Opinion |

Jewish National Fund, It's Time to Redeem the Land of Israel

Israel Harel
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West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley.
West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Israel Harel

At the Fifth Zionist Congress in December 1901, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund was established. In a historic speech in honor of its establishment, Theodor Herzl described its goal – to redeem land in the Land of Israel so that Jewish communities could be built there.

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These lands, he proclaimed, to the delegates’ applause, would be the “eternal property of the Jewish people.” And as if he foresaw the revisionism that would occur 120 years later, he added, “the Jewish people will not only be the founder of the Jewish National Fund but will always be its owner.”

Thanks to the pennies that the Jewish people contributed and the dedication and sense of mission of the first people entrusted with redeeming the land, hundreds of thousands of dunams were purchased, and hundreds of communities, urban neighborhoods, schools and more were built on them. The JNF blue box is what laid the physical foundation for Israel’s establishment.

In the early 1960s, the state signed a historic charter with KKL-JNF. Its essence was that the Israel Lands Administration would administer the organization’s land (some 2.5 million dunams) in accordance with the goals of the organization’s founders.

In other words, the land would be the property of the Jewish people and only Jews would be allowed to lease them, work them and build on them. Moreover, they would only be leased; they would never be sold.

In addition, KKL-JNF would continue redeeming land, which would ensure the Jewish people’s ability to continue settling the land. If you want, you can call it the Jewish equivalent of an Islamic waqf. Just as the Muslims have religious trusts that contain land and other non-movable property, so too would the Jews.

But as the years passed, something bad happened to KKL-JNF. Its early leaders, who were infused with a consciousness of their mission, were succeeded by unmotivated hacks.

The latter neglected the organization’s primary purpose. Forestation, setting up picnic sites, land preservation, developing water sources and so forth (all of which are important in their own right) became its main activities, while land purchases were negligible, and eventually evaporated entirely.

The hefty payments KKL-JNF received from the Israel Lands Administration (which later became the Israel Lands Authority) turned it into a fat, lazy organization. A significant portion of its money was spent on either insane salaries and benefits or public relations.

The Six-Day War of 1967 should have breathed new life into it. But its hacks, like those in the Labor Party who led the cabinet and Knesset, didn’t rise to the occasion; they missed the window of opportunity that had been opened to the Jewish people. Many Arabs would have been willing to sell their land; in the early days, they would even have done so openly. But the lazy KKL-JNF rested on its laurels, aside from marginal purchases by its subsidiary Himnuta.

Only more than 50 years after this historic missed opportunity has a window for change opened. The organization is now headed by Avraham Duvdevani, a man imbued with spirit (and yes, he’s a religious Zionist). And it has begun to resume its original purpose, albeit so far only with hesitant baby steps. Out of an annual budget of more than a billion shekels, 138 million shekels ($42 million) were earmarked for buying land. That’s a joke. And of that sum, embarrassingly, just 38 million shekels were earmarked for purchases in Judea and Samaria. It was this miserable sop that sparked the massive outcry that has made so many headlines this week.

In recent years, KKL-JNF has made headlines mainly for its corruption. Now, when it has finally been rescued from the leadership of the Labor bloc that, due to its errors and corruption, has gone into receivership, the ideological bloc that succeeded it must give the organization – and the state as well – a major shakeup. Rather than just 0.138 percent, KKL-JNF should earmark dozens of percent of its budget to buying and settling land in every part of the Land of Israel.

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