Historical background of the Bashan family

The Bashan family is deeply rooted in the founding of modern-day Israel. Their ancestors might be considered 19th Century equivalents of the 17th Century "Mayflower" pioneers of America. Similarly, they fled prosecution and hardship in their European homeland to establish their new home in an almost empty territory, in what they considered to be the biblical Promised Land, which became the modern state of Israel over a century later. The Bashan family originated from two completely distinct groups of East European Jews arriving from the republics of Moldavia and Rumania, and for different reasons. One group was ultra-orthodox, seeking physical, economic, and spiritual refuge. The other was a Zionist group, looking forward to reestablishing a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, which was then a remote Ottoman Palestine colony. This was a prevalent, romantic dream in 19th Century Europe for many minority ethnic groups.

The first group came in 1833 from the Bessarabian town of Bendery on the Dnyesr River (population then approx. 10,000 with 3000 Jews), about 100 km northwest of the Ukrainian city of Odessa on the Black Sea. Bessarabia was a Rumanian Principality in the region of today's Moldavia, bordering the Ukraine. Until 1812, the Principality was part of the Ottoman Empire, and was then conquered by the Russian Czar Alexander I. In 1825, the new Russian Czar, Nicholas I, introduced discriminatory decrees against Jewish citizens of the Russian Empire. The local Russian populace followed suit and anti-Semitism and large-scale destruction of Jewish communities (pogroms) ensued. Even worst, the new Czar issued an imperial decree obligating Jewish youth to join his army for 25 years. For the Jews of Bendery, these persecutions initiated a movement to leave. Encouraged by their spiritual leader, Rabbi Avraham-Dov Mavritz, about 300 immigrated to the Holy Land in 1833. They chose the Holy Land rather than the "New World," as other Jews did, because they saw the Holy Land as a land of opportunity since many of them were merchants, young adults with families, and relatively wealthy. Palestine was relatively close to Rumania, and religious history provided a strong rationale.

The immigrants immediately dispersed among four ancient cities of Palestine--Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, but mostly to the northern town of Zafed, where the ancestors of the Bashan family settled. They chose Zafed for practical reasons. Zafed had 5000 Jewish inhabitants whose ancestors had lived there for centuries (the second largest Jewish population after Jerusalem), and many inhabitants were Hasidic, as was the case for many from Bendery. From an economic point of view, Zafed (a minor town today) was a major road junction and commercially active regional city. They assumed that they would be able to resume the commercial activities of their homeland and stay economically independent. As such, they would not have to live on scarce donations from Jewish European communities, as was common at that time. And worse, the donation system was controlled by a corrupted religious administration.

However, establishing their settlement in Zafed was hard, starting with a very heavy snow upon arrival in 1833. This brought misery to the unprepared families, and this was followed by a plague epidemic a year later. In 1835, as a consequence of the weak Ottoman government in the remote colony, Arab farmers from the Golan Heights robbed the city. In 1837, a major earthquake destroyed two-thirds of the city, killing half the Jewish population. In 1838, the Druz population (a Muslim sect) from Lebanon rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, and in the process also sacked the commercial town.

Despite the hardships of their first years, the family got along well with the local population, Jews and Arabs, and many members of the family prospered. They were known as the "Benderly" family, a name reminiscent of their city of origin, as was common in Turkish traditions. As the family grew, some members left Zafed and moved to other cities and even overseas. A young woman of the fifth generation, Mrs. Mina Benderly (Mrs. Sara Bashan's mother) left Zafed and together with her Jewish husband Shlomo Gorodenzik (born in the village of Ekron in 1887, the son of Binyamin Gorodenzik and Hana Shkolnik, who had immigrated to Palestine from Grodna, Byelorussia in 1883) were one of the first Jewish pioneers who left the city of Jaffa in 1920 and built the new neighborhood of Neve Zedek (Justice Oasis), which eventually became one of the two founding neighborhoods of the city of Tel Aviv.

The legend of Neve Zedek - by Talma Mairovitz (PowerPoint, 3.63 MB, In Hebrew).

Nave Zedek- Shabazi by Henya Melichson (PowerPoint presentation 4.8 MB, In Hebrew).

Shlomo Gorodentchik,
one of the pioneers of
Tel Aviv, attending an
unknown social event
(about 1920).

