The Jewish National Fund was established in 1901 and was the principal tool for the Zionist colonization of Palestine. It was an agency with which the Zionist movement bought land and profited from transactions of the land purchased (1). It was inaugurated by the fifth Zionist Congress and remained throughout the Mandatory years, 1918-1948, the spearhead of the Zionisation of Palestine.
From the onset of its activities, it was destined to, and officially granted with the task of, becoming the custodian of the land in Palestine in the name of the Jewish people. It has not ceased to fulfil this role after the creation of the state of Israel, but with time other missions were added to this primordial task.
It is crucial to go back to its history and review it if one wishes to understand its present role. This is particularly important due to the image of the JNF today as a ‘green’ and ecological organization that safeguards Israel’s natural landscape from being ruined by all the usual suspects – greedy contractors, government greediness and public indifference.
In practice, its ‘enemies’ are Palestinian farmers and Bedouins who try to keep the little piece of the land they still have. Their remaining land is ostensibly needed as ‘nature reserves’, but in practice will be given to Jewish settlers. From 1901 to 2010 the JNF did not change its tactics, nor did it deviate from its role as the principal Judaizer of Israel/Palestine.
The JNF of Yosef Weitz
Let us then review its past activities. Most of the JNF’s activities during the mandatory period, and circa the Nakbah, were associated with one person, the head of the settlement section of the JNF and the quintessential Zionist colonialist, Yosef Weitz. In 1940 he declared that the only solution for the conflict in Palestine “will be the transfer of the Palestinians out of Palestine” (2).
His focus during that time was to facilitate the eviction of Palestinian tenants from land owned by absent landlords who sold it to the Jewish Agency and community. The purchase of land did not automatically end with the removal of tenants. Weitz personally, or with the help of his closest aides, would appear on the newly purchased land and encourage the new Jewish owners to throw out the tenants, even if there was no use for all the land bought.
One of his officials reported to him that unfortunately the tenants refused to leave and some Jewish owners were displaying cowardice and hesitation, allowing tenants to stay. This aide and others made sure that such weaknesses would not persist and ensured that evictions were comprehensive and effective.
Even after all the Zionist efforts to expand settlement on the land, the impact of such activities was limited because of Palestinian resistance and British restrictions; by the end of the Mandate, all in all, the Jewish community owned less than 7% of the land. Towards the end of the Mandatory period Weitz shifted his interest and energy to a new project: contemplating the takeover of land and property as part of an overall scheme to uproot the local population in a prospective final showdown between the Jewish community and the indigenous population in Palestine.
Weitz was pencilling every location and village for future use. It is reminiscent of the British colonial geographical effort to list every village in India under the dominion. In his Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said dealt with this obsession when analysing Kipling’s Kim. In the novel’s climactic last paragraphs Kim, the white boy in the heart of India, belongs to a continent that was surveyed by Colonel Creighton’s Indian Survey “in which every camp and village is duly noted”. Kipling, however, notes that the Lama’s encyclopaedia also includes such a survey, but the British need their own almanac. Said cynically commented that this obsession testifies to “the positivistic inventory of places and peoples within the scope of British dominion” (3).
Said highlights how controlling a space and detailing its features and location are part of a takeover that includes actual power and control. The extra edge of Zionist colonialism lies in the apparent difference between British colonialism – wishing to register for the sake of control – and the Zionist one, wishing to register for the sake of dispossession. This is the result of the admixture of nationalism and colonialism
that makes Zionism such a unique case of an invasive foreign body on an indigenous land.
Weitz stepped up his efforts when the British announced their intention to leave Palestine in February 1947 and when it became clear that the UN endeavours to solve the problem were to lead nowhere and produced a golden opportunity for the Zionist movement to take over as much of Palestine as it desired, Weitz demanded a systematic approach to the whole issue of expulsion and takeover. His most entrusted colleague in those days was another JNF official, Yosef Nachmani, a kind of kindred spirit, who shared his dismay in what they both saw as sloppy treatment of the issue by the Jewish leadership. Weitz wrote to Nachmani that the overall takeover of Arab land was a ‘sacred duty’. Nachmani concurred and added that a kind of Jihad (he used the term ‘milhemet Kibush’ – a war of occupation) was required, and yet the Jewish leadership failed to see its necessity. Nachmani, a kind of alter-ego for Weitz, wrote that the “current leadership is characterized by impotent and weak people” (4).
