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The Dreamers Whose Dreams Came True

Photo credit: So Very

I wanted to tour my home town of Eilat even before the pandemic: hire a car and guide, see recent changes and learn something new. For instance, closing Eilat's airport in 2019 changed travel patterns {no more traffic-circle bottlenecks on Passover and Succoth}, and the 2020 storm altered land and sea, especially around Coral Beach.

The Covid-19 lock-down intervened. When the vaccines took effect Dr. Benny Gamlieli, an Eilat personality and tour guide, agreed to take us, and after many false starts we set out on a lovely spring day: Benny, my friend Jud and myself. We toured town, then from Taba northeast along the coast, the Jordanian border and as far as Ein Avrona. We started at 10:00 and enjoyed the junket so much that we got home around 2:30, a little dehydrated - and very content.

One spot in particular intrigued me: the corner of a Kibbutz Eilot date-palm grove with a simple memorial to Ben-Zion Israeli. The bare bones of what Benny told us set me off to find out more about the man who stands at the heart of Israel's date industry.

Canaan - Eretz Israel - the Promised Land - has a long history of date-palm cultivation, from the Neolithic or earlier [6000-4000 BCE]. The trees provided shade and raw materials while the fruit was indispensable as a food source, luxury sweet, medicinal, and high energy staple for long-distance travel.

Dates were greatly appreciated and even linked to myth -- their Latin name is Phoenix dactylifera -- but for thousands of years those grown along the Jordan River, between the Dead Sea and the Hula Valley, were prized in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean Sea. Through repeated and bloody upheavals and climate shifts the areas of date cultivation dwindled, but production continued around the Dead Sea until the 14th century CE. Why it disappeared is still disputed. Whatever the cause, by the 16th century date palms were few and far between and the fruits were imported. Enter the 20th century and the Second Aliyah: with Jewish agricultural settlement came a desire to renew the Seven Species, but where were the dates?

The first known full-scale re-introduction of date-palm shoots took place in 1924, under the auspices of Yosef Weitz of the Settlement Department of the WZO. Shoots were brought from Egypt and planted at Ein Harod, Degania A., Nahalal, and Kinneret. Most of the plantings failed. In 1933, a man named Ben-Zion Israeli was sent on a trip to Iraq to find and bring back good quality date shoots. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Palestine Office, allocated 17 lirot [pounds] for the expedition.

Israeli was born Ben-Zion Chernomorsky in 1887 in Glukhov, Ukraine, Imperial Russia, where his father was a shochet and dayan. He studied Talmud until age 15, but emigrated and changed his name in 1906 following the second Kishinev Pogrom. Returning briefly, he was drafted into the Czar's army - and deserted.

By 1909 Israeli was back in Ottoman Syria's "Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem" leading a group of thirteen settlers, in the thick of the Zionist settlement movement. He worked with A.D. Gordon in Petah Tikva and met his pioneer-comrades Noah Naftolsky and Meir Rothberg, who became known as the Yachad (together) Trio. He married Haia Zeltzer, one of the first professional beekeepers in the country, and together with Rachel the Poetess and others he co-founded Kvutzat Kinneret in 1913. By the 1930s Ben-Zion was known for introducing modern farming techniques in byres, banana, and date plantations.

This was the man for the mission – to discover which dates would grow best in Eretz Israel and how to bring them back. Aided by Amram Raver, a sabra Kinneret member who spoke fluent Arabic, theirs was a delicate and dangerous mission. Dates were an important food staple and cash crop and each country jealously guarded their cultivars: attempts to export treasured date shoots could get those involved killed. And if that wasn't enough, Israeli also made contact with isolated and forced-convert Jewish communities in Muslim countries – some of whom had no idea that Jews were re-settling in Mandate Palestine.* (see below)

He succeeded. The shoots were planted in "Rachel's Garden," overseen by Kinneret's agronomist Shmuel Stoller, and later supplied shoots planted all along the Jordan Valley as far as Mt. Sodom.

