On February 28, 1945, the British rulers of Palestine destroyed the Galilee outpost of Biriya. It was their first and only attempt to wipe a Jewish settlement off the map and ultimately it was to fail. That’s because Biriya not only rose again, but its modern-day battle for survival became a symbol of the Jews’ determination to settle the land of their forefathers no matter what the cost.
Established in January of 1945 on land owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Biriya was a link in a chain of pre-State Galilee settlements. Its colonists, aged 16 to 25, belonged to the religious branch of the Palmach — the striking arm of the underground Jewish defense forces.
Besides patrolling the area, guarding nearby Safed, clearing the soil and planting trees, the group built a stone fort that consisted of living quarters, a strong wall, sanitary facilities, a kitchen and a watchtower.
Just over a year later, during a search for Jewish-held weapons near Biriya, the British discovered two secret hiding places called “sliks.” Biriya’s settlers were forcibly evicted, arrested, and sentenced to prison for illegal possession (Jews were not permitted to carry arms during the British Mandate). Biriya was razed to the ground.
Appalled at what the British had done, and afraid of the precedent it would set, the Jews of Palestine took immediate action. On March 14th, people flocking to a memorial ceremony at the northern settlement of Tel Hai were rerouted to the site of Biriya’s devastated fortress. There, in heavy rain and pounding hail, nearly 3,000 people set up a tent encampment outside the ruins.
After the Jews raised a flag over the renewed settlement and most of them left for home, the British fired on the camp from armored cars and tanks. Those 150 people who remained at Biriya lay on the ground with their arms entwined. Each time someone was dragged away he or she would run back to a new spot. Yet, in the end, they were hauled off the mountaintop and arrested.
Jewish reaction was swift. Reinforcements appeared and erected new tents; a flag was raised over the third Biriya outpost. Hundreds of Jews streamed towards Biriya, spreading a rumor that there were 10,000 more people on the way to defend the site. In the end, the British permitted 20 young people to remain, pioneer-soldiers who played an important part in the War of Independence but who left after an outpost was no longer needed; the soil inhospitable to farmers.
In the early 1950’s, the JNF hired unemployed settlers to plant trees in the area, using new forestry techniques that made it possible to utilize the barren soil. As a bonus, the resulting 20,000-dunam forest with its five million pine trees provided physical evidence that the Jews owned the land.
During the fairy-tale winter of 1992, when Israel was blessed with rain, thousands of trees collapsed under the weight of heavy snow. They were replaced by a variety of trees endemic to the land of Israel — such as hawthorn, cedar, olive, oak, and the Mediterranean rosebud.
Disaster hit the forest again, during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Biriya Forest, like others in the Galilee, were devastated by Hezbollah rockets. Fortunately, the JNF was quick to replant and rehabilitate and, once again, the forest is filled with lush green trees.
Located on a mountaintop in what became northern Israel’s largest forest, Biriya Fortress has been reconstructed by the JNF and the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites. From there, it is only a short drive to Mount Yavnit, the highest peak in Biriya forest. At 910 meters above sea level it offers one of the most glorious panoramas in the Galilee: a view of Mount Meron, the edge of Lebanon, the Hermon Mountains, and the entire ridge of the Naphtali Heights.
Mount Yavnit is also the traditional burial site of three Jewish sages. Following the fall of the Second Temple in 70, and especially after a second Jewish-Roman revolt in 135, the Galilee replaced Jerusalem as the country’s spiritual center. Over the centuries, some of Judaism’s wisest rabbis and biblical interpreters made their homes in this region.
A short path leads to the elaborate edifice marking the traditional grave of famous Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah. It is said of this third century rabbi that he once visited a Galilee village and found the educational system sadly deficient. He then asked the town elders to bring him the Guardians of the City.
Indicating the finest of their soldiers, the elders proudly declared, “Here are the guards, as you asked.”
“No,” responded the rabbi. “It is not the soldiers but the teachers who are the guardians of the city. You have to invest more money in education!”
Two other sages are buried in a cave beneath his tomb: Rabbi Abbaye and Rabbi Rava. Their vehement debates during the third and fourth centuries contributed immensely to the development of the Talmud (a vast collection of Jewish laws).
A scenic route that runs through the forest features some marvelous attractions. From an overlook named for the first JNF coordinator, Tuvia Ashbel, you have an uninterrupted view of several hundred stunning Atlantic cedars. Further on, you can stop at an enchanting spring called Yavnit. It lies near a grove of silver poplar trees planted during a period of Arab settlement in the eighth century, and is used in making rafters for rooftops.
A second spring along the route, Ein Naboriya, fed a Jewish village dating way back to the First Temple period (10-6 century B.C.E.). The area has been cleaned, restored and replanted with the kind of agriculture common during those far-off days: fig and pomegranate trees, Mediterranean rosebud (the Judas tree) mulberry, and spiny hawthorn.
Naboriya’s ancient synagogue, not far from the spring, has been partially reconstructed and makes for a very strange forest sight! Built 65 years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., it is one of the oldest synagogues in the Galilee. Pillars and capitals, walls and the lintel were discovered at the site, along with a rare inscription announcing the date of its third expansion.
Also in the forest: a 1,200-year-old restored kiln, where plaster was fired. Produced from local stone, plaster was a mainstay used to insulate cistern walls and also used in construction. It was also utilized for refrigeration, as food covered with plaster can be preserved for a very long period.
Pistachio, walnut, and stony pine trees line this delightful route, which ends with a charmingly restored spring that fills several sparkling clear pools. In the stillness it is possible to hear honeybees drinking from the spring’s pure waters.
Green, leafy watercress waves in the wind by the spring. Watercress is popular with Yemenite and Kurdish cooks because of its sharp radish-like taste and, I am told, is a great favorite with the British. It apparently became popular between the two World Wars, when the Brits began eating local products and invented the watercress sandwich.
One other site in the forest, just off the scenic route, is worth a special trip — especially if you are single and looking for a mate! It is the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan Ben-Uziel, a brilliant early sage who died without ever taking a wife. Once in Heaven, the Lord asked the rabbi what favors He could bestow.
“What I want most,” declared the rabbi, “is to help others achieve what I missed in my own life.” Since then, not only have people visited his grave to plead for assistance in finding a lifelong companion, but also “forget” their prayer books here after sticking information about themselves and a phone number inside!
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.