It all started with a dream.
Theodor Herzl, a Viennese Journalist, witnessed virulent anti-Semitism at the Dreyfus trial.
He knew it was time to take action, and was determined that before the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland came to an end, a national fund would be established to purchase land for a Jewish State in Ottoman-controlled Palestine.
The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) has become the most significant environmental organization in the Middle East. A founding member of the International Arid Lands Consortium, KKL-JNF has helped Israel become the global leader in soil conservation.
KKL-JNF is the agency responsible for funding new technologies that include projects such as:
- Growing crops in recycled water;
- Using vegetative growth to push back encroaching desert sands and
- Water management and harvesting methods that support Israel’s infrastructure.
In addition to these projects, the Jewish National Fund’s mammoth undertaking of community development is prompted by Israel’s demographic conundrum: 70% of Israelis live in the triangle between Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This takes a huge toll on the region’s environment and infrastructure. However, KKL-JNF’s proposed solution lies south of Israel in the Negev. The Negev extends over 12, 000 square miles from Beersheva to Eilat with 60% of Israel’s land but a mere fragment of its population. Thus, this unchartered territory is a gold mine for KKL-JNF to develop and sustain new growth. KKL-JNF will build roads, bridges and plumbing systems for 100,000 new homes in 25 communities, working to settle half a million Israelis in the Negev within a decade.
However, people still associate the Jewish National Fund with trees, and for good reason. Israel is the only country that entered this century with a net gain of trees. Planting over 250 million trees literally pushed back the desert, demonstrating man’s potential when partnered with nature and purpose. That has helped KKL-JNF make Zionism a living ideal for generation of Jews, infusing the Diaspora with a sense of history and connection to Eretz Israel.
In the spring of 1903 JNF-KKL purchased its first parcel of land: 50 acres in Hadera with funds given as a gift by the well-known philanthropist Issac (Yitzhak Leib) Goldberg. In 1904, JNF-KKL was called upon to carry out its first mission: financing the expenses of Jewish scientists, which was the start of JNF-KKL’s work in research and development.
By 1905, JNF-KKL’s land holdings had expanded to include land near the Sea of Galilee and at Ben Shemen in the center of the country.
JNF-KKL bought yet another area in the center of the county Hulda. The land was bought for a very special purpose: the planting of olive groves in memory of Herzl and with this JNF KKL embarked on a new venture: Afforestation.
In this first decade of its existence, land acquisition was not JNF-KKL’s only concern. JNF-KKL played a central role in establishing the first modern Jewish city Tel Aviv acquiring land for the first collective community (known today as kibbutzim) and first workers’ community.
JNF-KKL also set up and administered farms, continued its afforestation programs, which laid the foundation for JNF-KKL to become the leading environmental agency in the land of Israel; and was instrumental in founding secondary schools and pioneering higher education an impressive record of achievement in a country whose Jewish population at the time numbered 85, 000. It was also in this period that JNF-KKL set up an experimental agricultural station at Ben Shemen under the direction of Yitzhak Wilkansky, whose work in mixed farming or crop diversification remains the basis of most Israeli agriculture to this day.
The Dream Is Realized
- Yehoshua Hankin purchases the first KKL-JNF plots of land in the Jezreel Valley, and Merhavia rises.
- KKL-JNF establishes neighborhoods for Yemenite immigrants near rural townships.
- After World War I, land redemption resumes and tracts are purchased for Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim near Jerusalem.
- The cornerstone for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is laid on KKL-JNF land.
- Nehemia De Lieme is elected KKL-JNF Chairman and the head office moves to London.
- The Zionist Congress convening in London in 1920 proclaims KKL-JNF the executive arm of rural and urban development in Eretz Israel
- In 1927, KKL-JNF purchases totaled 50, 000 acres of land on which 50 communities stood.
- By 1935 KKL-JNF planted 1.7 million trees over a total area of 1,750 acres.
