Digging into the past

The Davidka had its roots at the Mikve Israel agricultural school.

mikve israel 88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Eisenberg)
mikve israel 88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Eisenberg)
Although the Mikve Israel agricultural school is known for its leading role in rerooting Jewish settlement in Palestine, one fruit of its labors in the 1940s was anything but edible. The Davidka, developed in a workshop on the school's premises, was a homemade mortar that literally drove off enemy fighters - not because of its firing capacity but because of the tremendous noise that emanated from the cannon when fired. David Leibovitz, a teacher at Mikve Israel, developed the mortar, hence the name "Davidka." An underground weapons factory had been established at the agricultural school, which became fertile ground not only for the development of the Davidka but also for producing grenades and other weaponry. Supply of the Davidka was limited - in fact, restricted to one in each city. The cannon, mounted on the back of a vehicle, would fire off a number of rounds and then move to another quarter, thus giving the enemy the impression that there were many more. One such cannon can be seen on the walkway above Safed's artist quarter, and another in Davidka Square in Jerusalem. Originally established in the early l880s, the story of Mikve Israel began some 20 years previously when a Strasbourg rabbi's son was sent to visit Palestine by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an organization active in caring for Jewish communities while also spreading the French language and culture. During his Middle East walkabout on behalf of the Alliance, Karl Netter had an audience with the sultan in Constantinople. Netter walked away having netted a royal decree that allowed a few thousand acres of valuable land on the outskirts of Jaffa to become the site of an agricultural school, and thus Mikve Israel was founded. Later on, with a flow of Jews coming to Palestine, the school played an all-important role in teaching those who already loved the Land of Israel how to productively toil its soil. Baron Edmund de Rothschild was supportive and, at a later stage, Mikve Israel graduates could be found in the settlements he founded and funded, as well as those of Baron de Hirsch. After World War I and the beginning of the British Mandate period, Mikve Israel was completely revamped, and the language of instruction switched from French to Hebrew. Already in the l930s, many young Jews rescued from the Nazis during World War II found their way to the school after Henrietta Szold had successfully encouraged its operators to accept students from Youth Aliya. These days, Mikve Israel is home to more than 1,000 students in two schools - one religious and the other secular. Among the students are a large number of new immigrant youths, whose schooling days are spent milling from one European-style building to another on the beautiful grounds of the educational center with its residential and day schools. Once upon a time the school and fields were out on a countrified limb, but nowadays Holon suburbia rather cramps their style. However, once inside the grounds the big city seems far away, especially when you catch a glimpse of a gigantic Ficus Bengali tree planted in l888. This ficus has unique roots that find their way down from the tree's branches and reroot themselves in the soil, creating what looks like a massive natural tent. One can visit the synagogue, completed in l895, the first floor of which still serves as the synagogue hall, while the floor above contains classrooms. The front door, which has Arabic, French and Hebrew inscriptions above it, faces the rows of tall palm trees on either side of the main entrance and gateway. The synagogue contains a beautifully carved 19th-century wooden ark, brought by Netter from France and donated to the school in memory of his father. That the school has served youths from all spheres of Jewish background and culture is most prevalent in the fact that the ark contains a collection of Torah scrolls with Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern coverings. One can visit the stately buildings and the workshop where the Davidka was developed, which has been converted into a museum with one of the mortar's prototypes on display. Amazingly, the forge bellows are still in working order. There are also extensive wine cellars. Mikve Israel wine was left behind by those produced in Zichron Ya'acov and Rishon Lezion, but the deep underground maze was used for meetings of a different spirit - for training, storing arms and as a firing range for the pre-state Hagana and Palmach militia. The headquarters of the Council for Preservation of Historic Sites is fittingly situated in the school grounds. Tours of Mikve Israel must be coordinated to allow the school to be able to carry on with its more than 100-year Zionistic educational commitment to the land.