When the JNF was formed 121 years ago it was the heyday of colonialism. Taking land from non-white people to put in the hands of European colonisers was widely considered to be part of the march of progress. And among liberals, settler colonialism was the most effective way of spreading the benefits of Western enlightenment. The ‘natural overflow of nationality,’ as J.A. Hobson called it, had as its corollary the removal and, in several cases, the extermination of the indigenous people who resisted such “progress”. Support for colonialism was by the early part of the 20th century adopted in socialist circles, too, including by the Labour Zionists, who developed a range of ideological currents through different syntheses of Jewish nationalism and socialist ideas. It was Labour Zionist propaganda abroad which propagated the Zionist movement’s acquisition of land through the JNF as laying the basis for co-operative forms of agriculture. In reality, the kibbutzim, were a way of forming exclusively Jewish settlements, which resulted in 150,000 Palestinian tenant farmers being pushed off the land over the four decades prior to the expulsions during the Naqba. In the urban sector, it was the Histadrut, the Zionist trade union federation, that played the role of stifling Palestinian economic activity, by barring the employment of Palestinian workers wherever it could.
Settlement is central to Zionist ideology and the JNF has been key to facilitating it. All the other elements that have formed Zionism into a political force: the backing of the imperial powers and capitalist investors, the racism and violence directed at the Palestinians, the ethnic nationalism and religious fanaticism and the apartheid system under Israeli rule, have their own momentum but they are ultimately governed by the overall objective of extending Jewish settlement in Palestine. Settler colonialism’s specific dynamic is to consolidate itself in the face of the indigenous people’s resistance, the elimination of which it seeks either by assimilation, expulsion, segregation, genocide or by combinations of all these. This reflects in Israel’s sense of permanent insecurity which fuels its constant incitement against the indigenous people. The fear of reverse colonisation has haunted colonial powers since the end of the 19th century and manifests itself in Israel’s obsessive militarisation.
At the end of 2021, Samuel Hayek, chairperson of JNF UK, echoed the Great Replacement argument that far right circles have been peddling for the past ten years but which has several earlier incarnations. It claims that white people face the threat of extinction by being overwhelmed by Muslim immigration. According to Hayek, this was making Britain unsafe “for Jews” though he could just as well have said “for whites,” it was unmistakeably the same argument. For the Board of Jewish Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students, Hayek’s statement was unacceptable. The wicked man was throwing away their dummy. Their support for the JNF had been carefully nurtured over the years on the pretence that the JNF’s purpose is to make Israel’s desert bloom through afforestation, nature reserves and other environmental projects. They were only too happy to ignore that the JNF largely controls Israel’s land allocation and owns much of the land the state claims – all seized from Palestinians. From its inception, in 1901, the JNF’s mission has been to transfer land from Palestinians to Jewish immigrants. There should be no confusion. As Mahmoud Mamdani points out: “Settlers are made by conquest, not just by immigration. Settlers are kept settlers by a form of state that makes a distinction – particularly juridical – between conquerors and conquered and isolate the conquered politically”. The JNF is integral to the Israeli state as an instrument of conquest, displacing Palestinians and replacing them with settlers. Little wonder that the head of its UK branch is an advocate of the Great Replacement. The JNF has been practising it in Palestine for 121 years.