The Magical Reincarnation of the Ancient Date Tree

When scientists found 2000 year-old plant seeds buried deep inside the ancient fortress of Masada, no one dared hope that they would lead to the recultivation of one of the most powerful trees in Israel. This is the story of Methuselah, the 18-year-old tree sprouted from biblical roots!

A poster designed in 1929 by artist Ze'ev Raban, of the Bezalel Art School, for the "Company for the Promotion of Travel in the Holy Land", the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

Since the earliest records of human history, the date palm tree has been a symbol of life and prosperity in the Land of Israel. They were cultivated in the region as far back as 3100 BCE by the Mesopotamians and due to their sweet and long-lasting fruit they were even considered a gift from the heavens. As far back as the days of King Solomon, Israelites were busy cultivating this special tree, known for its compatibility with sandy desert areas. It was considered to be a symbol of fertility, blessing, peace and prosperity and was important enough to be mentioned several times in the Bible including the well-known verse in Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:12).

Mordecai Kafri and a friend climb a palm tree in Nahalal, northern Israel. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


1924 postcard from Denmark depicting a date palm tree, along with the Hebrew verse ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree’ [Psalms. 92:13]. A Hebrew greeting for the New Year is printed at the bottom. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

The Bible describes the date palm being carved into the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, while several biblical women were given the name “Tamar” – the Hebrew word for the date palm tree. It was so important that its image appeared on ancient Judean and Roman coins and is even featured on the ten-shekel coin in modern-day Israel.

A Hebrew manuscript from 19th century Russia depicting details of Solomon’s Temple, including a tabernacle wall decorated with date palm branches (center-right, below the Menorah, you can zoom in here), the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 80 CE. It depicts a date palm tree and Jews in mourning. On both sides of the tree an abbreviated Latin inscription reads: Judea Capta, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 71 CE, depicting a palm tree with a cluster of dates hanging from either side. The inscription reads: IMP VESPA SIAN. Vespasian besieged Jerusalem shortly before becoming Emperor of Rome. The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This mosaic floor decoration featuring a Judean date palm was located in the Maon Nirim Synagogue in pre-state Israel and dates back to the year 500 CE, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It is hard to overstress the importance of this species. As far back as 400 BCE, Herodotus would speak of the Judean date tree with pride, expressing appreciation for the dry and non-perishable dates which made them perfect for export (Palm Trees in the Greco-Roman WorldWathiq Ismaeel Al-Salihi). In the 1st century CE Pliny the Elder commented that the dates from this tree type were famous for their succulence and sweetness.

A field trip in the Arava Desert, circa 1930-1944. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

However, the date palm was to meet a sad end. Most of these trees were razed down over time as farmers cleared new fields or as invaders sought building materials for their homes and weapons for wars. When the Romans came to take control of the region in 70 CE, date palms were an integral plant to the Judean economy, making them a prime target of destruction for the Roman empire. By the year 500, the plant was thought to have been wiped out in its entirety. It’s worth noting that Asaph Goor, in his prominent article “History of the Date through the Ages in the Holy Land,” contests that the date tree was not actually wiped out completely until the 14th century, during a collapse in agriculture under the Mamluks. Either way, it is agreed that the poor tree was killed off far before the modern state of Israel was founded.

That was, until 2005, when Dr. Elaine Solowey stepped into the picture. Dr. Solowey was a horticulturalist who specialized in desert environments. One fateful day, a discovery that had been made years earlier was brought to her attention by the Arava Institute.

Image from an article published in The Australian Jewish Times, 23 January 1986, celebrating the finding of date palm seeds on Masada

In 1963, Professor Yigal Yadin and his team of archaeologists discovered a handful of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds at Herod’s Palace on Masada. They were found at the northern entrance of the palace, next to the site of the ancient food stores, and they had been preserved in a small clay jar that had been maintained by the extremely dry and sheltered environment for millennia.

Dr. Solowey hurried to send the seeds to the University of Zurich, where researchers radiocarbon-dated the seeds to between 155 BC and 64 CE.

When this discovery was made in 1963, Israel was experiencing a terrible drought and the archeologists feared that if they replanted the seeds immediately, they would wither and die. To preserve whatever treasures these seeds had been hiding away for the last two millennium, they were held in storage at Bar-Ilan University, waiting patiently for a day when the weather conditions might improve and a scientist with enough skill and passion might suddenly appear on the horizon.

