There is more to a box of Israeli dates that meets the eye. The dates are grown in Israel thanks to the efforts of one man, Ben-Zion Israeli, who smuggled the original date plants from Iraq. With the help of historian Sami Sourani, we piece together the remarkable story of a life – and tragic death – dedicated to Jews and Israel.
From time immemorial, Jews in Eretz Israel had a great interest in the Jews of Babylon. Jewish emissaries (Shlihim) were sent there throughout history. Most used to collect money for the Jews of the Holy Land. We don’t know if any tried to bring back samples of Iraq’s dates, highly prized for their quality. If they did they would have certainly failed. Taking date plants from Iraq was considered a capital crime with a heavy penalty. Iraq produced 600 varieties of dates and, until drought and conflict wrought havoc with the plantations, the country was one of the world’s major producers.
But one man did manage to smuggle out Iraqi dates – and until today, they are the basis for Israel’s flourishing date production. Ben-Zion Israeli (February 20, 1887 – July 30, 1954) was a Second Aliyah immigrant, agriculture pioneer settler in Eretz Israel, a founder of Kibbutz Kinneret, active in protecting the farmers and founder of a company of infantry in the Jordan Valley. He was also active in the re-introduction of date trees in Israel.
Israeli was born Benzion Chernomorsky in the town of Glukhov in Ukraine to a traditional Jewish family. His father was a butcher and a dayan. Until the age of 15, he studied at a Talmud Torah. In 1906 , after the Kishinev riots, he immigrated to Eretz Israel and changed his name to “Israeli”.
During his travels in the countries of the East, he met with Jewish communities. On many occasions he was the first to bring them news of the Jewish Zionist revival in the Land of Israel. For example, a letter from Rabbi Yosef Fathi Sahiq from Baghdad expresses his admiration after the meeting with the pioneer from Eretz Israel.
In 1934 Ben-Zion devoted an entire journey to meeting Jewish communities in Iraq and Kurdistan: he visited Mosul and Kirkuk. Upon his return to Israel, he demanded that the Jews of Kurdistan and Iraq be permitted to emigrate. On other travels he visited the crypto-Jews of Mashhad in Iran, who saw him as the Messiah.
In the 1930s, he travelled extensively throughout Iraq and Egypt to find date plants which would be hardy enough to flourish in Israel. Ben-Zion played a very important role in delivering the smuggled plants from Iraq to Israel.
Sourani relates how Ben-Zion came to Iraq with a forged passport. He pretended to be a merchant from Iceland, intending to buy rice. His story is published in a book titled, “The Episode of Iraq” (Hebrew).
Finally, he managed to smuggle 20,000 date plants to Israel.
When the ship he had boarded had left through the Suez Canal to Cyprus and was on its way to Haifa, the Ma’ariv evening newspaper published details about what he had done. This, according to Sourani, was a very big mistake and an irresponsible act by the newspaper.