With All Due Respect for the 'Blue Box'

The distinction between voluntary purchases from Arab owners during the period of the Mandate and 'the redemption of lands' from the hands of the Israeli government was blurred, and the lands of the uprooted Arabs became the lands of the Jewish people.

In his article "Mazuz versus Herzl" (Haaretz, May 25), Israel Harel reminds us that we grew up on the ethos of the Jewish National Fund's "blue box" for donations, whereby thanks to our small coins, the JNF's lands were redeemed. He writes: "The JNF owns 2.5 million dunam (625,000 acres) in Israel. They were bought - I must tell you today, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and the justices of the Supreme Court in its capacity as the High Court of Justice - 'dunam by dunam, clod by clod,' so they would become the 'Jewish people's eternal property,' in accordance with the principle established by modern Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901."

Harel is entitled to object to Mazuz's decision, and even to warn the Supreme Court justices not to dare to apply the principle of nondiscrimination between Jews and Arabs in allocating lands. But there is no doubt that he would not want his arguments to be based on incorrect facts and an untruthful rewriting of history, thereby opening a Pandora's box.

For Israel Harel's information: Of the more than 2.5 million dunams owned by the JNF, two million dunams were not purchased with the small coins put into the blue boxes, but were rather lands abandoned by Arabs that David Ben-Gurion, in a typical maneuver, "sold" to the JNF in 1949-1950. The first deal was clinched on January 27, 1949. It included the sale of a million dunams of abandoned land in various areas in return for about 18 million Israeli pounds.

This was an improper and also an illegal decision. The Israeli government sold the JNF lands that it did not own, but which had rather been captured in the war (and even the laws that it had enacted by then did not grant the state ownership of these lands). Ben-Gurion thereby achieved three aims. First of all, he transferred responsibility for the abandoned lands, on which new settlements were planned, from the Mapam party, which held the agriculture portfolio, to the JNF, which was under the influence of his own party, Mapai. Secondly, he could claim to have clean hands with respect to the continued confiscation of lands. And thirdly, he established a political fact that barred the way to the refugees' return.

A week before the decision on the sale of the million dunams, the United Nations General Assembly had passed Resolution 194, under which the refugees were to be permitted to return to their homes, and if they chose not to return, they would receive compensation. Ben-Gurion did not want Israel's sovereignty to be sullied by matters that stank of illegality, deviation from international norms and immorality.

The heads of the JNF knew very well that the sale was illegal, but it was important to them to establish that the JNF would continue serving as the institution that held the Jewish people's lands and developed them for purposes of settlement. They insisted that the government commit itself to "making (in the future) all the legal arrangements so that the lands will be registered under the JNF's full ownership under the laws of the State of Israel."

In October 1950, the government sold another million dunams to the JNF, and in this fashion, about 40 percent of the abandoned lands were transferred to its possession. Thus the JNF's land holdings, which on the eve of the state's establishment had amounted to about 900,000 dunams (out of about 1.8 million under Jewish ownership), more than tripled.

The distinction between voluntary purchases from Arab owners during the period of the Mandate and "the redemption of lands" from the hands of the Israeli government was blurred, and the lands of the uprooted Arabs became the lands of the Jewish people, covered by the JNF leasing laws, which prohibit leasing them to non-Jews. In this way, a principle was established that discriminates between Jewish citizens of Israel and Arab citizens, from whose uprooted fellow-Arabs the land was confiscated (or "purchased") and for which the original owners received no compensation at all.

Eventually, the Israel Lands Administration was established to manage the state's lands and those "of the Jewish people." The JNF, an anachronistic body that was left in place only because David Ben-Gurion did not want to deal with shady matters, is represented in this institution. Its considerable weight in the ILA enables it to dictate decisions concerning lands to the state, and in this way affords an excuse for an entire system of discrimination against the state's non-Jewish citizens. Menachem Mazuz's courageous decision is meant to atone for this original sin, and Israel Harel would do well to take care not to exploit myths that are precious to many of us for his own ideological purposes.