Zikhron Ya'aqov: monument to the pioneers.

The other ancestral group of the Bashan family came from the same Eastern European area, but for more idealistic reasons. Europe in the late 19th Century was a boiling pot of nationalistic movements, cultivating "independence" for many minority ethnic groups. Some Jewish groups and their Zionist idealism (Zion, a biblical synonym for the land of Israel), increased their enthusiastic activities after severe and systematic destruction in pogroms of Jewish communities in southern Russia and Romania carried out by local peasants. The main objective of the Zionists was to reestablish Jewish settlements and later a "state" or "cultural autonomous region" in the Holy Land, governed then by the decaying Ottoman Empire. The Zionist movements were the first deliberate attempt to initiate large-scale immigration of Jews to the remote Ottoman colony of Palestine, despite Turkish prohibition. Earlier, Jewish immigration was composed of very small religious groups (like the Bendery group described above) and old Jews wishing to die and be buried in the Holy Land. These small communities lived on donations from Jewish communities in Europe and from commerce, but not from agriculture. This limited immigration did not establish any new settlements, barely increased the local population, and concentrated in the four "Holy Cities" of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hebron, and Zafed.

Zikhron Ya'aqov Historic Center.
The administration building of Baron
Edmond de Rothschild's Palestinian
holdings (late 19th Century).
Today, it is the
Pioneers Museum.

Zikhron Ya'aqov Historic Center. The first water
container of the village
(late 19th Century).
Preserved as an historical

One Zionist group in Rumania, called "Hovevey Zion" (friends of Zion) organized a group of settlers who initiated modern Jewish immigration to Israel. On 18 August 1882, the families left the city of Galati in Rumania on the ship "Tetis," and eventually established eight villages in Palestine. These settlers were more visionary than practical, and as farmers, they were amateurs. This led to a total economic collapse of the entire farming idea until they received financial and agronomic help (and personal repression, as a consequence) by the investments and support of the French Baron Edmond James de-Rothschild, who took over the entire Zionist initiative a few years after their arrival. Two of these first villages, "Rosh Pina" (Cornerstone) and "Zamarine" (later renamed Zikhron- Ya'aqov,"Memory of Jacob", as instructed by the Baron's administration as a memorial to his father) were the settlements where ancestors of the Bashan family lived. Upon arrival, after a short and miserable stay in the small Arab port town of Haifa, in December 1882, some of the group moved to the overpriced, 500 hectares of mainly mountain land they purchased in "Zamarine" from the vice consul of France in Haifa for 50,000 francs and to other purchased land in "Rosh Pina." The first two recorded ancestral immigrants were Yosef-Nahum Goldstein and Mordechai Bonstein, both 1882 pioneers of Rosh Pina, today a northern village in Israel about 50 km north of the Sea of Galilee and close to Hermon Mountain, which marks Israel's northernmost point.

Tantura. Baron Edmond de
Rothschild's glass factory
for his winery
(late 19th Century).
Production failed and the
factory was abandoned. Today
it is the site of the Hamizgaga
Museum for the antiquities
found in the port of Dor
(King Salomon's port).

The port of Tantura (1877).
The home of Mordechai
Bonstein is visible on the
beach. Photo provided by
the magazine Teva Hadvarim.