Five years later, in 1938, settlement leadership decided that date production was not economically viable. They were also afraid that illegal date-shoot smuggling would endanger their emissaries and Jewish communities in those countries where it was taking place. Israeli was unconvinced. Together with Yehuda Grinker, a Tnuva manager from Yesud HaMa'ala, they brought in 7,000 shoots from El Arish, on the Mediterranean coast of Egyptian Sinai.

But Israeli's attention turned elsewhere as WWII loomed: he organized a military field unit in the Jordan Valley and was its first commander. Not satisfied, in 1941 - aged 54 - he volunteered for service in the British army. Returning to Palestine after the war he established the Ohalo guest house and college, on the banks of the Kinneret, in memory of Berl Katznelson and on the site of his tent.

After the State was founded, he became a well-known and acute commentator on all aspects of Israeli society and politics in articles published in Davar, as well as writing a history of Kvutzat Kinneret, settlement, and agriculture in the Jordan Valley.

The Last Trip

In 1953 Dov Yosef, then Minister of Development, asked Israeli to undertake another mission: to bring 30,000 date-palm shoots from Iran. On this trip he was teamed up with Yani (Yaakov) Avidov of Nahalal, a veteran Aliyah Bet operative who had organized Jewish immigration from several Muslim countries. The two made their careful way through hostile regions as far as Pakistan, meeting people and establishing contacts, but their mission was aborted due to extreme heat.

On July 29, 1954, Ben-Zion Israeli was among the 17 killed and 25 injured in the Ma'agan Disaster: a Piper Cub plowed into participants at a memorial and groundbreaking ceremony at Kibbutz Ma'agan - narrowly missing David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, most of the government, the country's leadership and the IDF command.

Despite the loss of his partner, Avidov completed their mission. On Israeli's recommendation Avidov obtained 70,000 Iraqi Madjhool (not Iranian) date-shoots. As Benny told us, the tramp cargo ship which Avidov had negotiated to pick up his team and the shoots didn't arrive as scheduled. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the team had to dig holes on the beach and plant the shoots in order to water and keep them alive. For some six weeks of back-breaking, nail-biting toil they waited until the ship appeared. In a fine temper Avidov ripped up at the captain, who asked him in turn how he was supposed to get through when shipping lanes were blocked because of the Suez Crisis and a war between Egypt, Israel, England and France?

The shoots were planted in several locations, including lands belonging to Kibbutz Eilot near Eilat. Avidov later wrote a book about the operation called Alilot Iraq (Iraq Plots), published in 1959 by Am Oved.

Israeli traveled at least eight times through seven Muslim countries and regions on his quests: to the Nile Delta and El Arish in Egypt; Lebanon and Syria; Iraq, Kurdistan; Iran, Tehran and Hamadan; Afghanistan and Pakistan. While he was not alone in his efforts, his perseverance made Israel's date industry what it is today.

Israeli was buried in the Kinneret Cemetery, a palm tree engraved on his headstone. Streets in Haifa, Givatayim, Holon, and Bat Yam are named after him, as is a large public building called the "Benzion House" erected in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1967. And there is the monument to his memory in Kibbutz Eilot's Neot Ben-Zion on the outskirts of Eilat.

His wife Haia passed away in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1979. By that time their descendants from three daughters and two sons numbered 20 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, known on Kinneret as the "tribe of Israelis."

* British Mandate coinage bore an inscription 'Palestina aleph-yud,' initials which stood for 'Land of Israel.' An old joke runs: "The Jews say "Eretz Yisrael," the Arabs say "Eretz Yishmael" and the British say "Anachnu Yodeim" = we know!


As of June 2021, on a kibbutz in the Arava, dates have grown from the pollination of Hannah (f) by Methuselah (m), two Judean Date Palms sprouted from seeds found in 2,000-year-old archaeological strata; Methuselah's seed recovered from Masada, Hannah's from a cave near the Dead Sea. Not only are they the oldest seeds successfully germinated anywhere in the world, they represent a legendary lost date cultivar with unknown properties, which are being investigated.

In the words of the prayer: "Renew our days as of old." 

Photo credit: So Very


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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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