By the Rivers of Babylon
The date palm is mentioned in the Tanach several times but following the Babylonian exile, the tree died out in the Israel. It was only in the 1930’s when Ben Zion Israeli, an ardent Ukrainian-born Zionist wanted to plant a Biblical garden in honor of Rachel Bluwstein, his late friend and fellow pioneer, that the date palm flourished in Israel again.
With a meagre amount of money and a truck assigned to him by David Ben Gurion, Ben Zion Israeli embarked on a dangerous drive to Babylon. His goal was to visit the impoverished and downtrodden Jewish community and bring back some offshoots of date palms.
It was a massive undertaking, not just because of the dangers of the desert journey, but because palm trees don’t grow from seeds: they grow from thick, thorn-shaped offshoots taken from the trunk of the tree which can be up to a meter long.
By the Rivers of Babylon, Ben Zion Israeli addressed Jews who could trace their heritage to Iraq following the destruction of the Temple (586 BCE). He told them Jews were coming home from all over the world. Effortlessly he persuaded them that it was time for them to pack their bags and return home to live as free people in their land.
The community shared with him the ancient secrets of cultivating date palms and even sold him the choicest offshoots for such a small price that he was able to hide a few thousand in the truck. According to Ben Zion Israeli’s granddaughter, he also made a false bottom in the truck so he could smuggle in a few people back to Israel.
This first trip was just the beginning.
Motivated by mission, he made 8 other trips to the likes of Egypt, Persia and Yemen with the goal to bring back as many different species of palms trees as possible. Every time he visited these Muslim countries, he smuggled in Hebrew literature, the Tanach and Siddurim.
And each time he returned to Jerusalem, he spoke about the impoverishment and persecution of the communities he had met. It was due to his courage, dare and determination, that the mid 1930’s saw a large wave of Jewish refugees from Iraq that paralleled the immigration of German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews who were fleeing Hitler’s Europe.
His last trip was to not to Babylon, but to Biblical Persia, in the days when the fledgling State of Israel had diplomatic relations with the then secular Iran. The goal this time was a massive 30,000 offshoots. With such a vast quantity, a truck would not suffice. Only a ship would do.
Date palm offshoots cannot survive away from the mother plant for too long. So alas, due to the heat and the unexpected delay of the ship, Ben Zion Israeli returned unsuccessful. But nevertheless, he at least fulfilled his promise to his friend Rachel Bluwstein, who had died a few years earlier. He planted a palm tree garden on the southern shores of the Kinneret in her memory and named it “Rachel’s Garden.”
In 1954, while attending an air display at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in honor of Jewish paratroopers who had gone behind enemy lines in Nazi Europe, one of the small planes crashed into the crowd, killing him and 17 others. As bitter irony would have it, this happened at the same time the foundation stone was being laid for the Yad Vashem.
Although Ben Zion Israeli did not live to see date palms brought from Iran, one of his partners continued his work eventually bringing in thousands.
Every one of the palm trees planted from the south of Israel up to the north, stands tall and upright as a testimony to his courage, his devotion to his people and his affection for his friend Rachel, all of which restored the date palm back to our homeland.
First published here