Mikve Israel History
In 1867, a group of young adults from Jerusalem wrote a letter to “Kol Israel Haverim” in Paris, describing the poverty and meager existence in Israel. In their letter they made a special and unusual request: “We are not asking for a handout – just work. Bring us soil, put tools in our hands and send us people who can teach us how to work the land.” They continued to expressed their readiness to till the soil if the Ottoman Government would allow them to purchase land. In order to appreciate the uncommonness of their request, one would do well to remember that the Jews who lived in Israel in that period (the 19th Century) belonged to the “Old Settlement” that subsisted mostly from financial donations from Jewish communities – “distribution funds.”
As a result of this request, the administration of Kol Israel Haverim decided to dispatch its secretary, Karl Netter, to examine the situation and make recommendations for a course of action. Netter returned to Paris with an unambiguous recommendation, stating that it is essential to set up in Israel an educational framework that would provide the Jewish youth with agricultural training.
Karl Netter – the Man and the Vision
Karl (Yaacov) Netter, Secretary of Kol Israel Haverim, was personally recruited for this mission. He believed in the crucial need for agricultural training in Israel as a first step for encouraging immigration. In the stirring report that he presented to the administration of Kol Israel Haverim, Netter wrote: “I propose to you today a plan for a new institution in which the next generation will learn how to work the land…… (upon receiving this plan) you will be giving bread and life to many Jewish families and will prepare a safe haven for thousands of our brothers that will need to escape from the hatred of the Gentiles…what seems like a dream today, will become a reality tomorrow”.
Karl Netter’s revolutionary recommendation won the approval of Kol Israel Haverim, which founded the first agricultural school in Israel for teenage boys and girls from the age of 13-16. In the first phase, it was decided that every year the school would select ten students who would be sponsored by Kol Israel Haverim. Additional students would be accepted only with funding from other Jewish communities. It was also decided that the studies would be for duration of three years with dormitory conditions and include, along with agricultural training, French lessons. Netter started the long and exhausting campaign to turn the plan from a dream to reality. He turned to the Diaspora Jewry seeking support for his plan and worked vigorously to raise the large amount of funds needed to purchase the land to establish the school. Even after he had obtained the required funds, he needed a special certificate of approval from the Turkish authorities who governed Israel at the time. After they received all the necessary certificates, Netter himself went to Israel to attend to the school’s building process. He was also appointed its first principal.
Mikve Israel – from Dream to Reality
The school was founded by Netter on 15 February 1870 east of Jaffa, south of the Jaffa-Jerusalem Road. The Turkish Government gave Netter a license to establish the agricultural school and provided an area of 2,600 dunams under a global leasing arrangement with a small annual payment “out of recognition of the value of this institution in the life of the Jews.” The Old Settlement welcomed the establishment of the agricultural school. The school’s dedication ceremony was during the week of Parshat “B’Hukotai.” The Haftora portion contained the following passage (Jeremiah 14-8): “O hope of Israel (Mikve Israel), Savior in times of trouble, why should you be as a stranger in the land and as a wayfaring man that turns aside to tarry for the night?” The purpose of the institution was to train the younger generation in agricultural settlement. An agronomy expert and manager named Neigau arrived from France. The school was designated for thirty students from Israel who would study for free and another thirty students from abroad who would pay tuition.
The beginning was not successful, and in spite of a public appeal in three different languages to come and study in Mikve Israel, registration was slow. Little by little, Karl Netter started to recruit students by himself. Until the Bilu immigrants arrived in 1882, Mikve Israel had its high and low points in a period when dozens of students studied various subjects and agriculture.
The turning point came in 1882 with the arrival of the Bilu immigrants. Netter came to the conclusion that these were the students that the agricultural school would train to work the land, but he passed away before he could realize his plans.
Jewish Agriculture – from the Beginning
Mikve Israel’s success in the domain of agriculture came only after Yosef Neigau, a graduate of the Teachers Torah Academy in Paris and an agronomist by profession, started to run the school. He set up a modern agricultural settlement with a chicken coop, dairy cattle, vineyards and a winery. He also built buildings that contained classrooms, a synagogue, a hospital and office space. During his administration the school made a name for itself as an institute that trains quality farmers in many agricultural professions. In his time, hundreds of students studied in three shifts, combining theoretical studies with practical work. He completed his tenure in 1902 and was replaced by Yosef Lupo. The latter’s eleven-year administration was considered Mikve Israel’s most difficult period in terms of administration, with a decrease in student registration and financial losses.
