The delightful town of Zichron Ya’akov
Zichron Ya’akov was one of the first Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine. It was established during the First Aliya in 1882 by 60 settlers from Romania who were members of the Zionist movement Hovevei Zion. Because of their lack of experience, harsh conditions and financial difficulties, they and the settlements of Rosh Pina and Rishon LeZion were ready to give up. An appeal was made to Baron Edmond de Rothschild in France to save them. He accepted, although on his conditions. The establishment of the agricultural and industrial base of Jewish settlement in Palestine now became his personal project. Over time he would support 42 new settlements, of which Zichron Ya’akov was one of his favorites. Walk down the delightful pedestrian mall of Derech Hayayin with its original houses, museums, stores, cafes and restaurants and Hanadiv St. and you will be transported 130 years from the origins of Zichron Ya’akov to its eventual success.
The conditions were extremely difficult for the 60 settlers who arrived to the location then known as Zammerin. That first year, people were dying from malaria, including many children. The settlers faced resistance from Turkish officials and their Arab neighbors. They had no previous experience in agriculture. Many decided to return to Eastern Europe. The settlement was saved by Baron Edmond de Rothschild with a massive infusion of financial aid. The settlement was also moved to its present location on Founders Street and renamed after the Baron’s father, James (Ya’akov).
One of the conditions of the Baron was that each settler deed away his property and land to him. In return, he built each family a home. This included a courtyard and a structure for farming equipment and storage at the back of the property. Each settler was also provided with a monthly salary while working the land. It was the expectation that when the settlers were financially secure, they would buy back their properties. The Baron also provided the settlement with a synagogue, schools and agricultural assistance. The administration of the settlement was overseen by an administrator appointed from the outside by the Baron. There were many tensions between them and the settlers throughout the Baron’s enterprise. The Baron also developed a wine industry in Zichron Yaakov and Rishon LeZion which became one of the largest in the world, and still functions as the Carmel-Mizrahi Winery. This remains the leading winery in Israel in terms of grapes processed. He supported Zichron Yaakov for almost 20 years until it became self-supporting.
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Start your walk along the main street of Zichron Ya’acov, HaMeyasdim or Founders St. It leads to a pedestrian walkway, also known as the Midrahov and Derech Hayayin. With its cobbled road, old-fashioned lamp posts, restored homes, restaurants, galleries and boutiques, the main street is a delightful place to walk along. A number of the buildings are original homes from the early 1880s. They are marked with signs and are somewhat similar to each other in appearance.
Look for the following as you walk along the street:
Buildings 22 and 24 are original buildings and in their yards are collections of original agricultural implements.
#30 is the Hershkovitz House. The family settled here in 1882 when Zichron was still called Zamaran. He worked as a master carpenter. Some of his woodcarvings can be seen in the synagogue and the Aarohnsohn home.
The NILI Museum. The home of the Aaronsohn family was built in the 1880s. Adjacent to it is Aaron Aaronsohn’s home and the museum. The address is 40 Hameyasdim St. The museum is open Sunday to Thursday 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and Friday 9.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. Admission is 37 NIS for adults, 25 NIS for children and 18 NIS for seniors. Regular tours are given in Hebrew or English that last for 50 minutes. The tour includes the museum and the two homes. The Aaronsohns were financially secure and were able to bring their furniture from Romania. Their china is laid out as if everyone would be arriving for dinner. Their son Aaron was a talented botanist whose training in France was supported by the Baron. He discovered a wild wheat from which other domesticated wheats evolved. The visit to the museum includes audiovisual presentations, photos, letters and documents, and the secret escape tunnel used by the members of Nili in Aaron’s home. One can also visit the nearby cemetery in which Sarah was buried (not part of the tour). This is the contact number for the museum 04 639 0120, and this is their website.
You will pass the water reservoir known as Brechat Binyamin with its elaborate exterior. It stored water pumped from a nearby spring and enabled everyone to have running water before most of Palestine.
The pedestrian mall or Midrahov
The home of the Aarohnson family built in the 1880s is now part of the Nili Museum compound.
The Binyamin Pool was built in 1891 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild and provided water from a nearby spring that was pumped to this reservoir. It became a social gathering place.
At the corner of HaMeyasdim and HaNadiv Streets is the Ohel Yaakov Synagogue. This was constructed by the Baron in 1886 and has a beautiful interior. It is named after his father. It is still in regular use.
The First Aliya Museum is adjacent to the synagogue on HaNadiv St. This building was formerly the offices of the administrator for the settlement. The Baron would also stay here during his visits. In its time it was the most impressive building in all of the Jewish settlements in Palestine. It was restored and reconstructed in 1999. It is now a museum about the First Aliya from 1882 to 1903 and is certainly worth a visit.
There are a number of museums about the First Aliya, but this and the museum in Rishon LeZion have the most to say and the most effective way of saying it. It provides a self-guided walk through the history of the settlement. Most impressive about this museum are short movies that act out the story of a family who came on aliya during this period. It starts with their optimistic departure from Eastern Europe, their despair when confronted with all the difficulties, the supercilious and dictatorial attitude of the Baron’s administrator and the tension when the family were told to sign over all their properties to the Baron. Finally, there is a beautiful movie relating the success of this venture. There are explanations and large photos throughout the museum. All the exhibit explanations are in Hebrew and English and the movies can be viewed in either language (ask at the desk how to do this if you are viewing the exhibits on your own).
