Jacobus Kann
forgotten founder of Tel Aviv

Levontin, Rothschild money for Rishon LeTzion

Discovering Rothschild’s Surprising Weakness Helped Zionists Get a Big Donation

A forgotten 10-page letter exposes the method with which Zionist pioneers persuaded Baron de Rothschild to give them money

Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. 'The Baron does not have the power to decree who is alive and who is dead.'

Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. ‘The Baron does not have the power to decree who is alive and who is dead.’ 

Ofer Aderet


Published on 24.10.2020

The secret that was uncovered this week in a Tel Aviv archive was kept for 138 years. This forgotten, surprising story, told in a 10-page letter in Hebrew, could have proved very embarrassing to certain people, tarnishing the reputation of Zionist pioneers in pre-state Palestine.

The author of the archival document is known today mainly for the eponymous street in Tel Aviv, “the first Jewish city.” Zalman David Levontin was a Russian-born Hasidic Jew, a small-scale banker who immigrated to Palestine as part of the so-called First Aliyah, from 1881 to 1903. A pioneer of Jewish settlement, he was among the 10 founders of Rishon Letzion, the second Jewish farm settlement established in Ottoman Palestine in the 19th century, after Petah Tikva.

The pioneers had been adept at identifying Baron de Rothschild’s weak point: his fondness for roses

The story begins in 1882. Excitement ran high when Levontin’s aides bought land 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) south of Jaffa. After spending the first night under the stars, they were greeted by a spectacular sight at dawn: To the west lay the sea, to the east the Judean Hills, in the south were rolling hills and fields, with Yavneh on the horizon, and in the north stretched the Sharon plain. “Rishon Letzion” – the first in Zion – was the name they gave the rural settlement, echoing their aspiration for the return to Zion.

What did they do when the money ran out? Naturally, they appealed to Baron Rothschild. A letter discovered this week in the Gnazim Archive of the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel sheds light on a fundraising method devised at the time. It converses well with Haim Hefer’s lyric, “Enough with sentiments! The Jewish head devises beguilement!”

On the agenda was the need to raise money to dig a deep well for the thirsty settlers. Levontin’s right-hand man, Yosef Feinberg (uncle of the founder of the Nili spy network that aided the British against the Ottomans), set sail for Europe to try to cajole the “great benefactor,” who lived in Paris. Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, who was then 37, was impressed by the pioneer, who was 10 years his junior, but in particular was won over by the persuasive argument he made, which helped him open not only his heart but also – and mainly – his wallet.

“And if you succeed in capturing the heart of this man, then what is lacking in this settlement and indeed in many settlements will be provided,” Levontin wrote 30 years later, describing the meeting with Rothschild. “[T]he baron keeps himself busy by planting roses and also … [with] sweet dreams about this flower, from which they will produce fine oil,” he added. The pioneers, it turns out, had been adept at identifying the philanthropist’s weak point: his fondness for roses. Equipped with this crucial information, they moved to the next stage, to persuade the baron that his money would give rise to roses in Rishon Letzion, for the glory of the Land of Israel.

‘If you succeed in capturing the heart of this man, then what is lacking in this settlement […] will be provided’

“[T]he baron heard about the quality of the soil … and about the culture the residents are planning to instill there. … Feinberg presented our idea and the situation of the residents and so forth, and told him that the Arabs say roses grew there long ago,” the letter continues.

And so, the Zionist pioneers even enlisted the Arabs to help persuade Rothschild. They invoked the Arabs’ lengthy experience in working the land, forgetting momentarily that in other circumstances they customarily said the Arabs left only a wasteland. Rothschild was persuaded, and after many deliberations and extensive negotiations decided to send a gardener, appropriate machinery – and 30,000 francs.

No rose without a thorn

All’s well that ends well? Not quite. The money helped the fledgling settlement but did nothing for relations between Feinberg and Rothschild. Feinberg took part in the uprising against the baron’s officials in Rishon Letzion in 1887. Legend has it that Rothschild demanded that Feinberg leave the village, to which Feinberg replied, “With all your millions you won’t get me to leave, most honorable Baron.” Rothschild in turn told Feinberg, reportedly, “You are dead to me.”

Zalman David Levontin.
Zalman David Levontin.Credit: Rishon Letzion Museum

But Feinberg had the last word, in a letter he wrote to Rothschild the following day: “Insofar as I am considered dead I took myself to the world to come but they would not let me in because they said I was still alive: the Baron does not have the power to decree who is alive and who is dead.”

But In the end Feinberg left. His subsequent business ventures were failures, and at one point he worked as a wagon driver. He died of pneumonia in 1902.

Here ends the surprising story of how a group of Zionist pioneers led the rose-struck baron to help support the establishment of the village that became Israel’s fourth-largest city.