In 1914, Eliahu Krause was appointed Principal of Mikve Israel by the Baron Rothschild (the well known philanthropist). He was an exceptional student and graduate of Mikve Israel, and for his academic achievements he was sent to an institute of higher education in Paris. In the same yea, World War One broke out. Under the directive of Kol Israel Haverim, Krause was forced to scatter his students during the war years. By the end of the war in 1918, the school was left without students. With assistance from the Baron Rothschild, Krause reopened Mikve Israel for the country’s war orphans, and so – over a two-year period, the school filled up with orphans from the cities and the villages.
Jews in Israel – Speak Hebrew !
In those times Eliahu Krause led a vital new initiative in the school: Hebrew replaced French as the school’s teaching language. This innovative move received the approval of Kol Israel Haverim, to the satisfaction of Krause and proponents of the Hebrew language in Israel. It is important to note, that the decision to teach in Hebrew (instead of French) was made against the background of the Zionist awakening and the idea of revitalizing the Hebrew language in the country. Nonetheless, the decision was not easy to implement: In those years the teachers who taught in the country knew practically no Hebrew and were not capable of teaching in Hebrew.
After the war, Mikve Israel served as a training base for many pioneers who went on to establish kibbutzim and moshavim. Among them were the founders of Beit Alpha, Ramat Yochanan, Ein Harod, Givat and more.
The crowning jewel of settlement by students who were trained and organized at Mikve Israel at the beginning of the 1930s was a group of French Jews who established Kfar Netter in the Sharon region.
Mikve Israel – Settling and Fighting
In 1926, Mikvah Israel’s “Hagana” branch was founded. Since its establishment, all the students and teachers joined it under Krause’s leadership. Everyone received covert military training and exercises, and Mikve Israel also served as a training base for outside volunteers.
Henrietta Szold, the head of the Aliyat HaNoar enterprise, turned to Krause to recruit groups of religious youth. Her conditions were: observance of the Shabbat, ritual prayer and dietary laws. Krause agreed and opened the religious branch of Mikve Israel. Afterwards seven youth groups from Europe were absorbed, successfully integrating with agricultural studies, settlement and defense activities.
After the war, when the catastrophic results of the Holocaust became known, Mikve Israel absorbed youth who survived the Holocaust and came out of the displaced persons camps. After a period of acclimatization, the survivors blended in with the activities with the other youth. Mikve Israel took part in the struggle against the British, who were limiting Jewish immigration and settlement. Mikve formed a group of religious settlers who founded Biriyeh while obstinately resisting British forces, and set up eleven strongholds in the Negev that helped youth group members establish Kfar Darom.
Mikve served as a base for the organization and deployment of Hagana and Palmach forces in both the struggle against British rule and the War of Independence. In David Leibowitz’s welding workshop there was a production and repair plant for the Hagana. Leibowitz designed and produced the Davidka, a mortar weapon used by the Hagana and Israel Defense Forces in the War of Independence.
Mikve students participated in Israel’s War of Independence and many of them fell in battle, such as 12 of the religious students who were killed defending the Etzion Block.
David Ben Gurion, who would later become the first Prime Minister of Israel, valued the great importance of Mikve Israel as a pioneering institution, the first of its kind to realize the Zionist ideal and the development of Hebrew settlement in Israel. “It is uncertain that Israel would have come into being without Mikve Israel,” Ben Gurion said, adding: “Everything started since (Mikve Israel) – we only came along to finish the job from a political and national perspective.
Mikve Israel – Since the Establishment of the State of Israel
On 20.9.49 Israel signed an agreement with Kol Israel Haverim to continue establishing Mikve Israel as an independent institution, with its ruling equally divided between representatives of Mikve Israel and representatives of the State. The agreement also certified the State’s participation in the institution’s expenses. In 1956, an agreement was signed between Kol Israel Haverim and the Israeli Government on the establishment of a management company for Mikve Israel. Ever since, Mikve Israel has functioned as a government company with its share capital equally divided between Kol Israel Haverim and the State. In 1976, the Israeli Knesset passed the Mikve Israel Agricultural School Law according to which it will “increase its activity as an agricultural school to advance its aims” and “not to change the land assignment.”
Today, the school contains 1,500 students, and it is defined as a school for “the study of natural sciences, the environment and biotechnology, and their dependence on agriculture.” The institution contains a six-year, secular agricultural high school (“the general section”) and religious agricultural high school (“the religious section”) along with a six-year French-Israeli school that was established in 2007 in cooperation between the governments of France and Israel.