Image of young Methuselah from a newspaper article in the Jerusalem Post – May 27, 2016, courtesy of the Arava Institute

Dr. Elaine Solowey was certainly sure of her skill set and knew that she could be the one to revive the ancient seeds. She had been studying endangered medicinal herbs, searching for plants that could be grown in marginal and arid areas, and studying biblical plants native to southern Israel. In short, she had all the expertise needed for this monumental task.

Dr. Solowey, not one to stick to traditional methods, took a baby’s bottle warmer and used it as an incubator in which she could slowly hydrate the seeds. After they had sprouted, she fed the sprouts a careful mix of fertilizers and growth hormones and to everyone’s surprise, a baby sapling was born. “I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey.

She decided to name the new tree “Methuselah” after the biblical character with the longest lifespan. Six of the cultivated seeds were planted in Ketura in Southern Israel. The first surviving male from the other 5 seeds was named Adam and the first surviving female was named Hannah. These seeds from Masada are the very oldest ever to be germinated.

This newspaper excerpt comes from The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 17 June 2005

Years later and the seeds were doing ex-seed-ingly well. All six seeds originally found on Masada had lived to adulthood and Methuselah itself was producing his own babies! “He is a big boy now. He is over three meters tall, he’s got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good,” Solowey said three years later. “We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates.”

Article from The Jerusalem Post, August 25, 2021. The item shows a harvester picking dates from Methuselah, photo by Marcos Shonholtz


Image from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Dr. Elaine Solowey is standing on the right in this 2008 image, alongside Methuselah and Dr. Sarah Sallon, courtesy of the Arava Institute

The story of Methuselah was picked up worldwide and the tree was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2016 Dr. Elaine Solowey deservedly received the Ben Gurion Prize for the Development of the Negev and she is currently working to build an ancient date grove with date trees cultivated in the same conditions found in biblical descriptions. She longs to see how the dates differ to those we can create from Methuselah today.

Any interested person can take a trip to Ketura and visit Methuselah and his five friends including Adam and Hannah. As for Dr. Solowey, she will be known forever more as the magical woman who revived the great Judean date tree.

Image of Methushelah from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Courtesy of the Arava Institute




Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Napoleon: The Meeting That Never Was

In 1799, after a perilous journey, Rabbi Nachman arrived in the Land of Israel just in time to witness its conquest by Napoleon. Only by a miracle did R. Nachman escape Napoleon’s siege on Acre. So why did he make the French general the hero of one of his best-known stories?

The statue of Napoleon atop Napoleon’s Hill in Acre, the site where he stationed his cannons. Photo: Almog, Wikipedia

On Sunday, January 16, 1810, Rabbi Nachman related to his followers the story of the Ba’al Tefillah – “The Master of Prayer”, one of his best known and most enigmatic tales. The story follows the deeds of an anonymous tzaddik who attracts a growing number of people to the “purpose of the whole world,” which is to serve God in prayer, song and praise.

Word of the Master of Prayer’s efforts to “steal” people away from their normal lives and into the service of God had begun to spread. In order to continue his work, the tzaddik was forced to assume different guises, “with one person he would be a pauper; with another a merchant; while with others he would have different disguises.” Even when conversing with the people he was trying to bring to his side, he did not always reveal his true purpose. He knew exactly how to sway each person individually. For example, he could determine a poor person might need to be dressed in royal robes while a rich person “needed to wear torn, humble clothing.” This was how the mysterious tzaddik spent his days, until he heard of “a land that possessed great wealth”, where everyone was rich.

The Land of Wealth turned out to be a huge challenge for the tzaddik. He wanted to bring its inhabitants to repent, but he soon discovered that they were not interested in his religion for they had their own – the religion of money, which ranks everyone according to their wealth. If this wealth was devoid of any theological dimension, the Master of Prayer might have been able to overcome its destructive power. But when money is the religion, even the poorest of the poor—who are considered beasts according to this doctrine—believe in it with all their hearts. The truly rich are compared to heavenly stars, and the richest of all are worshipped by the rest, as if they were divine beings. To avoid being tainted by other, poorer people, the residents of the Land of Wealth even removed themselves to a remote location surrounded by high mountains.

The Master of Prayer fails utterly in his attempts to convert the people of the Land of Wealth from their religion, and to add insult to injury, they arrest him and put him in prison. But before he can be sentenced, a Mighty Warrior and his army arrive at the gates of the Land of Wealth. The Warrior presents his demands – the same demands he has presented to countless other lands he has conquered: surrender and avoid destruction. The ultimatum strikes fear into the hearts of the people of the Land of Wealth. They wish to surrender to avoid their own demise but they are afraid for they know that the Mighty Warrior is not interested in money but in control, which in their religion makes him a heretic. They try and fail to seek help from a country richer than their own, and they are at a loss of what to do next.

