On My Mind: The Golan Heights: Bought by Baron Rothschild 100 Years Ago

January 24, 1997 - Last year I published the sensational fact that in 1892, over 100 years ago, Baron Edmonde de Rothschild, also known as the "Nadiv Hayad," the well-known benefactor, acquired 80,000 dunam in the Golan for the explicit purpose of settlement by Jews. My publication of this transaction raised a great deal of attention and interest, and I have been asked by many to elaborate on this unknown but enormously important chapter in the history of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.

The Rothschild Dynasty

The dynasty of the Rothschilds, so providentially important in Jewish history, began in its founder, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), who maintained a modest home in the ghetto of Frankfurt on the Main, where he operated a business of selling coins and antiques to local German aristocrats and rulers. He sent his five sons to key European cities to establish finance centers and ultimately banks. So it came that almost overnight, quite miraculously it would seem, successful Rothschild banks were established in Frankfurt, Paris, London, Naples and Vienna. The heads of these banks played extremely important roles in supporting and defending Jewish interest around the world; each Rothschild in his own way made Jewish history.

The most historic contributions were made, without a doubt, by the heads of the London, Frankfurt and Paris branches. The Frankfurt head, Baron Wilhelm Karl von Rothschild, was also know as the "frum Rothschild," because he was a deeply learned and pious Jew who studied the Talmud every day and is even said to have built a mikveh in his palatial home in Frankfurt. He remained close to his teacher of Torah, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Lehren of Amsterdam, who himself played a central roll in organizing the international collections for the Jews of the Holy Land. The Rothschild Baron not only supported the funding of the Jews in such towns as Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias, but also, at home, was the most important supporter of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who had established the famous separatist Orthodox community in Frankfurt.

His daughter Adelaide married her French cousin Edmonde, and the two became a formidable couple in our history. Being the daughter of the "frum" Rothschild, Adelaide was extremely pious and observant and therefore had profound influence on her husband, who otherwise may not have displayed extensive interest in the Jewish land and its re-building. Adelaide accompanied her husband on his trips to the Holy Land and saw to it that he had kosher food which she parpared on the lavish yacht on which he traveled.

Baron Edmonde de Rothschild

Baron Edmonde de Rothschild - as he was known after being knighted - lived from 1845 to 1934. He came only slowly to his deep involvement in Eretz Yisrael. The decisive, historic moment that brought about this change was a meeting with Rabbi Shemual Mohilewer in 1882. Rabbi Mohilewer was a great leader of religious "Chovevey Zion," (Lovers of Zion), a losseley associated group of Russian Jews formed in response to the wave of pogroms that the Czar of Russia had unleashed.

It was his fervent dream to find someone who would secure the material survival of the Jewish colonies being established in the Jewish land, and he dreamed of the Baron being that benefactor. Their historic meeting brought exactly this about. Speaking in Yiddish to th Baron, the rabbi was able to convey to the Baron his burning love for the Jewish land and for the fulfillment of his dream of secure settlements of Jews there.

The rabbi from Bialystok and the aristocrat from Paris hit it off splendidly despite the language barriers. At the end of the conversation, the Baron is said to have told the rabbi: "If you have come to me to ask for money to support the work of colonization, mention the sum and I will give it to you. But if you have come to win my soul, then I must first consult my own self and make a trial to see what will result from it." The fate of the two was intertwined from that moment on.

The Baron conducted plan after plan to establish agricultural settlements throughout the Land of Israel, using the best available technical and economic talent of European experts. Not all experiments went smoothly. In fact, there was often grumbling among the Russian emigrants against the heavy-handed rule exercised by the Baron, but in the end his views would of course prevail.

The Shemittah Crisis

The Russian Jews at that time clearly anticipated that their settlements would be based on the Torah. The first serious conflict arose when the Shemittah year arrived and the colonists insisted on suspending work during that year, in accordance with biblical law. Rabbi Mohilewer was the negotiator between the colonists and the Rothschild administration in order to prevent the collapse of the fragile new economy of the colonies. Rabbi Mohilewer produced an opinion of the greatest Lithuanian Talmudist of the time, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, who found ways how the work could legally continue without interruption.

