Ancient and not-so-ancient history meet in the blossoming Neve Ilan Forest

Eliezer Schwartz was born in Germany in 1928, and moved with his family to France as a child. After Germany occupied France, he joined the Maquis, groups of young men who fled to the woods and mountains in order to avoid being conscripted into forced labor for Germany. Soon they became active members in the French Resistance, carrying out missions against the Nazis.

Schwartz survived the war and, in 1945, aged 17, headed for what was then British Mandate Palestine. A year later he became one of the founding members of a pioneer outpost called Kibbutz Neve Ilan in the hills above the narrow road leading to and from Jerusalem. Land for the outpost had been purchased by the Jewish National Fund from an Arab effendi after David Ben Gurion — later to become Israel’s first prime minister — deemed it prudent to establish a military presence above that all-important narrow byway.

The stony land made agriculture difficult and there was no electricity; water was brought in once a week by truck and poured into a cistern. And at the end of November 1947, after the United Nations approved a plan for Palestine that called for its division into one Arab and one Jewish state, relations that had been friendly with neighboring Arabs deteriorated. They immediately cut off the road to Jerusalem and supplies were only able to reach the Holy City in fortified convoys.

On January 15, 1948, Schwartz and some friends were walking near the outpost when they were ambushed. Nineteen-year-old Schwartz was shot and killed — Neve Ilan’s first fatality.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Neve Ilan came under heavy fire from Arab armies, and the outpost was severely damaged. But after the war ended, Neve Ilan began a speedy economic development by introducing poultry and dairy farms, and raising mushrooms.

Unfortunately, as the kibbutz expanded and thrived economically, relations between the members did not. In the early 1950s, members left the kibbutz, and it was finally abandoned in 1956.

Old structures from the original kibbutz in this photo taken along the historic Neve Ilan Forest walk. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Neve Ilan of today was founded as a moshav, or cooperative farming community, by a group of North Americans belonging to the Zionist youth movement Young Judea. In the early 1970s, members moved into new buildings that were constructed next to the former outpost. Today, in addition to agriculture, Neve Ilan makes its living from an extremely popular, modern hotel.

Remains from the original outpost still stand, although a planned heritage site never materialized. But visitors can view the old structures and take a lovely little circular nature trek that provides spectacular mountain views and the endearing sight of blood-red tulips, brilliant anemones and bi-colored viper’s bugloss.

Flowers bloom along the historic Neve Ilan Forest walk. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Within the Neve Ilan Forest, located next to the moshav’s newest houses, are a variety of wonderful sites. All were prepared for visitors by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF).

Belgium Park, with picnic areas and rock memorials, is dedicated to the 29,000 Belgian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. A short, lovely ascent through the park leads to the stunning Simone Louki Overlook. Dotted by attractive covered benches, it features marvelous views of the surrounding area.

The Simone Louki Overlook in Belgium Park. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Unique sites await those who take the winding road to the right of the park’s entrance. A few hundred meters (yards) along the road, on the left with a small sign in Hebrew, a sharp incline leads to the Educational Seminars and Colleges Forest.

On a trip there in late November, winter flowers were just beginning to blossom. Among them were blushing pink crocuses, delicate blooms growing right next to the ground. The crocus’s poisonous bulb is, paradoxically, sometimes used in the treatment of cancer.

A forest cyclamen in Neve Ilan Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Here and there cyclamen were also peering out of the ground, and there should be a plethora in view all winter. Stunning in shades that vary from creamy white to dazzling rose, cyclamen are called tzabon el ra’i in Arabic, or “shepherds’ soap.” That’s because in the ancient past local Arabs often used halved cyclamen bulbs as an alternative to soap. The undersides of the cyclamen’s heart-shaped leaves are often purple, a color that heats the leaf and protects it during winter’s chilly days and nights.

Daffodils, with white petals and golden crowns, were just beginning to bloom on our late fall visit and will continue blossoming for several months. The daffodil’s botanical name is Narcissus. Some believe that the flower’s name is derived from a Greek myth in which a young, vain hunter named Narcissus drowned to death while trying to embrace his reflection in a sparkling clear pond. It could be, however, that it comes from the Greek narkao, which means to benumb, because the plant possesses narcotic properties. Indeed, if you apply an extract of the bulbs to an open wound, it can result in paralysis of the heart and nervous system!

Narcissus, more commonly known as daffodils, near the Benny Kaplan Overlook in Neve Ilan Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A short path leads to an overlook named for Benny Kaplan, whose actions as chairman of the Lachish region in the Negev Desert were vital to settlement in the south. The view is wonderful from here — and the ground near the path is scattered with flowers. Along with picnic tables and the overlook, this beautiful site sports five unusual sculptures called “Ibex,” “Spirit,” “Window to the View,” “Image in the Forest,” and “Chairs.” Not all are titled, so have fun guessing which is which!

Near the “Ibex” sculpture, a somewhat rocky trail takes ascends through Holland Forest — woodlands renewed with the help of Dutch Friends of the JNF after the area experienced a ravaging forest fire. At the top of the hill, located 530 meters (1,739 feet) above sea level, are extensive ruins from an ancient fortress. Built over 2,000 years ago during the rule of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus, the fortress overlooks the road that runs through the Ayalon Valley to Jerusalem.

Sculptures near the Benny Kaplan Overlook in Neve Ilan Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Explore the fortress, to which King Herod I added a courtyard and some rooms at the end of the first century BCE. In the year 70, during the Jewish revolt against the Romans, the site was abandoned; a coin belonging to a soldier from the Roman Legion, proof that the Roman army swept through this part of the country, was found nearby.

Hundreds of years later, when Islamic caliphates controlled the country, the fortress was turned into a caravansary, or roadside inn. Besides remains dating back as far as the Iron Age — 1200 BCE, around the time that the Bible describes the Exodus from Egypt — archeologists digging at the site discovered 22 gravesites whose occupants were buried on their sides, facing Mecca.

A view of the Hasmonean fortress ruins atop the hill in Holland Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Up here on the hill, the fields are strewn with a variety of wildflowers, from rock roses, poppies and white mustard to — in March — the stunning purple and white Barbary Nut dwarf. Best of all, visitors have a stupendous view of Ben Shemen Forest, Modi’in, the surrounding lowland hills and sometimes, when the skies are clear, even Tel Aviv.

A view from the ruins of an ancient Hasmonean fortress in the Neve Ilan Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.