- At the end of 1935, after 15 years of tireless effort, JNF held 89, 500 acres of land on which todd 108 communities.
- By 1939 there was 450, 000 Jews in the country and 10% of whom lived on JNF-KKL land.
To the Negev
The Zionist Congress in August of 1939 convened under a shadow of dread for the future of European Jewry. In September, World War II broke out, the extermination of six million Jews across Europe began and the need for a Jewish homeland became ever more urgent.
KKL-JNF initiated Operation Tower & Stockade a strategic plan for global Jewry to purchase land in Israel against the threat of the British official prohibitions of establishing any new communities. KKL-JNF was successful in building 10 new cities on KKL-JNF land despite the British prohibitions.
Other successes of the KKL-JNF include:
- Yehoshua Hankin purchases large land tracts in the Jezreel Valley and Nahalal, the first moshav (cooperative village), is established.
- Hovevei Zion’s dynamic leader, Menahem Ussishkin, is appointed KKL-JNF Chairman and the head office moves permanently to Jerusalem.
- Sizable land tracts are purchased in Haifa Bay and in the Zebulon and Jezreel Valleys.
Planting of the Balfour and Mishmar HaEmek forests starts.
- The KKL-JNF Teachers Movement is launched and begins spreading the Zionist message in schools.
A Nation is Born
By the end of the war KKL-JNF’s land holdings had expanded tremendously, and the Zionist Executive decided to launch a large-scale settlements program throughout the Negev. KKL-JNF was called upon to help plan the operation of settling the lands it had bought over the past 5 years.
Throughout the three year years between the end of World War II and the proclamation of the Jewish State, KKL-JNF continued its remarkable activities: afforestation, land reclamation and assistance to communities. It was also responsible for all the communities of the Negev until the end of 1948.
The Declaration of Independence for the new State of Israel was voted on at KKL-JNF headquarters in Tel Aviv-KKL headquarters in Tel Aviv. In 1948 the Jewish population of the State of Israel numbered 650, 000, scattered over some 305 towns. Two hundred and thirty three of these towns stood on KKL-JNF land. Upon statehood, KKL-JNF worked on planting forests and reclaiming the land for agricultural purposes, providing employment for thousands of new immigrants
A Jubilee of Redemption
In 1951, KKL-JNF celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and the realization of its most revered dream a Jewish state.
With Israel’s War of Independence over, hundreds of immigrants began streaming into the newly established nation. The first arrivals were housed in makeshift towns and villages, and when those were full, tent cities were set up throughout the country. By 1951, Israel’s population had doubled.
After the war, KKL-JNF concerned itself with enterprises that were central to the building of the State:
- Settling new areas;
- Absorbing immigrants and providing them with employment;
- Reclamation of agricultural purposes and
- Afforestation and development projects.
In 1950′s, intensive afforestation began in the Upper Galilee and development continued in and around Jerusalem, where the Martyrs Forest was planted in 1951 in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
A Nation Grows
In 1960, Israel’s Knesset adopted a Basic Land Law based on JNF-KKL’s principle of national land, which stated that the land owned by the Jewish People and maintained by KKL-JNF couldn’t be sold, but only leased for periods of 49 years at a time.
In 1963, communities were established in the Galilee during Operation Sus (Hebrew for “at last”). The first community was established at the edge of northern Samaria, and a year later two communities were established in Wadi Ara. It was during Operation Sus that communities were established along the winding mountainous border with Lebanon.
In 1965, Joseph Weitz, KKL-JNF Director of Land and Forestry from 1932-1972, shifted his gaze to south in order to settle the frontiers along the Negev border. Although this is a very arid region, Weitz envisioned rolling back the desert with trees, creating a security zone for the people of Israel. The planting of The Yatir Forest was named after the remains of the Israelite biblical town Yatir, began in 1965. The forest was planted in a region whose low rainfall made it seem unsuitable for afforestation. However, the Yatir Forest, defied the odds and grew to be one of Israel’s largest and most beautiful forests.
