The little blue box is no longer ubiquitous in Jewish households the way it once was. The symbolic pushke into which coins were collected in the homes of both the rich and the poor to help the Jewish National Fund redeem the land of Israel has been replaced by websites where you can pay to have trees planted in Israel and other conventional fundraisers. But the work of the JNF, which was founded in 1901 by Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl and his associates in order to start making their dream of a state for the Jews a reality, is ongoing as it continues the work of building—and preserving—the ancient Jewish homeland.
As is inevitable for an organization integral to the process by which the Jewish people have reconnected with their land, controversies pop up under the guise of support for the peace process. But the latest effort to undermine the JNF is particularly troubling, coming as it occurs during the first weeks of a new American administration whose attitude towards settlement, which has always been integral to JNF’s mission, is less than supportive.
JNF effectively operates as a kind of non-governmental organization or national trust, which is the custodian for approximately 15 percent of the territory of the country through the Israel Lands Authority. It began as the group that painstakingly and legally purchased property to be used for the Jewish settlements created at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, it still performs that task, though most of its work revolves around forest management, the development of vital water resources, building infrastructure, community development, education and crucial research projects. As such, it’s an institution that is both deeply connected to Jewish history and contemporary concerns related to the environment.
The latest controversy, first reported by Axios, hinges on JNF’s plan to authorize the use of funds to purchase land in the West Bank for development. Until now, the Jewish NAtional Fund-Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, which operates separately from the American affiliate JNF-USA, has not operated outside of the June 1967 lines, leaving development in those parts of Jerusalem occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 and the West Bank to the Jewish Agency for Israel, an institution that is separate but still connected to JNF via the World Zionist Organization. That’s a complicated arrangement that is inscrutable except to those fully versed in the arcane details of official bureaucracy. The split in responsibilities allowed the JNF to say it had no part in settlement-building, which soothed the sensibilities of some foreign donors, who are influenced by international opinion that has wrongly declared the Jewish presence in the territories as illegal.
But this weekend, the board of JNF-KKL is set to approve a plan to invest an as yet unspecified amount on purchasing land in “Area C” of the West Bank. “Area C” is the part of the territory under full Israeli control and where Jewish settlements exist. “Area A” and “Area B” are under the autonomous control of the Palestinian Authority.
The complaints about the plan began rolling in as soon as the story broke. Among others, the U.S. State Department weighed in by declaring that “it is critical to avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut the efforts to achieve a two-state solution. This includes annexation, settlement building, demolitions, incitement and payments for terrorists.”
This is a clear sign of the difference between the Trump and Biden administrations. Under Trump, the State Department stated clearly that the Jewish presence in the West Bank was legal under international law, contradicting the prejudicial claims to the contrary that have been accepted by the international community as well as previous administrations. Jewish rights to this land are not merely a matter of a biblical inheritance. The right of Jews to “close settlement” on this land was guaranteed by agreements dating back to the 1922 San Remo Conference and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine.
It’s also outrageous to lump building Jewish homes in as somehow morally equivalent to terrorism, and the hate speech and anti-Semitism that is daily broadcast, published and taught in schools by both the P.A. and its Hamas rivals that rule Gaza.
Had the Palestinians been interested in a two-state solution, they could have had one any one of the several times they’ve offered that option over the last 21 years. It’s still a theoretical possibility, but it will not involve the eviction of, as the Palestinians demand, up to 700,000 Jews living in Jerusalem or in communities on the West Bank. To the extent that the Biden foreign-policy team encourages that delusion, it is making that admittedly slim chance of peace even more remote than it already is.
Nor will JNF’s proposed activities expropriate Palestinians. Any work they do will be done within existing settlements or their immediate surroundings. As with so much of the misleading terminology that is used about this subject, opponents of Israel, as well as some who claim to be friends—like those currently in charge of the State Department—often speak of “settlement-building” when what they are really opposing is building homes in existing communities and parts of Jerusalem. There have been virtually no new settlements built in nearly 30 years. The Jerusalem neighborhoods the Palestinians would like to throw the Jews out of were built nearly 50 years ago. The West Bank settlements were all built in the 1970s, 1980s and early ’90s.
The JNF’s land purchases will also be purely voluntary. It isn’t stealing land now any more than it did so 100 years ago during the early days of its operations. The idea that Western liberals tolerate or even support the Palestinian belief that selling land to Jews is a death-penalty offense for Arabs is outrageous and rooted in prejudice.
Moreover, the emphasis on purchasing land will be in the Jordan Valley and the Gush Etzion bloc (which was Jewish before 1948) near Jerusalem, whose retention in any future deal with the Palestinians is a matter of even greater consensus among Israeli voters than the one that exists about no settlements being uprooted.
The decision to abandon the artificial distinction between land development inside the now obsolete “Green Line” and outside it may be a function of Israeli politics and the center-right consensus on security and settlement issues is being reflected in the actions of national institutions.
But what JNF will be doing under this new initiative will be no different from its other activities. It will be building, planting, preserving the environment and making the land that much of the world considers holy to be more sustainable. Instead of accusing the JNF of playing politics, it is those who would oppose its efforts that will be placing the effort to delegitimize the Jewish presence in the country over the responsibility to develop and preserve its resources.
Mainstream Jewish groups and all those who care about Israel should be supporting JNF’s ongoing efforts to develop the entire country, including the Negev and the Galilee. It’s vital that friends of Israel not succumb to the lie being promoted by JNF critics like the Union of Reform Judaism, that the JNF’s plans will harm peace or wrongly take land. To the contrary, what JNF will be doing is nothing more than the same job it has been doing for the last 120 years. It should stand its ground with the support of all those who understand that Jewish rights not be sacrificed on the altar of anti-Zionist hate.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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