Weitz was also disappointed by the leadership’s inability to rise to the historical occasion. The leadership could not heed to these ambitious plans to commence takeover, mainly through purchase and sporadic takeover, for fear of the British reaction. Although the British were in the process of eviction ever since February 1947, they nonetheless rejected any actions on a large scale – from both sides of the conflict. In the eyes of the government in London, the massive sale of land to the Jews, or alternatively, the systematic takeover of land by force, had the potential of risking the pullout of the Mandatory troops and officials. Weitz doubted the seriousness of this decision had it been put to the test, but Ben-Gurion was willing to wait to the end of the Mandate, before launching more systematic operations of dispossession.
In January 1948 there was some consolation for Weitz when he was unofficially appointed as the head of operations to evict Palestinians by force and he felt elated when, on 10 Mar 1948, the Jewish leadership adopted Plan Dalet, a blueprint for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Officially, he remained the head of the land department within the JNF.The two appointments fused into one, once Plan Dalet was enacted. This master plan was a blueprint for the takeover of all the Palestinian villages and urban neighbourhoods that were within, what the Jewish leadership regarded, as future Israel. It amounted to 78% of Mandatory Palestine and included 600,000 Jews and 1,000,000 Palestinians in hundreds of villages and dozens of towns. Weitz was following closely every takeover in rural areas, either personally or through loyal officials such as Nachmani. While the army was responsible for the eviction of people and the demolition of houses, Weitz tried to pass the villages into JNF custody.
The pillaging JNF
After the end of the 1948 war, the JNF had to compete for the role of principal divider of the spoils of the loot. In the final analysis it was a success story, but it took time. All in all 3.5 million dunams were taken by Israel in rural Palestine: houses and fields of destroyed villages are included in this estimate from 1948. It took a long time until a clear centralized policy of how best to use this land was formulated. Ben-Gurion avoided a total takeover by private or public Jewish agencies, for as long as the UN discussed the fate of the refugees, first in Lausanne in 1949 and later on in futile committees that were established to deal with the issue of refugeehood. In the wake of the UN General Assembly’s resolution, on 11 Dec 1948, which called for the unconditional repatriation of the refugees, formal and legal takeovers were seen as
problematic in the eyes of the government.
So, first the lands were put under the authority of a governmental ‘Custodian of Absentee Property’, pending decision. But typical to what was regarded ‘pragmatism’ of the Ben-Gurion years, the Custodian was allowed to sell land on behalf of the government (namely each decision of his had to be backed by the government). So, a million dunams out of the 3.5 were sold directly to the JNF for a bargain price in
December 1948. Another quarter of a million were passed to the JNF in 1949. The limited budget of the JNF allowed other greedy agencies, such as the three kibbutzim movements, the moshavim movement and private real estate dealers to take a big share of the land as well. The army held on to a portion of land as training grounds and camps. In 2005 a survey in Haaretz estimated that half of the destroyed
villages became JNF territory (5).
The complex set-up was further complicated in 1960: the government and the JNF signed a charter for the creation of the Israeli Land Authority. It allocated all the forests to the JNF and all the land – most of which originally belonged to the destroyed villages – to the new ILA. The ILA became the owner of 93% of the land, out of which only 13% was directly owned by the JNF (whereas until 1960 it directly owned half of these lands). But in order to ensure that the ILA would not sell land to Palestinians, half of the members of the ILA directorship were JNF people, mandated to safeguard the land for the Jewish people for eternity. The JNF was even more powerful in this new arrangement: 13% of the land was geographically in areas that were needed for Palestinian villages and towns to develop. Before that could be done, Weitz used the JNF money to destroy evicted villages, flattening them, before deciding which area would become a Jewish settlement and which a forest (6). And so he reported to the government:
“We have begun the operation of cleansing, removing the debris and preparing the villages for cultivation and settlement. Some of these would become parks.” (7)
Visiting one of these villages Weitz boasted that the sight of tractors destroying villages did not move him. This takeover mission was from the onset described as something very different: it was depicted as an ecological assignment, for example, to keep the country green. Thus, a principal means of Judaizing former Palestinian villages was either through resettlement of Jews or through forestation.
