The fight that erupted last week over KKL-JNF’s tree planting activities in the Negev offers an element of opportunity. After years of ignoring and being in denial about Israel’s loss of governance in the Negev region, the people of Israel will perhaps wake up to the fight raging over swaths of their homeland.
Government ministers are perpetuating the narrative that these problems were inherited from their predecessors. However, the moment violence erupted over the planting of trees, the State of Israel arrived at a critical junction, one which does not allow it to duck the issue.
This crossroads amounts to one fundamental question: Do Israel’s leaders still have the will to fight for the vision of an independent Jewish state, or will they abandon the generational dream of Jewish sovereignty in the land of our forefathers, in exchange for a few more days of peace and quiet?
Yosef Weitz, who was in charge of the Jewish National Fund’s Department of Land and Forestry and the first director of the Israel Land Authority, described without reservation the Zionist aspiration: “A fight for the salvation of the land, as simple as that—salvation from foreigners; a fight for the salvation of the land from the shackles of desolation, a fight for the conquest of the land through its settlement, and a fight to become rooted in the land.”
In recent decades, such talk has become increasingly taboo. New post-Zionist trends eroded everything self-evident about the Zionist enterprise. With the permeation of radical liberalism and human rights, the Zionist vision was forced under the radar. Meanwhile, the ideological basis for continuing JNF’s activities was also undermined. For example, in the words of professor Erez Tzfadia: “We must sever the connection between the institutions of the Jewish people—the Jewish Agency and KKL-JNF—from the civil state.” According to Tzfadia, these institutions were exploited by Zionist settlers to establish control over land.
Staying with this trend, KKL-JNF’s tree planting activities were already being panned as a colonialist endeavor more than a decade ago—”to prevent the settlement of Bedouins in the Negev” (Haaretz, Tzafrir Rinat, Dec. 8, 2008). While tree planting as a national act made Israel the only place in the world where the numbers of trees increased over the past 100 years, foreign influences in recent years have turned what was once a source of Israeli pride into a matter of controversy.
Those in control of academia and public perception were able to divert the State of Israel from the Zionist path. Using ostensibly scientific language, professors such as Alexander (Sandy) Kedar, Oren Yiftachel and Erez Tzfadia inculcated Israeli discourse with a post-Zionist worldview that reshaped Israeli public consciousness.
Their recommendation to “comprehensively stop the establishment of new communities for the Jewish population everywhere in the space,” for instance, was fully accepted by government planning bodies. Thus, what served for 100 years as the engine for Zionist momentum became increasingly blocked. The process they have spearheaded has eroded and faded an entire cultural experience, to the point that any practical expressions of said experience, which once embodied the Israeli spirit, are now not only impossible but gradually losing their meaning. An entire array of Zionist values has been drained from everyday life, disappearing from the agenda of things the State of Israel must do in practice.
According to this foreign system of ideas, the fight for the Negev is described as a conflict between the State of Israel and the Bedouin—the natives with a rightful claim to the land. In this place, the fight in the Negev is an opportunity for Zionist Israeli society to return to its roots of re-establishing the Zionist vision of redemption for the people and land. Let us revisit the vision of David Ben-Gurion, who stated: “Without the hope for Messianic redemption and the profound attachment to the ancient homeland, the State of Israel would never have been established” (“Like Stars and Dust: Essays from Israel’s Government Yearbook”).
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.