After failing completely in his mission, the Master of Prayer suddenly remembers that he might actually know this Mighty Warrior who is lying in wait outside the walls of the land. Brought before the ministers, he tells them that he himself was once “with a king, who had a mighty warrior who was lost. If that warrior is this Mighty Warrior, then I know him.” Only now, with the people of the Land of Wealth in mortal fear of conquest and destruction, was the Master of Prayer able to begin to sway them.

The story does not end there, but in order to understand its finale and guess the identity of that unnamed hero, we must go back even further in time, a full ten years earlier—to the journey of the real Rabbi Nachman to the Land of Israel. We will learn whom he encountered there (and whom he did not) and why he saw this journey as the defining moment of his life, for it was then that he went from being just another community leader, albeit with a noble family pedigree but nothing more, to a Ba’al Tefillah and a true tzaddik. In other words, this is the story of how Rabbi Nachman became the celebrated figure who continues to draw new adherents even two hundred years after his premature death.

Sippurei Maasiyot LeRabbi Bachman MeBratslav (“Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav”), Berlin, 1922

Rabbi Nachman’s Great Journey

Like so many big decisions in Rabbi Nachman’s life, the decision to journey to the Land of Israel seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, it came from a sudden inner calling that he never bothered to explain fully.

As a young child, Nachman developed his unique way of approaching God intuitively. On harsh winter nights, he was said to visit the grave of his great-grandfather, the Besht, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, or he might go off by himself into the woods, or even shut himself in the Besht’s study and refuse to come out until the holy books began to “speak” to him. Outwardly, he would feign ignorance, but inwardly he burned with faith and religious zeal. He composed his own prayers and even secretly gave his meager allowance to a teacher in return for extra lessons. It is quite possible that the stories that have come down to us about Nachman the boy are exaggerated, but it is clear from them that he was a fervently religious young man with a searing belief in himself, who was simultaneously racked with self-doubt concerning his own ability to realize his destiny.

In 1798, at the age of 26, Rabbi Nachman announced his intention to embark on the dangerous and arduous journey to the Land of Israel. He provided a number of justifications before and after the journey, the main one being his desire to visit the grave of his grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, whom he had lost touch with.

The idea of pilgrimage to the Land of Israel was not an invention of Rabbi Nachman’s, not even a re-invention. His great grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had undertaken just such a journey but was forced to turn back when he reached Constantinople. Other rabbis and Hasidim took the same journey and, unlike the Besht, many had completed it. Nevertheless, the journey surprised and worried the young Rabbi Nachman’s disciples. His wife tried to dissuade him from embarking on this dangerous trip and sent one of their daughters to convince him to give up on the idea. This was Rabbi Nachman’s answer to his daughter:

You will go to your in-laws. Someone will take in your older sister as a maidservant, a nienke. Someone will have pity on your younger sister and will take her in. And your mother can become a cook. I will sell the entire contents of the house to pay for the journey.

Rabbi Nachman’s insistence surprised many, for two additional reasons: First, by that time, Hasidic rabbis had already developed a theological justification for not undertaking the physical journey to the Land of Israel. They claimed that stepping foot in a synagogue in the Diaspora is equivalent to setting foot on the soil of the Land of Israel, encompassing all of its virtues. Secondly, there was the small matter of the war raging in Egypt and Palestine between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Ottoman Empire.


The French Giant Sets Out to Conquer the East

It’s not unusual nowadays to see an advertisement claiming a product to be “revolutionary,” but, it was the French Revolution that epitomized the new meaning of the term “revolution” – a radical, rapid and root-deep disconnection of the present from the past. This disconnection is present in many of Rabbi Nachman’s stories where kings—who, before the revolution, were believed to be all-powerful, ruling by divine grace—are shuffled as in a deck of cards. He who was small becomes great, and he who was great is shunted aside and discarded. More broadly, the world is generally depicted as being in turmoil, and so it also remains at the end of many of Rabbi Nachman’s tales.

Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the archetype of the small minor player who becomes the star of the show. Born in Corsica, Napoleon belonged to the unlanded lower aristocracy, but thanks to his great military prowess and political cunning, he rose from obscurity to become a celebrated general of the French Revolution. The 28-year-old Napoleon sealed his fame during his military campaign in Italy in which he succeeded in doing the impossible: in a matter of twelve months, he snatched Italy from the clutches of the Austrian Empire, which had ruled over it for hundreds of years.

Napoleon’s next foray was the conquest of Egypt, which he completed in 1798. After capturing Cairo from the ruling Mamluk dynasty, news spread of the Ottoman army (which was being backed by the British), making its way from Asia Minor through the Land of Israel. This spurred Napoleon to quickly set off for the conquest of Palestine.

Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804

Back to Rabbi Nachman. Convinced of his righteousness, the 26-year-old rabbi and leader, informed by “the heavens” of his first destination, left his hometown of Medzhybizh for the city of Kamenitz. The secret journey to Kamenitz remains shrouded in mystery. Yet, this visit served as both a symbolic beginning and miniature version of the internal and physical journey he had to endure in order to be able to enter the Land of Israel. It was a journey of a righteous person descending into the world of impurity, struggling with what he finds there and emerging pure and unscathed. It seems that only this paradigm can explain the rest of Rabbi Nachman’s (very strange) actions on his way to and in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman and his childhood friend Rabbi Shimon set out on their journey on May 4, 1798. They traveled by wagon from the town of Medvedka to Nikolayev and from there sailed down the Dnieper to Odessa. From Odessa, they took a ship to Constantinople. On board the ship, Rabbi Nachman began composing texts that he refused to show to his companion—the first known examples of secret texts he would continue to write throughout his life and which he ordered to have burned after his death.

In Constantinople, Rabbi Nachman began exhibiting strange behavior. He would walk about barefoot and without a belt or hat. He would leave the inn in a dressing gown, run around the market and laugh aloud. He befriended boys in the streets and would act out war games with them in which “one would be called France (referring to Napoleon) and one by another name.”

When they were about to leave for Palestine, news came of Napoleon’s invasion of the Holy Land. At first, the Jewish community in Constantinople prohibited Jews to travel there. But news of the increasing danger only enhanced Rabbi Nachman’s resolve, come what may. He told Rabbi Shimon not to accompany him on the dangerous journey, but his friend refused to leave his side. A few days later, when an elderly and respected sage insisted on returning home to Jerusalem, the Jewish community relented and approved the journey. And so, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon set sail aboard a ship bound for the port of Jaffa.

The voyage was not easy. When a storm threatened to sink the ship, all the passengers shouted “everyone to God,” except for Rabbi Nachman who “sat there in silence.” He convinced the others to emulate him and trust God through silence, saying: “If you are silent, the sea above you will be silent as well.” And so it was, according to Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Nachman’s biographer and scribe, who wrote of this event many decades later.

Upon arriving in Jaffa, the port authorities suspected Rabbi Nachman of being a French spy and he was not allowed to disembark. Eventually, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon managed to get off the ship at the next stop, which was Haifa, where they arrived on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual elation quickly turned to depression almost as soon as he stepped foot on the holy soil. The young rabbi turned inward and expressed a desire to return home at once. He agreed to stay only after the pleas of Rabbi Shimon and the Hasidim of Safed and Tiberias.

Rabbi Nachman eventually remained in the Land of Israel for a total of three and a half months, but his spirits remained low the entire time he was there. In Tiberias, he and Rabbi Shimon were well received by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker and his followers. This meeting left a deep impression on him and upon his return home, he established the Bratslav community according to the model of this revered rabbi. Some speculate that the description of the exemplary Hasidic community at the beginning of the Ba’al Tefillah story is based on that community in Tiberias. Encouraged by the meeting with Kalisker, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon stayed in Tiberias for two months. From there they would take short trips to holy places in the Galilee where the sages of the Zohar had lived and worked.

Rabbi Nachman’s departure from the country was postponed several times. The news of the occupation of the coastal strip by Napoleon’s army, and particularly the threat to the port city of Acre finally convinced him that he could no longer delay his leaving. Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon arrived in Acre on March 15, and immediately encountered a large stream of residents fleeing the city. Two days later, they managed to board a Turkish ship. Napoleon’s siege of Acre began on March 19, two days after their departure.

Rabbi Nachman’s composure, which he was able to maintain throughout all the tribulations, completely fell apart at this point. In the ensuing commotion, unable to speak the local languages, they mistakenly boarded a warship. It was only by the mercy of the ship’s cook, who provided them with small portions of food each day, that they survived the long journey to Europe.

