In Memory of Yisrael Ben-Zeev, Guardian of KKL-JNF Lands
A scenic lookout in memory of KKL-JNF watchman Yisrael Ben-Zeev, who was murdered by Bedouin rioters in 1938, has been inaugurated in northern Israel’s Shehenya Forest. The lookout, which was established thanks to donations from Friends of KKL-JNF in Germany, overlooks the Zevulun Valley and Haifa Bay, the area where Ben Zeev lived and worked, and where, eventually, he met his death. Just a few hundred meters away from the memorial site is the cave where his body lay concealed for over 50 years, until it was found by his son and laid to rest.
“With the establishment of this memorial a circle has been closed,” said Dr. Omri Boneh
, Director of KKL-JNF’s Northern Region. “Yisrael and his comrades were the spearhead of the nation’s defenses, and it is thanks to them that its lands were redeemed, dunam after dunam, and preserved for the Jewish People. KKL-JNF will continue to care for the site, and so preserve his heritage and memory.”
The memorial plaques at the site tell the story of one of the heroes of the pre-state era. Yisrael Ben-Zeev was born in 1905 in Yesud HaMaala, a community that his parents, Sara and Zeev, had helped to establish. After his marriage to Rivka, and the birth of their two children Zeev and Shulamit, the family moved to what was then the Sabinya neighborhood (today Kiryat Bialik).
Yisrael was well acquainted with his Arab neighbors: he dressed as they did, and spoke their language. He worked hard, devotedly and courageously, and was known by his fellow-guards and Arab neighbors as “Abu Deeb” (“Father of the Wolf” – i.e., zeev). He was famed throughout the Galilee region, and his reputation reached all the way to Damascus.
In August 1938, at the height of the anti-Jewish riots, Yisrael lent his mare to an Arab guard, who was one of his close friends, and the following day he set out on foot for the village of Damun to reclaim his mount. He was never seen again, and long years were to pass before it emerged that he had been ambushed and murdered by four Bedouin.
For decades his son Zeev tried to find out exactly what had happened to him. The mystery was not solved until 1990, when Yisrael’s bones were discovered in a cave near Shehenya. The local Bedouin referred to the cave as “Bir Yahudi” (“Jew’s Well”), as they knew that it contained the body of a murdered Jewish watchman. The remains were located with the help of Giora Zaid
, son of the famous watchman Alexander Zaid. These two watchmen were active during the same period, and were murdered within a month of each other. Thus Zeev, after long years of searching, was able to carry out his mother’s last wish: he found his father’s body and had it laid to rest.
“It’s a shame that my father is not alive today to see the memorial site that’s been established here,” said Yaron Lev-Or
, Yisrael’s grandson. “I’ve lived in the shadow of this tragedy my whole life. It’s very important to the family that my grandfather’s memory be preserved, and words can’t describe the emotion we feel here today.”
Some sixty family members attended the ceremony at the Shehenya scenic lookout, including 18 great-grandchildren and Yisrael’s granddaughter Sara Lederman
. “The values that guided my grandfather throughout his life were transmitted to his children, and from them to us, his grandchildren,” she told those present at the ceremony. “His love for our People and our homeland live on to this day, even though he himself died so many years ago.”
As she looked down at the valley spread out below the lookout, she continued, “It was in this beautiful valley that Zeev and Shulamit
waited for their father to come home. They were very proud of him, and of the fact that he was a brave watchman. After his disappearance the family went through years of privation, and all that time they expected every day that he would return home.” Yisrael’s daughter Shulamit
was only five years old when her father was murdered. She spoke little at the ceremony, and the emotion she felt was revealed only when, at intervals, she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye – especially when some of the great-grandchildren stepped up to the podium to perform musical excerpts or recite blessings. The emotion reached its height when Shulamit and the great-grandchildren planted an oak tree together at the site in memory of their progenitor. Ron Shani
, head of Misgav Regional Council, told those assembled that local people had known about the cave for years, but had not, until now, known of the story that lay behind it. “The Misgav communities were founded on KKL-JNF land,” he said, “and all this settlement was possible only because those who came before us guarded and preserved these lands for us.”
A footpath leads from the scenic lookout to the cave where Yisrael Ben-Zeev’s bones were found, and a modest memorial marks the entrance to the cave. Future plans include the provision of a new, more accessible trail. Visitors, however, are not permitted to enter the cave itself, as it is home to a population of rare insect-eating bats that belong to an endangered species. If they are disturbed, especially during hibernation, they could die, and, because of their presence, the site has been declared a nature reserve.
The promenade adjacent to the scenic lookout, which was established by
KKL-JNF a number of years ago, is popular with local residents, many of
whom go for a walk or a run along it in the mornings and evenings,
while at holiday time whole families arrive from all over Israel. Now
all these visitors will be able to pause for a moment to read the
touching story of the legendary watchman who gave his life to protect
the soil of his homeland.
The establishment of the new lookout has provided the opportunity for
an act of historical justice: the name of Yisrael Ben-Zeev has been
reinstated in the collective national memory. “We need this memory no
less than the family does, because the nation needs heroes,” declared Zeev Kedem
Director of KKL-JNF’s Fundraising Division. “These tales of heroism
help us to pass on an educational message to the younger generation.”
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