Why does the JNF still exist?

The forefathers of Zionism never hid their desire to use the Jewish National Fund to dispossess Palestinians. On its 120th anniversary, now is the time to abolish it.

Members of Kibbutz Amir working in the Papyrus thicket of the Hula Swamps, June 30, 1940. (Kluger Zoltan/GPO)
Members of Kibbutz Amir working in the Papyrus thicket of the Hula Swamps, June 30, 1940. (Kluger Zoltan/GPO)

Along with its iconic fundraising box, known as the “Blue Box,” one of the enduring symbols of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a 1930s children’s song by the Russian-born Jewish poet Yehoshua Friedman, titled “An Acre Here and an Acre There”:

Let me tell you this my girl,
And you as well dear lad,
How in the Land of Israel
We are redeeming the land:

Acre here and acre there,
Clod by earthen clod –
The nation’s land is thus reclaimed
Eternally from north to south.

… Wait, barren Zion
Wait a little while,
Redeemed you’ll be forever
By the National Fund.

The “redemption of the land” referenced in the poem is the Zionist expression for the common cause of purchasing land for the establishment of exclusively Jewish settlements — a project to which many contribute, each according to their means. The JNF characterizes its “fundraising project…[as being] founded entirely on the small donations of many small individuals, drop by tiny drop that turns into a sea, coin by precious coin accumulated into a joint force that enabled the redemption of the lands.” This propaganda effort once painted a picture of a barren land, a nation united in its intent, and the “redemption of land” as a legitimate economic transaction.

Reality, however, is more complex than a children’s song. In the early 1930s, Palestine was home to more than a million inhabitants, the large majority of whom were non-Jews. Among the Jewish residents, and even among the Zionist leadership, there was disagreement over the realization of Jewish nationhood, and particularly how to settle the Land of Israel.

This year, the JNF marks its 120th anniversary. In Jewish-Israeli society, the organization is mainly associated with tree planting and picnic benches on the one hand, and press reports about the organization’s now-suspended plan to increase its land purchases in the West Bank on the other. In light of this contemporary characterization, revisiting the JNF’s pre-state history provides a multilayered perspective on the organization and its mandate and helps answer the fundamental questions: what is the JNF and why does it still exist?

‘We have thrown poor people’: The JNF and pre-1948 dispossession[1]

“Abroad, we are used to believing that the Land of Israel is now almost completely barren, a desolate desert, where anyone who wishes to buy land can arrive and acquire as much as his heart desires,” wrote Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am in 1891. “But in truth, this is not so. In the entire country it is hard to find arable fields that are not already cultivated.” Purchasing land, Ahad Ha’am explained, was no simple matter, and required negotiating with local inhabitants who “see and understand…our actions and aspirations in the country, but keep silent and pretend to be ignorant, as at present, they do not consider our actions detrimental to their future.”

Ahad Ha’am further believed that so long as they did not sense danger, the local inhabitants would act to “exploit us as well, to draw benefit from the newcomers.” The peasants, he argued, “are happy to have a Hebrew colony established amongst them, as they are getting well paid for their work,” while the landlords “also welcome us, as we pay them generously for rocks and sandstone.”[2]

Lord Mountbatten plants a tree during a dedication ceremony of the Jewish National Fund's Edwina Mountbatten Forest, November 5, 1962. (Moshe Pridan)
Lord Mountbatten plants a tree during a dedication ceremony of the Jewish National Fund’s Edwina Mountbatten Forest, November 5, 1962. (Moshe Pridan)

Apparently, this was a terrific deal for all parties involved. What is not made clear here is that the property acquisitions by Zionists were inseparably intertwined with the promotion of ethnic cleansing and the creation of segregated spaces for Arabs and Jews. Under the Ottoman feudal system, the landowners (effendis) usually resided in big cities, sometimes outside Palestine, with the peasants (fellahin) cultivating and living near their fields. Title transfers would traditionally be negotiated between effendis, with the fellahin continuing to cultivate their land, even for several generations.

