting in cafes and smoking cigarettes. Around this time, the Jewish establishment in Mandatory Palestine began recruiting women to entertain British soldiers and show them a good time, as a way to win them over to the Zionist cause. Kadia signed up.

It should be noted that the women were not recruited to have sexual relations with the soldiers. Nevertheless, many among the Jewish community were skeptical of the tactic. The national institutions wanted the girls to dance with the foreign soldiers, host them and advocate for Jewish interests in the Land of Israel, but others feared assimilation. The “Committee to Protect the Honor of Jewish Daughters” was established to combat this “plague”. At one point, Kadia was recruited to work for the local branch of the British police. She started in maintenance and cleaning, advancing to the position of Arabic-English interpreter, before finally becoming a police officer/warden working with local women.

She and other women were occasionally followed by Irgun agents who suspected them of passing on information to the British, but Kadia was dismissive of these tactics. According to various sources, one night, after an Irgun attack on the Qastina airbase, the fighters returning from the operation stopped by her house to rest and change clothes, but Kadia wouldn’t let them in. Her refusal was to have dire consequences.

“Kadia Mizrahi, Police Officer From Rehovot, Murdered…she was sent threatening letters warning her ‘not to be too chatty and to refrain from informing'” – news item published in HaBoker, March 10, 1947

As a woman at that time, Kadia was already at a disadvantage. Her extroverted behavior, association with the British, the fact that she was divorced, lived alone and made no excuses for whom she associated with, all made her an easy target. She suffered various harassments, including masked men who tried to break into her home as well as malicious rumors that were spread about her. Finally, when the British imposed martial law in March 1947, she was accused of informing and passing on the names of Hebrew fighters.

The language of the announcement detailing her execution clearly displays the opinions of the Irgun about her chosen lifestyle, indicating that this was among their considerations when making the final decision on her fate. After receiving several threats, Kadia went to the British police but they refused to help her. Finally, one night, armed and masked members of the Irgun broke into her home and shot her eight times in her bed. She was 42 years old when she died. Her children engraved on her tombstone: “Murdered as a result of unjustified hatred and false accusations”.

The case of Leon Mashiach, who was executed around the same time, was slightly different, though his fate was similar. Originally from Bulgaria, the 29 year-old Mashiach was a newly discharged soldier and recently divorced. His accusers used the same language as they did for Kadia: “a traitor to his people and an informer.”

The Irgun tribunal published that Leon Mashiach confessed to his deeds and even signed a statement proving his guilt: “I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva. I gave him two training locations, one in the synagogue near the flour mill […] and the other in a kindergarten in Mahane Yehuda […] I devised a plan to capture the weapons trainees […].” Below it, he signed his name, the date, his year of birth and other details. His statement was not published along with the poster and was only found many years later in various archives.

After admitting his guilt, Mashiach asked to commit suicide as an “honorable solution” and to protect his son’s reputation. His request was denied, but according to the tribunal’s declaration, the Irgun assured him that “the disgrace of the traitorous father will not taint the son, who will grow up to be a loyal son to his country and homeland.” According to a news item published after the murder, his body was found blindfolded, after “rumor spread that he was involved in passing information to the police.”

“I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva” – Leon Mashiach’s “confession”. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

We don’t know the conditions under which Leon Mashiach’s “confession” was obtained, or what, if any, chance he was given to prove his innocence. It is possible that the confession was forced in order to “sanction” the execution, but it is also possible that he was indeed an informant and, once caught, chose to confess. The language of the confession — two exact locations, the name of the officer he was in contact with, and what they planned to do — may attest to its authenticity, but it is also possible that the statement was dictated to him.

The description of events, among other things the wording – “the court denied the request”, creates the illusion of an orderly judicial process. However, it is equally possible that everything happened quickly, and that the orderly procedure was nothing more than a short conversation before the execution. It is interesting that in this case, the “evidence” was presented in the form of a confession, while in the case of Kadia Mizrahi, there was no evidence at all besides “her lifestyle”, which had no real connection to the acts she was accused of perpetrating. The short news item about Mashiach’s execution was published in the newspaper HaTsofe, where the headline called it a “murder”, although the article itself was not critical of the act. Mashiach was buried in Petah Tikva. Meanwhile, the Leon Mashiach file in the archive of the Jabotinsky Institute remains confidential and is kept in a safe.

Screenshot of the confidential file, the Jabotinsky Institute Archive

The poster published by the Irgun concludes with a general paragraph that is both a warning and a threat promising a similar fate to anyone who cooperates with or passes information to the British. The public methods used by the Irgun and Lehi provoked widespread criticism from within the Jewish community, while the Haganah were relatively shielded from public outcry because they were more discreet about the murders they committed.

In Jerusalem, a body calling itself the “Thou Shalt Not Kill League” was established, which tried to combat acts of violence aimed at Arabs and Jews alike. In the many leaflets it distributed around the country it called the perpetrators of the violence “terrorists.” After Kadia Mizrahi’s murder, the league distributed a leaflet that mentioned her name and raised the question of the legitimacy of the drumhead court-martials and criticized their decisions. “Who is the court? […] What are their names so that we may know?” The murder of women in particular shocked the community. In another poster the league called to “Lend us a hand, join us and together […] we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst”. Despite the public protest, the murders continued, right up to the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence.

