The man who smuggled Iraqi date palms to Israel

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.

One of a vanishing breed of ‘date palm climbers’ in Iraq

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.

Ben-Zion (in the cloth cap) meeting Jewish villagers from Sundur in Kurdistan, 1935


Ben-Zion with a 102-year-old Kurdish Jew, 1935

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.

The shipment reached Haifa and the palms were unloaded and sent to destinations mostly around Beersheva. The Israeli agronomists did not have experience of planting date palms. They brought experts from California for help. These failed too. Finally, they decided to bring a farmer from Basra in Iraq to Israel to help them. At the very beginning, this man refused to help Israel. However, for the amount of money they offered him, he decided that his work was kosher. All the experts from Israel and the USA were surprised by his knowledge in this field. It was a great success. The Israeli dates  are called Majdool and are widely available in western supermarkets.
Ben-Zion finished his assignment successfully and he returned to Kibbutz Kinneret as a regular member. One day, the Israeli Airforce were performing exercises in the skies above this kibbutz. People were sitting in rows and watching the airplanes in the sky. In the first row were sitting children, from kindergarten and elementary schools. Adults sat behind them, including Ben-Zion. As they looked up, one airplane exploded in the sky and was about to crash on to the audience. Ben-Zion saw that the ‘plane was going to fall on the kids in the row in front of him. He jumped to cover the kids with his body to save them. The kids were saved but his body was burned and he died of his injuries.
This was  the tragic end of a man who had dedicated his life to Jews and Israel.

One Comment

  • Thank you Lynn Julius
    These stories are so interesting and feed our knowledge of Israel and the Jews


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