Forestation was not the first choice. The whole selection was done through ad-hoc decisions rather than a strategy. First there were the cultivated lands that could be immediately harvested, as the land was fertile and thus accorded to new Jewish settlements. The JNF could not stand the competition with the greedy kibbutzim movements, especially the socialist one, Hashomer Hatzair. They cultivated the lands of the villages even before they were permitted to take it over, and then on the basis of a contracted cultivation demanded possession. As a rule, the feeling in the government was that, first, land had to be allocated to existing Jewish settlements, then for the building of new ones and only as a last priority for forestation.
In 1950, the Absentee Property Law was passed in the Knesset and so the Custodian had introduced more order, which ‘benefited’ the ‘ecologically minded’ members of the JNF who were promised a greater share for forestation. But the criterion was still land that could not be cultivated (8).
The ravaging of the land
The decision on what to plant was in the hands of the JNF, but also the Ministry of Agriculture had its own forestation section. The decision was to plant pine and cypress trees instead of the natural flora. In part this was an attempt to Europeanize the scenery, although this does not appear as a goal in any documented way, and partly, and this was overly stated, these trees were to be used by the wood industry in generations to come. With time, the special section in the Agriculture Ministry was abolished and the forests planted on lands confiscated from Palestinians in the 1960s were exclusively the production of the JNF (9).
The JNF was also involved in the establishment of new settlements; its officials were the ones who coordinated the naming operation. This mission was accomplished with the help of archaeologists and bible experts who volunteered to be members of a Naming Committee in order to Hebrewize the Palestinian geography. The committee was established in July 1949. Some of the Palestinian villages were probably built on the ruins of early and even ancient civilizations, including the Hebrew one. This was a limited phenomenon and apart from obvious cases such as Zipori (that became Saffuriya) and villages around Safad, it dated back to such hazy ancient times that there was no time to properly establish it – in any case the motive for Judaizing the evicted villages was ideological and not scholarly. The narrative
accompanying this expropriation was very simple: “Throughout the years of foreign occupation of Eretz Israel, the original Hebrew names were erased or garbled, and sometimes took on an alien form.” (10)
Indeed, the desire was to reproduce the ancient map of Israel that in essence was a systematic, political and military attempt to de-Arabize the terrain, the names, the geography and above all the history. The naming committee was in fact an old outfit already in place in 1920 when it acted as an ad hoc group of scholars that granted Hebrew names to lands and places purchased through sale, and continued to do it
for lands and places taken by force during the Nakbah. When it was officially convened by Ben-Gurion in July 1949 it was established as a sub-division within the JNF.
In the early 1960s, before the final division of land between the ILA and the JNF, the latter launched operation ‘Finally’ (Sof-Sof in Hebrew), which meant to dispossess Palestinians of further land in the Galilee that was still in the villagers’ hands. They were willing to buy land or exchange it with lesser land. But villagers refused in one of the heroic struggles for Summud that is not mentioned anywhere. Summud in Arabic is steadfastness and it became a term describing the Palestinian national struggle – the ability to remain on one’s own land despite the Israeli policies of dispossession. The struggle included, especially later on in the 1970s, a Palestinian initiative of planting olive trees in a challenge to the Israeli policy (of plantation) aiming to Europeanize Palestine (11).
But they relented when the JNF built special military posts on entrances to the ‘stubborn’ village, exerting psychological pressure on the villagers. It achieved its goal, but only in some cases. Arnon Sofer, a professor of Geography from Haifa University, commented on these actions:
“We were murderous, but it was not malice for the sake of malice. We acted out of a sense of being exposed to an existential threat. And there were objective reasons for this emotion. We were convinced that without Jewish territorial continuity – especially along the national water carrier (running from
the Lake of Galilee to the south) the Arabs would poison the water.”
The absence of any fences or guarding posts, at any given moment in time, raises doubts about the sincerity of this concern. The need for ‘territorial continuity’ on the other hand was the main excuse used in 1948 for massive operations of expulsions.
The latter task of forestation was achieved through the planting of European trees on the ruins and lands of the villages. Indeed keeping the country Jewish and green became one and the same. Overall, throughout the country, the forest includes 11% of the indigenous trees and only 10% of the forests are from before 1948 (12).
