Among the many and varied trees on the Mt. Herzl military cemetery is one lone palm tree – replanted form its original spot in the Sinai desert. This is the famous “Palm of Avshalom.”I attended a memorial service for this extraordinary young man who gave his life for his people and for a free Jewish country – 31 years before the state was established. It was still a dream in the hearts of many, but a shining reality for Avshalom.
Avshalom Feinberg was born in 1890 in the early Jewish settlement of Hadera near Israel’s northern coast. Very poor, neglected lands, the kind that Hadera struggled with, were purchased by the Zionist agencies from very willing Arab absentee landlords, who could not believe there would be buyers for such stubborn, malaria-infested soil. However, with the increased violence against Jews in Europe and the awakening of the Zionist movement, Jews were returning, determined to cajole the Promised Land into fulfilling its promise.(The very first wave of Jews to return, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were the hundreds of students of the Ba’al Shem Tov (or “Master of the good Name”) and the Vilna Gaon (or “Genius of Vilna”) who realized the time had come to go home and prepare for the Messiah). Avshalom’s parents were the first wave of the agricultural return to the land. Their generation braved the constant malaria, drought, locusts, Arab violence and sadistic Turkish bureaucracy. But they persevered and put down stakes for the next generation. Avshalom’s parents were part of the “First Aliyah” – the first wave of Jewish farmers who breathed the first loving breaths of life into the dormant land. As the Talmud teaches, “the Land of Israel is acquired through hardships.”But there was one hardship that Avshalom and his companions would not bear – the humiliation of Turkish rule. Almost 400 years of Turkish rule was enough.World War I was an opportunity for change. Indeed, many steps were taken by the warring powers for victory at any cost – even making false promises. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 declared that Britain, after ousting the Turks, would grant the Jews a state in their ancient homeland. A 2,000-year-old dream come true! The children of the first settlers were about to play their role.Avshalom and a small circle of friends had their mission. Most of his neighbors were just too afraid of the brutal and now desperate Turks to even think of acting against them. In fact, many opposed such efforts for fear of raising Turkish anger against the whole community. Avshalom and his friends established “NILI” – an acronym for “The Eternal One of Israel never lies” (Samuel 1:15:29). Under the guise of scientific research, the renowned agronomist Dr. Aron Aronson used his experimental station on the coast as the base of the spy ring that delivered vital information to the British on moonless nights. Avshalom was “hired” as Aronson’s assistant and became the eyes and ears of the British behind Turkish lines. Indeed, after the war ended in 1919, former British Chief of military intelligence, Major General George Mac Dough said: “The information that NILI provided saved up to 100,000 British casualties in the Turkish campaign.” Not often do so many owe so much to so few. Avshalom was not only a brave patriot but a true “Renaissance man.” Fluent in five languages, he was as welcome in French universities as in Beduin desert tents. He was a prolific writer and poet and a skilled horseman and marksman. But most of all he is remembered by those who knew him as a “mentch” – a kind and considerate person.Vital information did not have a very long shelf life; NILI had to get the information to the British as soon as possible. German submarines prevented British ships form nearing the coast to rendezvous with their Jewish volunteers,so carrier pigeons were used, and finally Avshalom decided to brave it through Turkish lines to reach the British troops who were advancing in the Sinai desert. His NILI comrade and soul friend Sarah Aronson gave him her prayers and some dates for the journey. They posed for a (last) photograph together before he mounted his horse. Something about that photo said it was the last one.When a carrier pigeon was intercepted by the Turks, it was not long before the town in which the Aronsons lived, Zichron Ya’akov, was surrounded. They were looking for Sarah. All the shutters were closed and the streets became deserted. Sarah knew they had come for her as she stood waiting calmly at her front door. Her elderly father was tortured before her eyes, but she insisted she worked alone and her father knew nothing. Enduring unspeakable tortures, Sarah’s only words for her tormentors were what she thought of them.It was decided that the really expert torturers in Damascus would make her talk. Before being taken from her beloved Zichron Ya’akov she asked permission to change her blood-stained dress. As she entered her room she managed to grab a pistol, with which she attempted suicide. While she suffered in a near-death state, the Turks threatened doctors to revive her “or else.” But even these Turkish threats did not save Sarah. After four days of hell she returned her soul to its maker – just as she had prayed for.Meanwhile in the Sinai desert, Avshalom rode toward the British lines. A Beduin troop appeared out of the sands and attacked him and his companion Yosef Lishansky (who managed to escape but was eventually hanged by the Turks).Avshalom was mortally wounded, and when the Turks arrived on the scene a Turkish bullet finally killed the NILI emissary. He was buried in a shallow sand dune and forgotten.In June 1967, 40 years later, Israeli troops stormed the Sinai, routing the Egyptian army. A local Beduin offered information that he said would interest the victorious Israelis. They were led to the kubr yehudi the “grave of the Jew.” What they found was a lone palm tree. The Arab began digging below the tree and there, tangled together with the roots, were the remains of Avshalom. The dates that Sarah gave her soul mate 40 years earlier for his journey had sprouted in his pocket.With his remains were crumbling letters, including his last to Sarah.After Avshalom, Sarah and friends, the British were finally forced to leave, after perfidiously going back on their word to that noble generation. Yet another generation of dreamers and heroes had to oust the British from the land. They were flogged, imprisoned and hanged by the British – in the very same Turkish jails of a generation earlier.The Irgun and Lechi fighters had the NILI in their hearts and they finally completed their work. Today in the fortress in Acco, one can visit the gallows where these young Titans were hanged. The photos of both generations look down on us as we return their stare from the soil of the independent Jewish country for which they gave their lives. We owe them.That is why I attended the memorial next to the lone palm tree in Jerusalem.The writer is a veteran Israel tour guide. He has produced a DVD titled ‘Israel: Ancient roots, modern miracle’ that can be obtained at www.shalompollacktours.co.il. Mr. Pollack will be speaking in the US from November 22 until December 22, and may be contacted for invitations.