A New Era Begins
The Six Day War of 1967 started a fresh page in the history of Israel. KKL-JNF helped develop the Rafiah region and the south-eastern border areas running down to the Arava that contributed to new settlement efforts from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, at Mitzpe Shalom, Ein Gedi, Neot Hakikar, Ein Yahav, Grophit, Yotvata and Eilat.
Dozens of moshavim in the Gaillee and the Judean Hills were also expanded for a second-generation of farmers. Land was prepared in record time for the Pit’hat Shalom (Peace Sailent) settlement bloc in the North-Western Negev, to relocate Sinai settlers following the Peace Treaty with Egypt.
As well, countrywide afforestation efforts accelerated the number of trees planted that reached by the early 1970′s over 100 million trees. As well, Jewish National Fund began to open its forests to the public. All the natural scenery and beauty that KKL-JNF created began to draw Israelis closer to nature. In response to the interests Israelis were taking to the trails, forests and communities built by KKL-JNF, Israeli citizens were demanding additional outdoor recreation areas to be built. KKL-JNF listened and large parks such as Goren Park in the Galilee and American Independence Park west of Jerusalem were established.
1980′s: Green The Land
KKL-JNF’s work accelerated on the green belt of forests and parks surrounding Jerusalem.
Beyond KKL-JNF afforestation activities, the KKL-JNF was heavily involved in:
- Building Israel’s tourism infrastructure;
- Alleviating Israel’s acute water shortage;
- Undertaking the extensive drainage works in the Jezreel Valley to help reduce their salinity and restore their agricultural fertility; and
- Helping with the absorption of newcomers from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
A New Crisis Arises
By the 1980′s KKL-JNF managed to plant trees as far as the Arava Valley. As a matter of fact 25 percent of all tree plantings during the 1980′s were carried out in the Negev, brining its forest area to a total of 45,000 acres.
Army camps that had been set up in the Negev after the evacuation of the Sinai were planted with KKL-JNF trees to create shelter from the burning sun, shield soldiers and equipment from dust storms, and provide some respite for those soldiers stationed in the harsh desert.
Towards the end of the 1980′s, KKL-JNF carried out a number of large-scale water conservations projects, building dams and reservoirs that assisted with Israel’s water crisis. These vital projects allowed KKL-JNF to capture rainwater run-off when the infrequent rains did fall, water which would have otherwise been lost to the sea in the Arava Valley, in the Beit She’arim Valley as well at Kedma near Kiryat Gat.
The 21st Century is the Green Century
KKL-JNF has not only been synonymous for the afforrestation of the Negev, but has also taken a lead role during the 1990′s in the Hula Valley Redevelopment Project, the largest environmental project in the Middle East. The project was undertaken in order to prevent the flow of pollutants to the Sea of Galilee, restore fertility of agricultural lands and expand regional economic opportunities.
The KKL-JNF entered the 21st Century being recognized as one of Israel’s top Green Organizations, with its priorities focussed on building ecologically sustainable environments, with parks and recreational areas fully accessible to all residents and visitors.
However, as Israel grapples with a different kind of threat the worst drought to hit the Middle East in 80 years on of JNF’s major roles in sustaining ecological sustainabilty is building reservoirs throughout the country. Over 200 reservoirs have already been constructed; adding over 66 billion gallons of recycled and flood water to the national water economy, or 10% of the total water supply. This water irrigates over 112, 000 acres of crops that would otherwise use up much of the fresh water available in Israel. By meeting 40% of Israel’s agricultural water needs, JNF is committed to raising $100 million through partnerships and private philanthropy to fund 40 additional reservoirs and new water treatment initiatives.
As a global environmental leader focusing on Israel, JNF is committed to the United Nations Millennium Developmental Goals of 2015 and its partnership with Israel’s neighbours, improving the quality of life for all who live in the Middle East.