“…we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst…” – A poster produced by the Thou Shalt Not Kill League, the Jabotinsky Institute, 1947

The main problem with the executions, apart from the violence and the use of the death penalty as a solution, is that to this day it is not known what acts the “guilty” were actually responsible for. Aside from the important question of whether collaborators indeed deserved to die, the secrecy in which the organizations conducted their “trials” leaves no possibility of critically examining their actions. Was Kadia Mizrahi executed because she really was an informant for the British, or did false rumors and accusations, along with her lifestyle and the presence of trigger-happy executioners lead to her death? Did Leon Mashiach actually confess to his actions, or was his a forced confession, extracted in order to justify his execution?

We will never know since the “Irgun Tribunal” was conducted in the form of a drumhead court martial. The murdered were not allowed an orderly proceeding with a prosecutor and a proper defense and this issue remains unaddressed to this day. With the establishment of the State of Israel, this practice was repeated only once: the execution of the officer Meir Tobianski who, innocent of any crime, was murdered at the hands of a drumhead court organized by veterans of the Haganah. This case was investigated in depth, and we can only hope that the State of Israel learned its lesson.

Lawrence of Arabia or Lawrence of Zion?

The story of the archaeologist turned British intelligence officer: Is it possible that this iconic pro-Arab figure eventually became a Zionist? And what organization was likely responsible for his change of heart?

"Lawrence of Arabia", portrayed by Peter O'Toole in the 1963 film

It was around the time of the First World War. The waning Ottoman Empire still ruled over the Land of Israel, but the British were already waiting in the wings in Egypt. In this article, we will discuss the British officer and archaeologist whose name is the stuff of legend and mystery. The life of this important historical figure was documented in an Oscar-winning film, his image was immortalized on the cover of a Beatles album and even Winston Churchill hailed his autobiography as ranking “with the greatest books ever written in the English language”.

You must have guessed by now who it is.

Here in Israel, this individual’s deeds are less familiar, probably because he is generally considered a pro-Arab figure. But, as we have been taught, one must always choose a side—good or bad, them or us. Because whosever supports Arab independence cannot possibly support Jewish nationalism simultaneously. Right?

I am of course referring to none other than Thomas Edward Lawrence, who most of us know as “Lawrence of Arabia”, leader of the Arab Revolt, hero of the classic Hollywood film, the man whose face appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and who began his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom with a cryptic poem dedicated to someone with the initials S.A.

Movie poster for Lawrence of Arabia, 1963


In addition to the above, Lawrence was also an archaeologist. In 1911, while participating in archaeological excavations in northern Syria, the 23-year-old Lawrence even wrote a diary documenting his travels in the area, which was later published. He would refuse a knighthood from the King of England because he felt betrayed by the British government. His premature death at age 46 in a mysterious motorcycle accident practically guaranteed his stardom and cemented his legacy to this day.

So who was Lawrence of Arabia?

T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”


Let’s start from the beginning, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 in Wales. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, was a minor nobleman, and his mother, Sarah Junner, was the family governess. Chapman left his wife and family for Junner, and together they wandered from place to place. These events taught Lawrence the importance of keeping secrets from an early age. He had to keep the story of his birth under wraps in order to avoid the shame and social repercussions of being born out of wedlock. Later, this illegitimate son managed to break the glass ceiling of the British class system and enter Buckingham Palace through the front door.

Lawrence graduated with honors from Oxford where he majored in history. He arrived in the Middle East for the first time in 1910 to join the British Museum’s archaeological excavations at Carchemish. There he met the archaeologists Leonard Woolley (whom we will return to later) and David Hogarth, who was impressed with the young man. During Lawrence’s stay in the region, he learned the Arabic language as well as Arab customs and culture. These skills came in handy later and helped him acquire the legendary name by which he is known in popular culture.

With the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence was drafted into the British Army. Given the rank of major, he began working as an intelligence officer. In 1916, he was attached to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, where he again crossed paths with David Hogarth. Hogarth’s predecessor as head of the bureau was Mark Sykes – the very same Mark Sykes responsible for the Sykes-Picot agreement that would divide the territories of the former Ottoman Empire between Great Britain and France.

At the time, the British had been working to mobilize Arab support for the war effort. Toward that end, they hoped to recruit the Arab Hashemite faction led by Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, to their side. Eventually, an understanding was reached with the Hashemites who, for their help, were promised control over the entire area south of Turkey—a vast Arab kingdom that would stretch from the Arabian Peninsula to the region of Syria (including the Land of Israel).

Lawrence had played a key role in formulating this agreement with the Hashemites. But he had been kept in the dark about the Sykes-Picot agreement, and felt betrayed when he learned of its contradictory terms. In his anger, he revealed its contents to the Hashemites. This secret move by the British was the first breaking point for Lawrence with the empire he himself represented. He became distrustful, among other things because he saw the duplicity as a betrayal of British values.

The Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, 1916

General Edmund Allenby sent Lawrence to help the Arabs during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and together with Ali’s son, Faisal, he commanded a group of several thousand fighters equipped by the British. The campaign that began in the Arabian Peninsula ended with the occupation of Damascus and the entire eastern flank. However, Damascus was part of the territory that France was to receive according to its agreement with Britain. Lawrence knew this, but it did not prevent him from assisting in the conquest of Damascus and supporting Faisal’s claim to be crowned King of Syria. Lawrence was in essence attempting to thwart the Sykes-Picot agreement.


What Did the British Do?

The Arab Revolt was an acclaimed success, and the Hashemite forces were able to conquer Aqaba, helping the British in their conquest of Palestine – the Land of Israel. However, Sharif Hussein’s demand for the establishment of a large Arab kingdom encompassing the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, was rejected outright. The French recaptured Damascus and expelled Faisal, while the British stood by and did nothing. This, for Lawrence, was the second betrayal.

At this point, it is also important to mention the “Nili” underground organization—the spy network in the Hebrew settlement in the Land of Israel that was operating at the same time and in parallel. The underground was in contact with Lawrence’s colleague, the archaeologist Leonard Wooley. Both groups pursued the same goals: cooperation in return for the promise of a state. Nili was providing broad intelligence that greatly contributed to the British effort. What was Lawrence’s view of this?

In the end, the British and French took over most of the territories promised to Sharif Hussein and divided them according to the Sykes-Picot agreement. However, Lawrence and Hussein also had some success: Hussein’s two sons were crowned kings—Abdullah over Jordan (the Hashemite dynasty rules Jordan to this day) and Faisal over Iraq. Lawrence, however, considered the agreement a betrayal by the British, and when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a knighthood after the war’s end, he made a public show of his disapproval by declining to accept it, a move that infuriated and embarrassed King George V. Nevertheless, when he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935, the entire nation paid tribute to him. He has since remained a legend in the eyes of many Britons, his portrait on the cover of the Beatles album being just one example of his iconic status in popular culture

Now for the part that might come as a surprise to many readers. Lawrence of Arabia was not only pro-Arab. He was also supportive of Zionism, though perhaps not from the beginning. Lawrence underwent a change in his opinion about the Jews in the region, likely due in part to his conversations with Wooley who told him of the Jewish aid Britain had received in the war effort, such as the work of the Nili underground.

Towards the end of the war, Lawrence developed different loyalties. Having begun to see His Majesty’s Government as betraying its allies, he transferred his loyalty to the Hashemites. At this time, while rethinking his worldview, Lawrence also underwent a change in his attitude towards the Jews. If before the war he discounted them, now, inspired by Aaron Aaronsohn and his friends in the Nili underground movement, he saw them as brave, wise and courageous. The shift did not end there. Lawrence used his power and influence to change the face of the Middle East.

He organized the meeting between Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization, and Prince Faisal, in which the Prince renounced his attachment to the land west of the Jordan River. He convinced Churchill to change the Sykes-Picot agreements so that they left out the Land of Israel. And at the Cairo Conference in 1921, in which the formal implementation of the Balfour Declaration was finally concluded, he demanded that a mandatory territory remain, including a national home for the Jewish people. Lawrence even envisioned the Jews playing an important role in the Middle East. In an interview he gave to a local London Jewish newspaper on the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he said: “Speaking entirely as a non-Jew, I look on the Jews as the natural importers of Western leaven so necessary for countries of the Near East.”

Lawrence also spoke about the establishment of a future Jewish state: “…if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population.’” In this, he and Aaronson shared the same thinking, but it is doubtful whether they ever discussed it together.

Once Lawrence himself realized that the aforementioned arms could be Jewish rather than English weapons, he gradually adopted a more pro-Zionist approach. It is also worth noting that Aaron Aaronsohn had met Lawrence when they both worked for British intelligence. Aaronsohn disliked Lawrence because he thought he was against the Zionist idea, and Lawrence didn’t particularly like Aaronsohn either. Aaronsohn envisioned a new Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, including a Jewish-Armenian-Arab partnership, in which the Armenians would be a mediating factor between the Jews and the Arabs. Aaronsohn saw the importance of an Armenian state mainly in view of the genocide that had been perpetrated against them. He shared his thoughts with Sykes himself. We will never know how Aaronsohn might have reacted to Lawrence’s support for the Zionist cause because he died in a plane crash in 1919 over the La Manche channel on the way to the Paris Peace Conference. His body was never found.

Opinions about Lawrence of Arabia differ depending on how one views history. One thing is certain, Lawrence of Arabia, who was born “a social outcast,” appreciated the loyalty and integrity of smaller nations, and he abhorred duplicity. He believed in his path and worked for the good of the common people. One would assume that these traits developed in reaction to his own pain and shame from being thought inferior simply because of the circumstances of his birth.

Studio photograph of Asia Feinberg dressed up for Purim as Lawrence of Arabia. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project  and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


In preparing this article we relied on The Diary Kept by T. E. Lawrence While Travelling in Arabia During 1911 (Hebrew) and Eliezer Livne’s book, Aaron Aaronsohn, His Life and Times (Hebrew).