This time too, a storm threatened to sink the ship and as water entered the vessel’s lower decks, the two had to stand on top of pieces of furniture to keep from drowning. They were certain that they would be sold into slavery the moment the ship docked, but upon arrival in Rhodes, the local Jewish community agreed to ransom them for a considerable sum—owing in large part to Rabbi Nachman’s distinguished family pedigree. From Rhodes they sailed on to Constantinople, where they encountered more difficulties, before an eventful voyage to Galați during which most of the passengers drowned in yet another storm. They finally arrived home in early summer, 1799.

What is the point of all of this? We hope you won’t be disappointed if we tell you that we don’t have a clear answer. Throughout the remainder of his life, Rabbi Nachman would often bring up his journey to the Land of Israel. He demanded that every remnant of his teachings from before the journey be destroyed, and he repeatedly claimed that whenever he felt his spirit fail, the only thing that revived it was what he had experienced and seen in the Land of Israel.

We can, however, offer you a certain hint: though the siege of Acre convinced Rabbi Nachman that he must flee the country as soon as possible, throughout the journey, he never saw himself as a random victim of circumstance or ongoing war. Rather, he felt that his time in the country was imbued with spiritual meaning and purpose. Rabbi Nachman later recalled a number of dreams he had had in the Land of Israel. In at least two of these dreams the Ottoman Sultan appeared before him. The Rabbi told of the great compassion he felt towards the Sultan because he—the Sultan—was one of the only people in the world who still knew their original name – Ishmael (a clear allusion to Islam). He mysteriously added that he attempted to give the Sultan a piece of advice which he seemed to have already known.

Portrait of Sultan Salim III, ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and the Land of Israel, by Konstantin Kapıdağlı

Perhaps herein is a key to Rabbi Nachman’s view of his own journey and the tumultuous historic events that shook the known world: Perhaps he, of all people, being nothing more than a simple rabbi, had something of value to offer – thanks to faith in God, his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to set off for the Land of Israel, the internal and physical hardships he overcame, from childhood and right up to his return home – perhaps he, of all people, had something important to say and a unique way of influencing events. It is fitting, then, that we end this article where we began, with the story of the “Master of Prayer”.

After the tzaddik tells the ministers of the Land of Wealth that he might be acquainted with the Mighty Warrior, he reveals to them the way he himself managed to secretly enter the heavily fortified land. When he and the Mighty Warrior were in the old king’s court, the tzaddik said, they studied the map of the world inscribed on the king’s palm. Thus, they came to know all of the world’s paths—the familiar and the hidden. Although this is not explicitly stated, Rabbi Nachman used Kabbalistic symbols to imply that the old king was none other than God.

And indeed, when the Master of Prayer and the Mighty Warrior meet, they recognize each other immediately and fall into each other’s arms: both had served in the court of the ancient king, and were separated only when a great storm broke out in the world. This fascinating story reaches its happy conclusion (perhaps too happy – it all works out and everyone comes together). But what is important for our purposes is that in Rabbi Nachman’s view, it is the Mighty Warrior, the greatest conqueror of all, seemingly bent on destroying the world, who turns out to be a lost servant of God who conquers all the lands only to hand them over to the rule of God.

Did Rabbi Nachman miss an encounter with this Mighty Warrior by a matter of just two days when he fled the siege imposed by Napoleon’s army on Acre? According to this interpretation, which others have already proposed before us, the meeting between the great Jewish mystic and thinker and the military commander and ruler who shaped the face of Europe never happened. But Rabbi Nachman’s literary imagination could not resist the temptation of bringing himself and Napoleon together.

What a fascinating picture this is: a historic meeting between Rabbi Nachman and Napoleon Bonaparte—two young men, neither of them even thirty years old—and already, each in his own way, had begun to reshape the world.


An extra bonus for our readers:

Only two historical sources provide us a glimpse of Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual journey to the Land of Israel. Both are by the hand of Rabbi Nachman’s disciple and scribe Rabbi Natan, who recorded both accounts decades after the journey, and after Rabbi Nachman’s death in 1811 at the age of 38.

This is not the case with Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and the Land of Israel. At the National Library of Israel alone there are more than two hundred documents relating to this historical episode. We have even dedicated an entire website to it!


