To make a long story short, the Baron was in a pickle. On the one hand, he had to display allegiance to the Turkish government in Palestine, and on the other hand, he had to continue to take care of the Jews. His chief agent, Kalorisky, had traveled to Istanbul and Damascus to appeal to Turkish leaders that Jewish settlers be freed from serving in the army so that they could continue the farming which kept the country alive. Whether out of rudeness, or to display their power, the Turks had delayed giving an answer. In the meantime, Jamal Pasha, the Turkish Military General of Palestine, was trying to destroy the entire Jewish enterprise. He had ordered all Jewish schools, factories, and hospitals closed. Jews were forbidden to bear weapons and to leave their houses at night. Letters could not be sealed, and writing in Hebrew and Yiddish was banned. The Zionist Bank had been closed. Jewish land had been confiscated, and heavy taxation was driving Jewish colonies into bankruptcy. Leaders of the Jewish community had been arrested without trial, and Jews refusing to become Ottoman citizens had been uprooted from their homes and deported. Dozens of others had fled on their own. To make matters worse, typhus fever and cholera were sweeping through the stricken community, claiming dozens of victims each month.
Tevye listened in silence. After all, he was a simple farmer, a pawn in the great drama of history. When the flask of brandy was passed around once again, this time Tevye accepted the offer. Not to take a real drink, but just for a sip to wet his parched tongue. Surely by taking a tiny little sip, he wasn’t breaking his vow.
Either influenced by the liquor, or because they felt they could trust Hava’s father, the men began to discuss what sounded to Tevye like military secrets. To pass the time on the road, one official after the next disclosed what he knew about the Jewish underground movement which was spying against the Turks. Putting the sometimes incomplete pieces together, Tevye sat silently and listened to the riveting story.
One of the keys to the Mediterranean was the Suez Canal, which was controlled by the British. In the spring of 1915, after a Turkish attack on the Canal had been repulsed, a small group of Jews decided to secretly approach the British and offer their aid in conquering the Land of Israel. Aharon Aaronson was the name of their leader. A renowned scientist in Palestine, he had many high connections in the Turkish Military Government. At the beginning of Jamal Pasha’s oppressions, he came to the conclusion that the Jews had no future under Turkish rule and organized an underground cell to fight against them. The spy ring was called “Nili,” an abbreviation of the Biblical verse, “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishacker,” meaning that the Eternal One of Israel would not lie by abandoning His promise to stand by the Jews.
Along with Aaronson, the leaders of the group were Aharon’s brother, Alexander Aaronson; their sister, Sarah; and Avshalom Feinberg. Though the men in the carriage spoke about them with a mixture of admiration and scorn, it was obvious that the JCA leadership in France was against them, fearing that their activities, if discovered, would bring reprisals from the Turks. Aharon Aaronson was considered a renegade and an individualist capable of taking irresponsible risks in convincing Jewish soldiers who were serving in the Turkish army to spy for the British. They were to report on all Turkish troop movements, installations, and plans. As special advisor to Jamal Pasha on the persistent locust problem, Aaronson himself had access to valuable information. “Nili’s” goal, one of the travelers disclosed, was to facilitate a surprise British invasion by landing forces on the coast. Tevye couldn’t help but glance at the flask of brandy which the Company official was clutching in his hand. Hearing all of these secrets, he longed for a fortifying drink. He even thought about yelling for the driver of the carriage to stop and let him out before he heard anymore. What if he were arrested and interrogated? Would he be able to withstand torture and not give these secrets away? Not to mention being thrown into prison as an enemy of the Turkish regime!