Rivers of Babylon

The date palm is mentioned in the  Bible several times, but ever since the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon, the tree died out in the Land of 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 was restored to Israel. 

And this is how. 

With a meagre amount of money and a truck assigned to him by David Ben Gurion, the head of the Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine, our hero, Ben Zion Israeli, embarked on a dangerous drive across the desert to ancient Babylon, (modern-day Iraq). His goal was to visit the impoverished and downtrodden Jewish communities and see if he could obtain some date palms for the purpose of bringing them back to Israel. 

This was a massive undertaking not just because of the dangers of the journey, but because palm trees don’t grow from tiny seeds: they grow from thick, thorn-shaped offshoots taken from the trunk of the tree which are up to a meter long! 

By the Rivers of Babylon, Ben Zion Israeli addressed a Jewish community, who could trace their presence in Iraq back to the exile after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He told them of how Jews were coming back to Israel. He shared how they were living in the days of Biblical prophecy. The Jews in Iraq knew Hebrew from their history and religious tradition. Ben Zion fluently and effortlessly persuaded them that the time had come for them to return. It was time for them to live freely as Jews in their homeland. 

The ancient community shared wth him the ancient secrets of cultivating successful date palms and 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 to the truck and hid a few eager and inspired Jewish Iraqis on the perilous journey to Israel.

This first trip was only the beginning. 

Motivated by mission he made 8 other trips to the likes of Egypt, Persia and Yemen. His goal was to bring back as many different species of palms trees as possible. Each time he visited these Muslim countries, he smuggled in Hebrew literature, the Bible and prayer books.

And each time he returned to Jerusalem, he spoke with the Jewish authorities about the impoverishment and persecution of the communities he had met. Due to his courage, dare and determination, 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: Iran. It was back in the days when the fledgling State of Israel had good relations with 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. 

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 fulfilled his promise to his late friend Rachel Bluwstein, who had died a few years earlier. He planted a palm tree garden on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee in her memory. He named it Rachel’s Garden, which is still there today. 

In 1954, while attending an air display in a kibbutz in honor of Jewish paratroopers who had gone behind enemy lines in Nazi Europe, one of the small planes crashed into the crowd, tragically 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 Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. 

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 from Biblical Persia. 

Every one of the palm trees planted from the south of Israel up to the north, stands tall and upright as a testimony to Ben Zion’s courage, his devotion to his people and his affection for his friend Rachel, all of which has restored the Biblical date palm back to its homeland.