Further Reading:

The Revealed and Hidden Writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: His Worlds of Revelation and Rectification, Zvi Mark, translated by Yaacov David Shulman, De Gruyter Oldenbourg

Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Arthur Green, University of Alabama Press

Napoleon: A Political Life, Steven Englund, Scribner

“I did not commit treason, I committed suicide” – Uri Ilan’s Secret Notes

The story of the captured soldier who chose to end his life for fear of revealing secrets to the enemy

Using an improvised, hand-made implement, Sergeant Uri Ilan recorded his story on pages torn from a book. His account began with his capture by Syrian forces and ended with his own death. The notes, which Ilan hid in his shoes, were discovered upon the return of his body from captivity, the day after he hung himself. As the notes explained, he took his life for fear that he would break under enemy torture and reveal secrets that could damage national security.

One of the ten notes left behind by Uri Ilan, on which he wrote: “Vengeance upon their representative at the armistice talks Uri.”  The writing is pierced into the lower half of the inside title page of the book Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”) by Yitzhaq Shami


The night of December 8, 1954, Uri Ilan and four members of his squad set out on foot from Kibbutz Dan in order to replace a battery in a listening device in the northern Golan Heights as part of “Operation Cricket.” At the time, the Golan Heights were under Syrian control – this mission was taking place behind enemy lines. Not long after they set out- something went wrong and the the five were discovered by the Syrian army near Kibbutz Kfar Szold. They were captured and first taken to Quneitra. From there they were transferred to the infamous al-Mezzeh prison in Damascus, where the soldiers were placed in individual cells.

Uri Ilan survived fifty-three days of brutal torture in captivity. Isolated in his dungeon cell, and unaware of the efforts to free the squad members, he believed that the others had been executed and that he was next. On January 13, 1955, he was found hanging in his cell in the Damascus prison. Frightened by the soldier’s suicide, the Syrians called in the UN representative. After the representative confirmed the sham report that described no signs of violence on Ilan’s body, his remains were transferred to Israel the same day. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan was present when the body was returned to Israel and he was among the first to read the messages the deceased soldier had hidden on his body. The first note contained Hebrew words pierced into the paper: “Look through my clothes for my will Uri.”

“Look through my clothes for my will Uri” – the Hebrew words were pierced into page 72 of a copy of Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”)


Uri Ilan, who did not have access to writing utensils, had used an improvised wooden toothpick to poke his messages into the pages of the Hebrew book Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”) by Yitzhaq Shami. Seven of the ten notes called for revenge on his captors. At Ilan’s funeral, Dayan quoted Ilan’s words from one of the notes: “I did not commit treason, I committed suicide.” These words were etched into collective Israeli memory, becoming symbols of personal sacrifice.

Uri Ilan’s coffin being carried for burial. Photo: Government Press Office


Dayan eulogized Sergeant Ilan at his funeral: “Uri Ilan carried the mission of the security of his people on his young body and with the power of his own determined will, until he reached the limit of his ability and his will prevailed over his body. Uri reached the end of his journey. A note attached to his cold corpse returned to the homeland bears his final cry: ‘I did not commit treason!’ The army flag bows before you – Hebrew soldier, Uri Ilan.”

The note that was made public: “I did not commit treason / I committed suicide.” pierced into page 103 of a copy of Nikmat Ha’Avot (“Vengeance of the Fathers”)


When the Chief of Staff offered the notes to Uri’s mother, Fayge, she refused and replied memorably, “He wrote them for the IDF, he did not write them for me.” The Uri Ilan Archive is preserved at Bar-Ilan University. The notes found on his body are kept in the IDF & Defense Establishment Archives.

Footage from Uri Ilan’s funeral, January, 1955:


The notes displayed in this article appear courtesy of the IDF & Defense Establishment Archives.

When the Irgun Decided to Be Judge, Jury and Executioner

Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach were executed after being sentenced to death by drumhead court martials organized by the Irgun | Their death sentences on the alleged charge of treason were delivered by a self-sanctioned, non-transparent body, lacking any oversight | Delving into the details of the cases reveals a violent and controversial procedure in which military organizations permitted themselves to execute people without conclusive evidence | A look back at a darker side of the pre-state era

Members of the Irgun patrolling on the border of Jaffa, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On a March morning in 1947, residents of Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel – awoke to find a new announcement from an “Irgun Tribunal” heralding a double execution carried out by its members. These were frenzied days when the Jewish settlement was battling the British Mandate government and its attempts to prevent Jewish immigration. The Irgun and Lehi underground organizations saw the British as their greatest enemy, and anyone suspected of collaboration, even if that person was a Jew, became a potential enemy in their eyes.