The most illustrative case is in the over-planting of pine trees instead of olive groves. In the new development town of Migdal Ha-Emek, the JNF was doing its best to cover the ruins of the village Malul on the eastern entrance to the place with rows of pine trees (not a proper forest but just a small wood). Such ‘lungs’ can be found in many of the development towns that cover destroyed villages (Tirat Hacarmel over Tira, Qiryat Shmoneh over Khalsa, and Ashkelon over Majdal). This particular breed
failed to adapt to the local soil and after recurring treatment the illness infected the trees once more. When I visited the place in 2004 with relatives of the original population some of the pine tree were literally split and broken forth. In the middle of these trees, olive trees popped out in defiance of the alien flora that was planted above them 56 years ago.
The JNF, as mentioned before, was busy confiscating land in the 1950s and the 1960s, but it did not end there. It owned land in the Greater Jerusalem area, which it received from the Custodian of absentee lands after the 1967 war. In the early 1980s, the land was passed by the JNF to Elad, the settlers’ NGO that is devoted to the Judaization of east Jerusalem. The NGO focused on Silwan and declared openly that its goal was to cleanse that village from its inhabitants. This operation has recently been extended to include other neighbourhoods such as Al-Sheikh Jarrah.
The 2010 JNF
So today the JNF directly owns 13% of the land, but has through its membership in the ILA controls over 93% of the land. Privatization initiatives by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon began to diminish this control – but not significantly, so far at least. The leaders of any Likkud government will always be torn between Zionism and capitalism and time will tell how much will remain in the hands of the JNF in the future. What will not change is the fact that beneath half of Israel’s forests lay the ruins of Palestinian villages.
What does this history tell us? First that the ‘green lungs’ of Israel have been created as part of the colonization of the country and the dispossession of the Palestinian people – and not out of care for ecology and nature. Yet this is not its image abroad, let alone in Israel itself. From this perspective the JNF is the organization that planted throughout the years forests, reconstructed local flora and paved the ways to scores of resorts and nature parks endowed with picnic facilities and children’s playgrounds.
But it is time to tell the truth about the green lungs that were created and are now kept preciously by the JNF. The lungs consist not only of picnic areas, playgrounds, parking lots and natural scenery, but also of visible items that tell a history – a ruined house, a fortress or an orchard.
These recreational sites are not so much commemorators of history as much as they are erasers of it. They are deniers of a local history; this is an intentional act of erasure not as part of a need to tell a different story in its own right, but in order to obscure the Palestinian villages that existed where now the green lungs prevail. Beneath the swings, the picnic tables and European forestry lay the houses of the
Palestinians who were cleansed in the 1948 Catastrophe by the Israeli army.
As long as this mechanism of denial and erasure continues, simple political agreements and military arrangements will not be enough as bricks in any significant edifice of reconciliation. Any book on the Jewish National Fund drives one clear message home: without acknowledgment of the crimes of the past and without unmaking the lies of the present there is very little hope for peace in Israel and Palestine.
Hopefully this book contributes further to this sacred mission for the benefit of Jews and Palestinians alike.
1. Yossi Katz, The “Business” of Settlement; Private Entrepreneurship in the Jewish
Settlement of Palestine, 1900-1914, Magnes Press: Hebrew University, Jerusalem,
2. Yosef Weitz, 20 Dec 1940, My Diary, Vol 2, p181 (manuscript in Central Zionist
3. Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books: London & New York, 1979, p172
4. Benny Morris, Tikkun Taut, Am Oved: Tel Aviv, 2000, p62, notes 12-15
5. Note: See Haaretz, 4 and 11 Feb 2005.
6. Yosef Weitz, 30 May 1948, My Diary, Vol 3, p294
7. David Ben-Gurion, 5 June 1948, War Diary, Vol 2, p487
8. Benny Morris, Tikkun Taut, Am Oved: Tel Aviv, 2000, pp236-8
9. Note: Dr Michal Oren was quoted in Haaretz, 4 Feb 2005.
10. Meron Benvensiti, Sacred Landscape: the Buried History of the Holy Land since
1948, California University Press: Berkeley, 2000, p25
11. Note: The Israeli Supreme Court began, and continues today, to deliberate over
litigation against the policy of plantation, submitted by the NGO Adam, Teva va Din
(Man, Nature and Justice) on 29 Aug 2001.