Mordechai Bonstein, son of a railroad engineer, born in Berdichev in 1856, Ukraine, was a young and physically strong farmer pioneer in Rosh Pina from its onset in 1882. However, his land holding was small and rocky, his character somewhat rebellious, and he wished to own and cultivate larger areas; in Europe, he had dreamt of being a rancher, but this was impossible in Rosh Pina. In 1884, the chief clerk of the Rothschild's Palestinian holdings (who, by then had almost complete financial control of all the pioneer settlements) offered him an idea that he could not refuse; a much larger land parcel (a sort of a ranch of 60-80 hectare which was the legal property of the Baron), in return for his meager land in Rosh Pina. The parcel had some downsides; it was made of numerous small pieces, and worst, located in the midst of the Arab village of Tantura, now called Dor-Nachsolim. Although close to "Zikhron Ya'aqov," cultivation of that estate by "new" and untrained unmarried pioneer farmers from Zikhron Ya'aqov, who did not reside there, was difficult without the presence of a strong farmer, as local Palestinians occupied the land and the Ottoman government agents that enforced the law were weak and corrupt. Mordechai Bonstein and his wife Haya (1863-1942) accepted the challenge and was the only Jewish family among the Palestinians for ten years. As a hard working farmer cultivating fertile land, within a few years he had tremendous economic success as a traditional farmer (similar to his Arab neighbors he was growing grains, apples, milk cows, goats, sheep, poultry, and even pigeons), soon became independent of the Rothschild's financial support, and sustaining neighborly good relations with the Arab populace (some said outstanding friendly relations). Amazing stories (that sound unrealistic today) about the relations between the nationalistic Arab village and their single Jewish family is a picture of an unparallel life in peace and co-existence; Mordechai Bonstein was the respected arbiter in frictions among the Arab peasants that trusted his judgment more than the decision of the Ottoman court in nearby Caesarea. He was offered the chairmanship (Muchtar) of the "Council of the Elders of the Village" (even though he was young, he declined the honor). During the harvest season, the fields were harvested by work of the entire village. Since he was a religious person and did not work on Saturdays, the Arab peasants also respected Saturday as the day of rest so not to offend him. Naturally, nobody touched the family or its property even during the Arab uprisings in 1929 and 1936. Their nine children survived the living conditions (a rarity at the time). The Baron's highly satisfied administration tried several times to bring in more farmers to support the Bonstein family in increasing the Jewish population in Tantura. None stayed, leaving quickly for larger settlements.

Asher and Rachel Bonstein
and their grandchildren
(about 1958). From left:
Yoav Bashan, the late Uzi Bashan,
the late Erela Nedivi, Moti
Bonstein, and Shoshana Nedivi.

Zikhron Ya'aqov Historic Center.
Renovation and restoration of the main
street of the village. Today
a thriving tourist attraction.

However, in this ideal surrounding, there was a major flaw. The nearby marshes were the "nursery" of mosquitoes spreading malaria. All the family but Mordechai were sick for months at a time. The doctor and the pharmacist from Zikhron Ya'aqov, who visited the village regularly, ordered the mother and young children to leave Tantura and to move to the healthier climate of Zikhron Ya'aqov in the nearby mountains, at least for the seasons when malaria struck hardest. They left for some months at a time, but Mordechai Bonstein refused to leave Tantura. He was a person with a vision. His vision, enforced by the baron's administrative chief, was of the future Tantura as a prosperous town with an active port and industry. The area had most of the natural small bays along Palestine's Mediterranean coastline, and, at that time, was the center of exporting of watermelons. Later, a large glass factory was built there by Baron de Rothschild to support his winery in Zikhron Ya'aqov, but it was soon abandoned. The entire vision depended solely on Mordechai Bonstein's willingness to stay there. As the only settler, no industry and port could be built if he left, and the future city would be lost. Unknowingly, this was a realistic prophecy that, unfortunately, was fulfilled. Eventually malaria was victorious. Mordechai Bonstein left with his family for Zikhron Ya'aqov where his descendants have continued to live, but he still cultivated the Tantura's estate. He died in 1952 in Zikhron Ya'aqov at the age of 96. Today, Tantura and his home, now the kibbutz "Nachsholim", is a minor beach resort for summertime vacationers.

Current view of Karmel Mizrachi,
the wineries of Zikhron Ya'aqov.

His son, Asher Bonstein, was born among the Palestinians of Tantura in 1892. At the age of seven, he moved with the rest of his family to Zikhron Ya'aqov. An excellent student, he was sent to Switzerland in 1912 (a rarity among pioneers), and studied engineering. At the start of World War I, he returned to the Ottoman Empire's Palestine colony and volunteered for the Turkish Army. While serving with the army, he became an officer, and was the military governor of Bayt Jala, then a Christian town south of Jerusalem (now part of the Jerusalem metropolitan area). In a desert battle against the invading British, he was wounded, and returned to Zikhron Ya'aqov, where he met and married Rachel Goldstein-Hayfler (1895-1971), at the end of the war. Her ancestors were also pioneers of Rosh Pina and Zikhron Ya'aqov. Here, they established a farming estate and a large hardware store. However, he was only a part-time farmer, devoting much of his time to civil activities, such as "chief of the village" during the 1930s. In the 1940s, he served as the "chief of the farmer's organization." He died at the age of 64 in 1958, leaving two sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Avner Bonstein is the founder of the Bashan Family.