The statement released that morning announced the execution of two Jews — Kadia Mizrahi of Rehovot and Leon Mashiach of Petah Tikva — on the charge of informing to the British. These were two more names in a long list, but a thorough examination of the announcement can teach us quite a bit about the phenomenon as a whole.

Irgun poster announcing the executions of Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach (Hebrew). This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Executions within the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine were not a new occurrence. The first political assassination was that of Jacob Israël de Haan in 1924, and dozens more Jews were sentenced to death by various organizations on charges of treason, passing on information and collaboration with the Arabs or the British, before the State of Israel’s establishment in May of 1948.

The phenomenon is sometimes attributed only to the Lehi and Irgun, with the thinking being that their hardline positions led them to commit such violent acts, but in fact, the Haganah also assassinated Jews for similar reasons on several occasions. The difference was that the Haganah carried out its executions “quietly,” whereas the Irgun and Lehi chose to publicly announce theirs. Throughout most of the 1940s, the majority of the executions of Jews on these and other charges were indeed carried out by the Irgun and Lehi, while the Haganah during this period attempted to maintain a policy of cooperation with the British, as World War II and the Holocaust were both underway.

And for the slanderers/informers let there be no hope, traitors to their people” – an Irgun poster that made reference to the execution of informers. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The announcement distributed in March 1947 begins with a description of Kadia Mizrahi’s guilt: “A whore who is corrupt to the core, a traitor to her people, a servant of the enemy, a professional informant who betrayed Jewish citizens, even her own son, to the British secret police.” It goes on to say how conclusive evidence was presented to the court (whose members remain unknown to this day) and that after Mizrahi had been warned about her behavior on previous occasions, she was executed.

Kadia was born in Israel to a Yemenite immigrant family. Her fate was sealed early on in life when she haphazardly married a youth her family did not approve of. The marriage was annulled, but from that day forward, she was an outcast. She was later married to Avraham Shriqi (whose name was Hebraized to Mizrahi) and became a homemaker, while also earning some money working in the homes of wealthier families in the area. The couple had five children. In 1945, Kadia did the unthinkable at the time by asking the Rabbinical Court for a divorce from her husband. Her request was eventually granted, along with a plot of land in the Marmurek area (Rehovot).

Following her divorce, Kadia lived alone after her ex-husband gained custody of the children in order to avoid paying child support. She adopted a lifestyle that was frowned upon by just about everyone aside from herself. She enjoyed dressing in nice clothes, dancing, sitting in cafes and smoking cigarettes. Around this time, the Jewish establishment in Mandatory Palestine began recruiting women to entertain British soldiers and show them a good time, as a way to win them over to the Zionist cause. Kadia signed up.

It should be noted that the women were not recruited to have sexual relations with the soldiers. Nevertheless, many among the Jewish community were skeptical of the tactic. The national institutions wanted the girls to dance with the foreign soldiers, host them and advocate for Jewish interests in the Land of Israel, but others feared assimilation. The “Committee to Protect the Honor of Jewish Daughters” was established to combat this “plague”. At one point, Kadia was recruited to work for the local branch of the British police. She started in maintenance and cleaning, advancing to the position of Arabic-English interpreter, before finally becoming a police officer/warden working with local women.

She and other women were occasionally followed by Irgun agents who suspected them of passing on information to the British, but Kadia was dismissive of these tactics. According to various sources, one night, after an Irgun attack on the Qastina airbase, the fighters returning from the operation stopped by her house to rest and change clothes, but Kadia wouldn’t let them in. Her refusal was to have dire consequences.

“Kadia Mizrahi, Police Officer From Rehovot, Murdered…she was sent threatening letters warning her ‘not to be too chatty and to refrain from informing'” – news item published in HaBoker, March 10, 1947

As a woman at that time, Kadia was already at a disadvantage. Her extroverted behavior, association with the British, the fact that she was divorced, lived alone and made no excuses for whom she associated with, all made her an easy target. She suffered various harassments, including masked men who tried to break into her home as well as malicious rumors that were spread about her. Finally, when the British imposed martial law in March 1947, she was accused of informing and passing on the names of Hebrew fighters.

The language of the announcement detailing her execution clearly displays the opinions of the Irgun about her chosen lifestyle, indicating that this was among their considerations when making the final decision on her fate. After receiving several threats, Kadia went to the British police but they refused to help her. Finally, one night, armed and masked members of the Irgun broke into her home and shot her eight times in her bed. She was 42 years old when she died. Her children engraved on her tombstone: “Murdered as a result of unjustified hatred and false accusations”.