This was not so under the Zionist Judaization ideology of “land redemption.” The aspiration to acquire and reserve land exclusively for the Jewish nation created an unprecedented situation in which tenant farmers had to evacuate their homes once the land they worked on had been transferred, thus losing their source of livelihood. This was therefore no longer a neutral commercial transaction, but an aggressive act of removing the indigenous inhabitants from their land.

Descriptions written by early Zionist settlers make this patently clear. “The place allotted for our housing is located in the old Zichron [Yaakov], where Samareen used to be,” wrote JNF Agriculture Advisor Michal Puhachevsky in his diary. “The village of Samareen, we’re told, used to be populated by fellahin, ‘hareth’ [agricultural laborers], ‘tenant farmers’, and the entire land used to belong to some effendi. When he sold the land, the tenants had no choice but to leave the place and make a living stealing and robbing.”

Equally, this is how Zionist educator and activist Yitzhak Epstein describes the founding of Rosh Pina in the eastern Galilee:

Indeed, we shall not let them venture out empty-handed, but pay them handsomely for their ruins and gardens […] From the point of view of common justice and formal integrity we are absolutely righteous, and go beyond the letter of the law. However, if we do not wish to deliberately deceive ourselves, we can certainly admit that we have thrown poor people out of their derelict homes and taken away their livelihood. Whence will the castaway turn, with only a few coins to his name? To this day, the lament still rings in my ears, the weeping of the Arab women on the day their families left the village of Ja’uni, which is Rosh Pina, to go and settle in the Hauran, which lies beyond the Jordan River to the east. The men rode the donkeys and the women followed them, walking and weeping, and the entire valley reverberated with their moans. From time to time, they would stop and kiss the rocks and dust.[3]

It would thus be accurate to trace the roots of the Nakba not to the battles of 1948, but to a much earlier historical stage — the first land purchases by the JNF and other settler-colonial organizations, including the Jewish Colonization Association, the Palestine Office of the World Zionist Organization, the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, and others. This is not a matter of detached purism after the fact — the same criticism was raised by key Zionist figures in real time, such as author and activist Rabbi Binyamin. As part of a fictionalized correspondence published in a Hebrew-language journal in the 1920s, Binyamin imagined a letter from “Ahmad Effendi,” a young Arab teacher, in which he wrote:

[…] you have probably not noticed that indeed your design is to rob that which is most precious to us and loot that which we hold most dear. Yours are the aspirations of occupiers. Albeit occupation by money, title and law […] but it is occupation just the same.

Even more pointedly, the letter Binyamin wrote from “Ahmad” contained a direct reference to Zionist separatism:

You do not come to live among us, with us and next to us […]. Your intentions are known, you are intent on separation and segregation. At any moment […] you emphasize the difference and gap: here Hebrew, and there Arab.[4]

Among these numerous self-flagellating dispossessors are some of the major “land redeemers” who held senior posts in the Zionist hierarchy. Haim Margaliot Kalvarisky may not be one of the best-known names in Zionist historiography, but in his time as director of the Jewish Colonization Association he bought nearly 25,000 acres in Palestine and laid solid foundations for the Jewish colonies in the Galilee, while being described as “completely devoted to the idea of Jewish national awakening even before Theodor Herzl [considered the “father” of political Zionism] began his Zionist activism.”[5] This is how Kalvarisky described his activities in 1919:

Over the 25 years of my colonizing work, I have dispossessed many Arabs, removed them from their land, and you realize that this work — removing from their land people who were born on it, as were perhaps also their fathers — is not at all something to be trifled with, particularly as the dispossessor does not consider the dispossessed a herd of sheep but rather human beings with a heart and soul. I had to carry out the dispossessions because the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine] required this of me, but I always tried to perform this surgery easily and conveniently, so that it wouldn’t be so painful for the dispossessed… I would also try to make sure that they do not leave their land empty-handed and that the effendis — who were always the mediators between seller and buyer — do not rob them blind.[6]

This acknowledgement was typically coupled with a sense of impending danger; Ahad Ha’am warned, for example, that “[s]hould there come a time… whereupon a few or many of the common people are pushed out, then these people will not easily give up their place.”[7] “It is us who create the volcano, the lava,” R. Binyamin also cautioned: “We build and we create our weapons of destruction. We have awakened our haters.”[8]