Avner Bashan (1919-1985)
Avner Bashan (born Bonstein) was born in the village (agricultural colony) of Zikhron Ya'aqov in the Carmel Mountains, which faces the Mediterranean Sea about 40 km south of the city of Haifa. He was the third generation of Jewish pioneers of the village, which was one of the eight villages established in 1882 as the initial wave of the First Zionist Immigration Movement (Aliya Rishona). At that time, the greater part of Palestine (much of what is now Israel) was a remote outpost of the Ottoman Empire. His father, Asher Bonstein, the first native generation born in the now extinct Arab village of Tantura (now Kibbutz Nachsholim on the Mediterranean shore, close to Zikhron Ya'aqov), was a part-time farmer and a part-time civil servant for decades voluntarily heading several councils at Zikhron Ya'aqov. His mother, Rachel, also born in the village, was the daughter of pioneers of Zikhron Ya'aqov (Hayfler) and Rosh Pina (Goldstein), and ran a large hardware store to maintain the family. Avner Bashan was born after the British conquered Palestine from the Turks during World War I. In the transition period between empires, life in the few remote Jewish villages was difficult, and higher education unavailable. Furthermore, the Zionist movement, responsible for the ideological establishment of these pioneer villages, romanticized farming as a proper occupation for Jews who returned to live productive lives in the Holy Land from the Diaspora rather than come to Palestine to die and be buried, as was a practice in earlier centuries. As a teenager, Avner Bashan decided to be a full-time farmer like his grandfather Mordechai Bonstein, rather than a civil servant like his father. As farming was traditional in the family, but the land inherited was small, he slowly acquired additional agricultural land, learned to farm intelligently, and eventually became a wealthy farmer specializing in large-scale vineyards for grapes destined for the local wine industry, which was also based in Zikhron Ya'aqov. He was a dedicated and hardworking farmer, investing his profits in extending his estate, and except for participating in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and obligatory military services in the army reserve, he almost never traveled abroad or left his land unattended. He had a strong belief in his economic independence and refused credit even when offered. Despite his wide and variable agricultural activities, when he passed away, he left no debt. Because he lacked a higher education, he encouraged agricultural research and encouraged his two sons to become better educated. In 1969, in a burst of enthusiasm and for unknown reasons, he changed his family name from the Eastern European Jewish name "Bonstein" to "Bashan", which is also a local Israeli name, after a biblical name for a mountain range in Jordan. In 1985, he passed away, after a brief illness.

Uzi Bashan (1955-2000)
Uzi Bashan was the son of Avner and Sara Bashan. He was the 7th generation in Israel from his mother's family and the 5th generation from his father's family. Uzi Bashan obtained degrees in different fields--mechanical engineering from Yad-Nathan engineering school of The Israeli Institute of Technology, and economics, international relations, and land appraisal from Tel Aviv University. He was a driven person and a visionary entrepreneur, seeing opportunities for developing land everywhere. He saw endless development possibilities in any land his eyes fell upon. Most people saw nothing in these sites. He restlessly and successfully promoted residential neighborhoods, industrial zones, and tourist projects throughout the entire area where he lived. He died unexpectedly in the midst of his development activity, leaving a wife and two young daughters.

Information (in Hebrew)*

  1. Anonymous. 1982. Interview with Ya'aqov Epshtein, the curator of the "Pioneer's memorial" of Zikhron-Ya'aqov.
  2. Benderly family's book. 1998. Complied for the first meeting of the Benderly Family in Zafed, Israel. 54 pp.
  3. Dagan, S. 1993. The knights of the malaria order: assays, stories and memories from the first years of the colony of Zikhron-Ya'aqov and the nearby colonies. pp.146-148.
  4. Gorodentchik, A. 2002. Interview with one of the sixth generation of the Benderly Family.
  5. Mager, H. 1986. Interview with A'aron Bonstein, the last surviving son of the pioneer Mordechai Bonstein.
  6. Samsonov, A. 1943. Zikhron-Ya'aqov, its history since 1882 (reprinted 2001 by the Council of Zikhron-Ya'aqov, Israel) pp. 130-132, 501 pp.

*Information varied in few details among the sources, as most sources were not officially documented, but recorded from conversations of mostly very old people who heard the stories first-hand, but many decades ago.

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