The museum is open Monday to Thursday from 9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. and Friday 9.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. It is closed Shabbat and Sunday. Admission is 15 NIS for children 5 to 18 and for seniors and 25 NIS for adults. Tours are available in Hebrew and English. It is advised to book a tour in advance. Their phone number is 04 629 4777/888. This is their website:
The Tiyul Gardens is a nicely landscaped although not exciting garden. It was begun by the Baron’s clerks in 1886 when they planted trees outside their building and their gardener then extended it by planting more trees, shrubs and ornamental flowers. With the encouragement of the Baron, it was made available to the rest of the settlement. There are shaded benches and picnic benches and a children’s play area.
You can also book in advance a tour of the Carmel Winery. From the First Aliya Museum turn right on HaNadiv St and this will take you to Visitor Center at Carmel Winery on Derech HaYakov St. All tours are for adults only (ages 18 and up) except for a family tour. Tours are by appointment only and are subject to availability. The winery is open Sunday to Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and Friday 9:00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. For booking tours in WhatsApp messages only Yuval-052-667-7031. See their website for further booking details.
The Tiyul Garden
The Ohel Yaakov Synagogue
The First Aliya Museum is housed in the former administrative building for the settlement. It was restored and rebuilt in 1999.
The Nili spy organization
A major factor in the victory of the British over the Ottomans in World War One is ascribed to the Australian cavalry charge at the Battle of Beersheba (the last cavalry charge in world history). The Zionists Chaim Weizmann and Sir Herbert Samuel are also usually credited with influencing the issuing of the Balfour Declaration by the British government. Yet neither of these might have happened, particularly the Balfour Declaration, without the espionage activities of Aaron Aaronsohn and his Nili organization. Their activities are not well known because, as befits any spy organization, everything was done in secret. There is little documentation of what they did. All the leaders of Nili also died before their vision of a Jewish state came to fruition. And last, but not least, their activities were controversial within the Yishuv and were not coordinated by the Zionist organization. Nevertheless, there is now general agreement that their espionage had considerable influence on both these events.
Nili is an acronym for the Biblical phrase in Hebrew netzakh yisrael lo yeshaker, which means the Eternal One of Israel will not lie. This was initially a password used by Nili. Their spy organization was active after the onset of World War One, between 1915 to 1917. Aaron was the political mastermind for the Nili spy organization. Because of his botanical work and his reputation, he was able to travel between countries without suspicion, including to the British in Egypt. His sister Sarah did the groundwork in Palestine for their spy ring, and she recruited a group of some 20 relatives and friends from Zichron Ya’acov and Hadera, all young Jews in their 20s
The Ottomans were allied with the Germans in World War 1. Members of Nili surmised that a Jewish state was unlikely to come to fruition under the Ottomans (Herzl had already unsuccessfully attempted this). It also made considerable sense for the British to attempt to break through the Ottoman lines through Palestine. If the British could be assisted in doing this, they might in return bestow upon the Jews a Jewish state. The British probably encouraged them in this thinking. The downside was that if they were discovered this could put the entire Yishuv at risk from the Turkish response. The Turks had already demonstrated extreme cruelty by committing genocide in Armenia. There was no Jewish leadership at that time in Palestine to oppose them but they had little general support for their activities within the other Jewish settlements.
It is generally recognized that they were a very effective spy organization and provided the British with vital information about Turkish military preparations. This included the location of Turkish troops in Beersheba, which enabled General Allenby to make a surprise attack on its fort. Aaron’s research laboratory on the coast at Atlit was used as Nili’s base, and it was conveniently located for providing sea pick-ups of couriers and agents.
Raymond Savage, a top aide to General Allenby, reported later that General Allenby’s victory in Palestine “was very largely the daring work of young spies, most of them natives of Palestine, which enabled the Field Marshal to accomplish his undertaking so effectively.” General Gilbert Clayton claimed that “we owe the lives of 30,000 soldiers to the Nili.”
It is also telling that at the time the Balfour Declaration was decided upon by the British cabinet, two individuals were invited to be on hand in an anteroom. One was Chaim Weitzman and the other was Aaron Aaronsohn. The Arabs were also given this type of understanding by Lawrence of Arabia who was aware and supportive of the activities of Nili.
The Nili group was exposed when one of their homing pigeons landed in the house of the Turkish governor in Caesarea. Aaron’s sister went into hiding, but her location was revealed. After days of torture during which she refused to divulge information about the group, she was permitted to go home to change before being taken to her death in Turkey. She went to a slik in Aaron’s home and took out a revolver, went to the bathroom and shot herself. All the members of the group were rounded up. Two were sentenced to death. Another member, Avshalom Feinberg, who had originally envisaged the idea of an espionage organization, had previously been killed by Bedouin in the Sinai desert while attempting to make his way to British-held Cairo.
Aaron survived the war. He was active in promoting the terms of the Balfour declaration. He died in an air accident in 1919 on his way to the Paris Peace Conference at the invitation of Chaim Weitzman. This conference determined the parameters of the peace treaties of World War One.
For many years the selfless efforts of Nili were ignored by Zionist leaders. There was also no one influential to push their narrative. However, this has changed and their contribution to the state is now generally recognized. The Nili Museum was established in 1956 appropriately at the home of the Aaronsohn family,