The Jewish National Fund: Growing Zionism
by Claudia Moscovici
The Holocaust underscored for the Jewish people the necessity—and, many would argue, the historic right–of having their own nation. Deprived of full citizenship rights in many European countries and entirely stripped of human rights once the Nazis came to power, the Jews became ostracized and persecuted throughout Europe. They were branded as outsiders and eventually stomped out like “vermin” by the Nazis, even in countries they had inhabited for centuries. In a prophetic statement issued in 1898, Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, warned in his groundbreaking book, Der Judenstaat, that the Jews would continue to be persecuted and treated as second class citizens unless they reestablish their own nation:
“The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilized countries—see for instance, France—so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level” (Der Judenstaat, cited by C.D. Smith, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2001, 4th ed., p. 53).
The author was only referring to the Dreyfus Affair here, a political scandal that erupted in France in 1894, when a Jewish French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of being a German spy. Though innocent, Dreyfus was exonerated only in 1906. Even Herzl, attuned as he was to anti-Semitism, could not have foreseen the extent of the human catastrophe of the Holocaust. But he did perceive the necessity of reestablishing a Jewish state for the Jewish people. In fact, Herzl’s book concludes with a hopeful message, that was eventually realized in 1948, but only after the Jews were nearly wiped off the face of the Earth:
“The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity” (The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Jewish State, by Theodor Herzl. gutenberg.org. 2 May 2008).
Realizing Herzl’s optimistic message, Israel has become a democratic leader in the world and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East. Though a sliver of a country, it is also a leader in innovation, rivaling that of Silicon Valley. Given its achievements, it is easy to forget that Israel has a population of a little over 9 million people, only one million more than New York City, and a large area of desert and semidesert climate (60 % in Southern Negev and Arava), with precipitation only 50 days out of the year. These geographic conditions make agriculture, access to water, and planting vegetation in general extremely challenging in Israel.
Despite these challenges—or rather, perhaps because of them–for well over a hundred years, the Jewish National Fund has combined the twin goals of planting and Zionism. Founded in 1901, the Jewish National Fund has repurchased and developed land for the Jewish people everywhere in the country that would become Israel. Its founder, Isaac Leib of Vilnius, purchased .20 km in 1903, a first parcel of land that became an olive grove. The JNF currently owns about 13 percent of land in Israel. Its mission is to grow green space even in areas, like Negev, which are inhospitable to plants and trees. The JNF has facilitated the planting of about 260 million trees (mostly pine and some olive trees), developed 1000 km of land, and created over 1000 parks in Israel. The organization is also committed to innovation, building 200 water reservoirs around Israel that provide 13% of water availability.
Russell Robinson, the CEO of the Jewish National Fund since 1997, has focused on the mission of developing solutions for Israel’s water crisis and on the sustainable development of the Negev and the Galilee. He has also been a leader in promoting Jewish education and pro-Jewish views around the world. As he stated in a recent interview with Fern Sidman in The Jewish Voice, “Jewish National Fund trains and supports pro-Israel college students from across America to promote Israel as a country striving to make the world a better place through the pro-Israel programing.” (https://thejewishvoice.com/2018/05/not-parents-jnf-anymore-russell-robinson-ceo-jewish-national-fund-tells-part-2/)
The Jewish National Fund also reaches out to non-Jewish students and teachers, running a 12 day trip for 80 students and 60 professors from U.S. campuses a year, who take this opportunity to travel and learn about Israel. Equally importantly, as Robinson signals in the same interview, the organization has undertaken a global mission of “teaching agricultural knowledge and skills to students from developing countries and building reservoirs for recycled water.” This is a mission that even Wonder Woman–the famous Israeli actress Gal Gadot–has gotten behind, as she expressed support for the Jewish National Fund’s way of growing Zionism, both in Israel and abroad.