Some preparation for the fulfillment of the Baron's plans had, providentially, already been made through the work of Sir Moses Montefiore, brother-in-law of Nathan Rothschild, the head of the London branch. Montefiore had traveled to the Holy Land many times before Baron Edmonde came there and had negotiated in 1839 with the local authorities for the acquisition of land. Following in his footsteps, the Baron offered to buy from the Turks the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Turks were willing to cede this sacred Jewish site; but paradoxically, the local Sefardic Jews objected, as they feared the influence of the Ashkenazic Jews, through the Baron. However, the Baron established institutions that took care of Sefardic and Ashkenazic Jews alike, such as the Bikur Cholim Hospital which he founded.

In 1887 the Baron and his wife visited the Land and toured every part of it, while their yacht, and kosher kitchen, was docked in Port Said and later moved to the Bay of Haifa. The Baron also had a deep interest in the history and archaeology of our Land and supported various expeditions and excavations.

Among the colonies that the Baron founded and maintained, he gave most attention to Zichron Yacov, where he was ultimately buried. But the greatest agricultural success came from the colonies in the Upper Galilee. As could be expected, the Baron had to overcome many problems with the settlers and their administrators, and it is surprising that he did not give up his fledgling plans and projects. His love for the country and our traditions gave him strength to overcome any obstacle and disappointment. He insisted that every colony have its synagogue, its resident rabbi, kosher shechita, mikveh and Hebrew teacher. He was among the first to acknowledge that the work of colonization was meant as the foundation for a truly traditional Jewish revival. He was faithful to the religious definition of Jewish identity. In this he followed the Rothschild tradition up to then, espcially that of his father-in-law Wilhelp Karl and his ancestor Mayer Amschel Rothschild.

The Golan Acquisition

After making acquisitions in various places west of the Jordan, he turned his attention to buying land east of the Jordan, on the Golan. Toward the end of 1891 a certain Ahmed Pasha made it known that some 120,000 dunam of prime land in the triangle formed by the Yarmuk and the Allane rivers were up for sale at the bargain price of around 1.5 franc per dunam, provided that the sale was made "en bloc," i.e., for the total area. There followed intensive discussions among various Jewish groups interested in the offer, among them groups in Russia, New York and London. The Baron agreed to cover the whole cost of the purchase.

Since the Baron was always keen to preserve his anonymity, he arranged for the deeds to be registered in the name of Emile Frank, the Representative of Alliance Israelite in Beirut. The plan called for the Russian group, under Ekaterinoslav, to take 25,000 dunam and the Americans also 25,000, with other holders taking the balance. But since these groups did not come up with the money, it fell to the Baron to become the owner of the major part of the Golan Purchase.

When the Baron died in 1934, 80,000 dunam on the Golan were owned by the Rothschild company, PICA (Palestine Jewish Colonization Association). The land had been registered in the name of PICA in 1929. The Syrian government - Syria was then practically a French colony - tried in the 1940s to confiscate the land but failed. In 1957, the son of Baron Edmonde, Baron James de Rothschild (1878 - 1957), as one of his last acts in his life, transferred the deeds to the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) and from there to the Land Office of Israel. All deeds and other documents were transferred to Israel's Foreign Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Golan

The archaeology of the Golan has, over the years, yielded a wealth of information on the Jewish ownership of the area since biblical days. In the Tenach the area is called Golan or Bashan. It was promised to Abraham and later became part of the tribe of Menasche by Moses' division of the Land. Many events and battles took place in and around the Golan. Famous sites, including the fortress of Gamla and the Jewish town of Qasrin, were situated on the Golan. Ruins of some 25 synagogues, built during the centuries after the destruction of the Temple, have been excavated, some of them with magnificent mosaic inscriptions testifying to the uninterrupted Jewish presence on the Golan until the Middle Ages. In modern times, the Turkish government settled some Russians (Cecassians) there, since no one had lived on the Golan for centuries.

It is surprising that Israel has never brought up the legal Jewish rights to the Golan and, instead, has wrangled for years with the current Syrian government for the "return" of the Golan to Syria; while in reality, Jews have had title to it for over 100 years.

Baron Edmonde de Rothschild has left lasting marks on the map of the Land of Israel. Without him, no State of Israel would be possible. In fact even long before the State was established in 1948, the entire colonization of the Land had depended on the Baron's foresight, funding and Jewish convictions.

He was a true giant in our history.

Just as Providence had selected Baron Wilhelm Karl von Rothschild to save authentic Judaism in Frankfurt, Baron Edmonde had clearly been selected to establish the firm foundation for the rebirth of a Jewish state.

May his memory be blessed.