The case of Leon Mashiach, who was executed around the same time, was slightly different, though his fate was similar. Originally from Bulgaria, the 29 year-old Mashiach was a newly discharged soldier and recently divorced. His accusers used the same language as they did for Kadia: “a traitor to his people and an informer.”

The Irgun tribunal published that Leon Mashiach confessed to his deeds and even signed a statement proving his guilt: “I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva. I gave him two training locations, one in the synagogue near the flour mill […] and the other in a kindergarten in Mahane Yehuda […] I devised a plan to capture the weapons trainees […].” Below it, he signed his name, the date, his year of birth and other details. His statement was not published along with the poster and was only found many years later in various archives.

After admitting his guilt, Mashiach asked to commit suicide as an “honorable solution” and to protect his son’s reputation. His request was denied, but according to the tribunal’s declaration, the Irgun assured him that “the disgrace of the traitorous father will not taint the son, who will grow up to be a loyal son to his country and homeland.” According to a news item published after the murder, his body was found blindfolded, after “rumor spread that he was involved in passing information to the police.”

“I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva” – Leon Mashiach’s “confession”. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

We don’t know the conditions under which Leon Mashiach’s “confession” was obtained, or what, if any, chance he was given to prove his innocence. It is possible that the confession was forced in order to “sanction” the execution, but it is also possible that he was indeed an informant and, once caught, chose to confess. The language of the confession — two exact locations, the name of the officer he was in contact with, and what they planned to do — may attest to its authenticity, but it is also possible that the statement was dictated to him.

The description of events, among other things the wording – “the court denied the request”, creates the illusion of an orderly judicial process. However, it is equally possible that everything happened quickly, and that the orderly procedure was nothing more than a short conversation before the execution. It is interesting that in this case, the “evidence” was presented in the form of a confession, while in the case of Kadia Mizrahi, there was no evidence at all besides “her lifestyle”, which had no real connection to the acts she was accused of perpetrating. The short news item about Mashiach’s execution was published in the newspaper HaTsofe, where the headline called it a “murder”, although the article itself was not critical of the act. Mashiach was buried in Petah Tikva. Meanwhile, the Leon Mashiach file in the archive of the Jabotinsky Institute remains confidential and is kept in a safe.

Screenshot of the confidential file, the Jabotinsky Institute Archive

The poster published by the Irgun concludes with a general paragraph that is both a warning and a threat promising a similar fate to anyone who cooperates with or passes information to the British. The public methods used by the Irgun and Lehi provoked widespread criticism from within the Jewish community, while the Haganah were relatively shielded from public outcry because they were more discreet about the murders they committed.

In Jerusalem, a body calling itself the “Thou Shalt Not Kill League” was established, which tried to combat acts of violence aimed at Arabs and Jews alike. In the many leaflets it distributed around the country it called the perpetrators of the violence “terrorists.” After Kadia Mizrahi’s murder, the league distributed a leaflet that mentioned her name and raised the question of the legitimacy of the drumhead court-martials and criticized their decisions. “Who is the court? […] What are their names so that we may know?” The murder of women in particular shocked the community. In another poster the league called to “Lend us a hand, join us and together […] we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst”. Despite the public protest, the murders continued, right up to the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence.

“…we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst…” – A poster produced by the Thou Shalt Not Kill League, the Jabotinsky Institute, 1947

The main problem with the executions, apart from the violence and the use of the death penalty as a solution, is that to this day it is not known what acts the “guilty” were actually responsible for. Aside from the important question of whether collaborators indeed deserved to die, the secrecy in which the organizations conducted their “trials” leaves no possibility of critically examining their actions. Was Kadia Mizrahi executed because she really was an informant for the British, or did false rumors and accusations, along with her lifestyle and the presence of trigger-happy executioners lead to her death? Did Leon Mashiach actually confess to his actions, or was his a forced confession, extracted in order to justify his execution?

We will never know since the “Irgun Tribunal” was conducted in the form of a drumhead court martial. The murdered were not allowed an orderly proceeding with a prosecutor and a proper defense and this issue remains unaddressed to this day. With the establishment of the State of Israel, this practice was repeated only once: the execution of the officer Meir Tobianski who, innocent of any crime, was murdered at the hands of a drumhead court organized by veterans of the Haganah. This case was investigated in depth, and we can only hope that the State of Israel learned its lesson.