400-year-old Oak in She'ar Yeshuv Dies

When spring was at its height, Avigdor Rotem knew his hopes had been disappointed; as his enormous garden was thriving, he acknowledged for the first time that the giant oak in his yard in She'ar Yeshuv had died.

"It was a nerve-racking winter," he says of the preceding months. "It started last September, when the oak shed its leaves all at once. My wife and I were really worried. When spring arrived, we realized that it really was dead."

The Rotems' vast oak tree, of the Quercus ithaburensis variety, stood out prominently in the landscape. It became entrenched in Israelis' memories as one of the two sites where two helicopters crashed in February 1998, killing 73 soldiers on their way to South Lebanon.

Eli Ben-Shem, whose son, Lieutenant Kobi Ben-Shem, died by the oak tree, remained silent for a few moments after hearing of the tree's death. "Are you sure it can't be saved?" he asked at last.

Ben-Shem recalled that the chopper that crashed in the moshav split in two, with its tail falling right next to the oak tree. "My son and 16 of his friends were in that part. In the disaster's aftermath, that tree became a symbol. Hundreds of yahrzeit candles were placed there and people went on veritable pilgrimages to the tree."

The Rotems bought the property five years ago, and opened Pausa, a small hotel which is home to the Upper Galilee "convivium" of the Slow Food movement.

The ancient oak gradually lost its symbolic connection to the helicopter accident, and most people were drawn to the second crash site, on the outskirts of She'ar Yeshuv.

Instead, the tree became the center of life at Pausa. "The tree was our baby," Avigdor Rotem says. "People come here to meet other vacationers, and the main mingling place was beneath the oak. The tree created a sense of peace and quiet. A metal box was placed inside the trunk for notes, and it was called 'the wish box.'"

The Rotems sought help for the sick tree from two experts from the Jewish National Fund, Dr. Zion Madar and Michael Weinberger, who paid several visits and performed a battery of tests. But to no avail. A laconic letter conveyed the bad news to them a month ago: "On our visit of May 13, 2008, we unfortunately found that the tree did not recover this spring from sundry serious damage sustained in previous years, and it died."

One example of damage caused in the past was a rock garden built around the trunk, which drew off a lot of water and accelerated the rotting of the trunk base.

"As tree huggers and eco-tourists, news of the tree's death pains us more," Rotem says. "It's a feeling of total helplessness. But trees have a power all their own and they conduct symbiotic relations with man and nature. It's arrogance for us to think we can impact an oak tree that has lived here for 400 years. That power puts you in your place."