Rothschild’s Israel

If you want a taste of the lives of the early pioneers, visit Rishon Lezion, Zichron Ya’acov and Mazkeret Batya.

November 26, 2010 16:33
Cobble stone streets in Zichron Ya'akov

Zichron Ya'akov street 311. (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)


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Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s love of Israel and his strong commitment, both financial and educational, to the early pioneers was one of the main factors which led to the early settlement of the land during the First Aliya in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rishon Lezion was, as its name suggests, one of the first settlements to be populated – in 1882 – during the First Aliya wave from Eastern Europe.Its pioneers were totally unprepared for the agricultural life and lacked even the basic capabilities to make a go of it in the barren, waterless hills of the Yishuv.

So a representative of the group traveled to the Yishuv’s best friend and benefactor, Baron Rothschild, who immediately arranged for students at the nearby Mikve Yisrael Agricultural school to go and train the settlers. He also sent money to support digging for a well and dispatched his own agricultural experts, who declared the land in the area suitable for grape growing and trained some of the pioneers to tend the vineyards.

The settlers of Rishon were also the first to open a Hebrew-speaking school. They designed their own flag, later adapted to form the basis of the flag of the State of Israel. “Hatikva,” the country’s national anthem, was also said to have been composed in Rishon.

Much of the old areas has been reconstructed, and as you walk along the Pioneers Trail, you can see the main Rishon Museum of History, the site of the original well, and the old Hebrew school with a reconstructed classroom.

However, the baron wasn’t loved unconditionally by all those he helped. There were those who thought he interfered from afar – too much in the day-to-day running of the Yishuv – and that he forced his opinions, methods and decisions on those living here.

In fact, it was mostly the baron’s agents who were his on-the-spot representatives and attempted to rule the early pioneers with an iron fist, sometimes making their lives particularly difficult.

Zichron Ya’acov, named after the baron’s father, is another town which has been preserved and reconstructed, with much of the old-world charm intact. The main streets, Hameyasdim and Hanadiv, still have cobbled paving stones, and “gas” lamps line the streets, which are mostly for pedestrians only, retaining the late 19th-century aura.

The main Museum of the First Aliya is housed in the old headquarters of the baron’s agents, but the films depicting life in the early days of the moshava don’t paint a very pretty picture.

Zichron was populated by people fleeing from the pogroms in Eastern Europe, who also had no agricultural experience whatsoever. Their attempts at cultivating the land were met with almost total failure and many died from malaria, or were blinded by terrible eye diseases.

Eventually they too appealed to Baron Rothschild for financial help, but this came together with some tyrannical agents and unpleasant conditions attached to the loans.

Bad feeling was rampant between the settlers and their overseers; but many claim that the baron himself was never aware of this; and that when he visited the town and spoke in the synagogue he had built in memory of his father, Ohel Ya’acov, he was greeted with great enthusiasm.

This shul, in the center of Zichron, is still in use today.

Another aspect of Israeli history is also represented in Zichron – the home of the Aharonson family. Most of the members of this family were involved in the Nili spy ring, which fought with the British against Turkish rule in Israel.

Sarah Aharonson’s role in this espionage was discovered and she was arrested, held captive and tortured in her own family home until she managed to escape to the bathroom, where she had hidden a gun, and killed herself.

The Aharonson home is now a museum, open to the public.

The baron founded the Carmel Winery in 1882, and this winery, Israel’s biggest, together with the vineyards of the winery also founded by the baron in Rishon, cover most of the country’s wine terrain.

A new visitors’ center named Carmel Wine and Culture recently opened in Zichron, where you can see the various aspects of wine making – large-scale for the regular wines, and smaller scale for the boutique wines. You’ll have a chance to enjoy some wine tasting as well, and visit the restaurant.

Bookings must be made in advance, (04) 639-1788.

One of the most picturesque of these early settlements is Mazkeret Batya, named after the baron’s mother. This was one of the most successful of the early settlements as its founders were all experienced and successful wheat farmers, who transferred and adapted their experience to suit the terrain of their new homeland.

The village today looks almost untouched by time. The main street has been preserved in its old-world style and the baron’s original headquarters have been turned into a museum showing many of the items in use by the early settlers.

The original shul building now houses the local council.

In 1928, the baron built a beautiful shul which stands in grandeur at the end of the main road and is still in use today.

You can stroll along the lanes and alleyways and into the courtyards and parks and visit a reconstruction of the original water wheel.

In his will, the baron stated that he wished to be buried in Israel, but when he died in 1934, followed just a year later by his wife, they were temporarily interred in France until a suitable setting could be designed for their reburial in Israel.

In 1954, their remains were transferred to the gardens of Ramat Hanadiv (Hill of the Benefactor) which were designed around a crypt for the baron and his wife. This beautifully tended park, set in 68 dunams of land on the Carmel Hills, overlooks much of the now successful and productive areas of Israel that the baron was instrumental in establishing. It is a true, fitting tribute and memorial to a person who dedicated so much of his time and wealth to helping and encouraging the pioneers of this country.

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