Why the JNF?

The Jewish National Fund was formed by the Zionist movement to secure a territorial base for a Jewish state in Palestine.  In the period of Ottoman and then of British rule over Palestine, land had to be purchased on the open market.  The funds for it came largely from wealthy Jewish people around the world but the JNF also directed its appeal at the Jewish masses, most of whom were poor and, until the spread of fascism in Europe, showed little interest in Zionism.  JNF propaganda promoting its fundraising became tools for disseminating the Zionist case.

The JNF’s Blue Box, a small collection box, distributed to Jewish households as well as to synagogues and schools became the most ubiquitous symbol of the Zionist project.  The monies collected in this way over the JNF’s first thirty-five years financed barely one-sixth of JNF’s land purchases in Palestine but it was a way of engaging Jews with the political aims of the Zionist movement.  A JNF booklet explained that the Blue Box “performs constant and perpetual propaganda work for the JNF wordlessly, and when the day comes to empty it, it provides an opening for the JNF representative to enter the house…”.   By 1920, there were JNF offices in around 50 countries of which about half were involved in organising the Blue Box collections.  The JNF also used magazines, posters, stamps, photographs, lantern shows and later films to convey images of Palestine as a desolate and neglected land to be redeemed by the labour of Jewish pioneers.  In 1927, the JNF’s head office in Jerusalem, declared:  “We must inundate the Jewish public with slogans and pictures, to rivet their attention, to create an atmosphere of unrest… leave no place where there is no illustrated poster with a clear and brief text”. 

JNF propaganda reflected two powerful ideological forces that shaped the Zionist movement: imperialism and ethnic nationalism.  Racism is intrinsic to both.  Prior to World War 2, the Zionist movement readily identified itself as a colonising project. For Herzl the establishment of a Jewish Palestine was part of the imperial civilising mission, to form a “rampart of Europe against Asia” and “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”.  The Labour wing of the Zionist movement, which combined socialist ideas with nationalism but in practice gave priority to nation building,  portrayed it’s colonising activities to win the support of the British Labour party and other social democratic parties.  It argued that the settler movement made up of Jewish workers, represented, a benign form of colonialism which did not seek to exploit Palestinian labour.  It wanted the Jewish settlers to build a separate economy.  But socialist rhetoric apart, this was not a novel experiment.  Several previous forms of settler colonialism had taken the form of seeking the removal of the indigenous people, through partial or wholesale genocide.  The images of Palestine propagated by JNF publicity material rarely made any reference to the indigenous inhabitants.  When it did, it was mainly to Bedouin herdsmen, to suggest that Palestinians had no ties to the land but merely passed through it.  Suppressing and trivialising the Palestinian presence,  prepared the ideological mindset that would lead to the Zionist militia’s expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and to Israel’s subsequent efforts to secure maximum land with a minimum number of  Palestinians.

JNF publicity also drew on ideological themes privileged by the ethnic nationalist movements that developed in the second half of the 19th century, from the internal tensions of the disintegrating multi-ethnic Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg empires.  These movements aspired to ethnically homogenous nation states.  They claimed a shared identity connected by descent (blood) to an ancient people and rooted in a sacred connection to the land that they demanded for their state. Zionist ideology replicated this model and JNF publicity duly portrayed Jewish settlers in Palestine, as a nation revived,  restoring the land through draining the swamps and greening the desert.  According to JNF propaganda, in the inter-war years, it was only in Palestine  that the Jewish child living in eastern Europe could escape “the bad air of the poor, cramped ghetto, and the poisonous air of the police around the ghetto”. 

JNF propaganda does not appear to have been hugely successful in persuading Jews to settle in Palestine. In the period 1927-29, more Jews left Palestine than came to settle and up to the Second World War many more Jews emigrated to the USA than to Palestine. It was only when Jews fleeing Nazi persecution found it increasingly difficult to gain access to the liberal democracies that more opted for Palestine.  The JNF did, however, popularise among Jewish communities and more widely, the racist myths that Palestine prior to Zionist settlement was barely populated and that its economy languished in medieval backwardness.     

After Israel’s establishment, by which time the colonial discourse was deemed outdated,  the JNF continued in the imperial habit of renaming sites to demonstrate the coloniser’s power to shape a country in its own image.  A notable example in this respect, is the JNF establishing the British Park with the support of its UK branch, which had the additional function of covering over the Palestinian villages destroyed by  Zionist forces during the Naqba to prevent their former owners from being able to return to their homes.

In recent times, the JNF has sought to rebrand itself in universalist terms. It proclaims itself to be a force for environmental improvement and to bring economic development even to the most impoverished rural communities.  However, the change in rhetoric has not altered the JNF strategic role, enshrined in its founding document, which is to transfer Palestinian land, in perpetuity, into the exclusive possession of and use by Israel’s Jewish population.  The JNF funded forest near the village of Umm al-Hiran vividly illustrates that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians has remained the organisation’s overarching objective. The forest has been devised to destroy the village and to deprive its Bedouin inhabitants of their livelihood by preventing them from pasturing their herds.  This is taking place in the context of the JNF implementing, in flagrant violation of international law, the Israeli state’s ethnic cleansing programme which is directed mainly at the three remaining Palestinian population concentrations: East Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Naqab.

Footnote: The quotations are from Yoram Bar-Gal, Propaganda and Zionist Education, the Jewish National Fund, 1927-1947 (2003)