From gradual dispossession to mass transfer

Those who defend Herzl’s vision argue that this state of affairs was unintentional, even if unfortunate, and claim that the Zionist leadership did not set out to deport and dispossess the local population. Yet contemporary sources show that despite some disagreements between proponents of “practical,” “spiritual,” and “utopian” forms of Zionism, the Zionist movement ultimately aimed to take over as much land as possible, with as few indigenous inhabitants as possible remaining on it. In his vision of Jewish autonomy, Herzl wrote:

When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly. Let the owners of immovable property believe that they are cheating us, selling us things for more than they are worth. But we are not going to sell them anything back.[9]

Population transfer by deceit and taking advantage of enormous economic gaps to dispossess the local population and push it out of the country — by establishing class-based and racial segregation — were characteristic of the work of “land redeemers” throughout the following decades, and continue to this day.[10] This is the exact plan that the Yishuv’s leaders had been promoting intensively since the second half of the 1930s. “It is no longer possible to settle Jews in Transjordan,” wrote David Ben-Gurion to British Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies William Ormsby-Gore in July 1936. “At the very least we should be allowed to buy land there, for the purpose of resettling Arabs from Palestine whose land we are buying.”[11] The British rejected this plan, but it is well known that the idea of “transfer” has never been fully abandoned by the Zionists, that it was almost totally realized in 1948, and that it remains alive and kicking today.[12]

IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas from their village during the 1967 Six Day War. (photo: www.palestineremembered.com)
IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas, from their village during the 1967 Six Day War. (photo: www.palestineremembered.com)

The 20th Zionist Congress took place in August 1937, a month after the British Peel Commission published its recommendation to partition Palestine into an Arab and Jewish state, including population transfers. During the proceedings, Ben-Gurion said:

We do not want to dispossess, [but] population transfers have already occurred up to now in the [Jezreel] Valley, in the coastal plain and elsewhere. You are well aware of the JNF’s activities in this regard. Now, the transfer would have to be on a completely different scale. In many parts of the country, Jewish settlement would only be enabled by the transfer of Arab fellahin.[13]

Ben-Gurion’s comments essentially acknowledged the JNF’s role as the executive arm of the Yishuv’s transfer project. It is therefore unsurprising that JNF Chair and President of the Zionist Executive Committee Menachem Ussishkin said in a June 1938 JNF management meeting: “If you ask me whether it is moral to remove 60,000 families from their places of residence and transfer them elsewhere, while of course providing them with the means for resettlement — I’ll tell you it’s moral.” At the same meeting, Arthur Ruppin of the Palestine Office and the Palestine Land Development company announced: “I don’t believe in the transfer of individuals. I believe in the transfer of entire villages.” In a similar vein, Director of the JNF’s Land Department Yosef Weitz wrote in his diary in December 1940:

Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country […] the only solution is the Land of Israel, at least the Western Land of Israel [Palestine], and without Arabs. There is no room for compromise here! The Zionist work so far, in terms of preparing and paving the way for the creation of the Hebrew State in the Land of Israel, has been good for its time, was able to satisfy itself with “land purchasing” — but this will not bring about the state. That must come about simultaneously in the manner of redemption, and here lies the secret of the Messianic concept. The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, transfer all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Old City of Jerusalem. Not one village, not one tribe must remain in place. And the transfer must be directed at Iraq, Syria and even Transjordan. For that goal, money will be found — even a lot of money. And only upon that transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brethren and a final solution will be found to the Jewish question. There is no other way.[14]

In total, 57 Palestinian communities were depopulated and destroyed during the pre-1948 era of “land redemption,” including Mlabes (1878, today Petah Tikva), Samareen (1882, Zichron Yaakov), Tel A-Shamam (1925, Kfar Yehoshua), and Dafna (1939, Kibbutz Dafna).

Preventing return

As opposed to the commonly-held view that generous donations of wealthy Jews allowed the JNF to acquire most of its land holdings prior to Israeli statehood, by the time the UN adopted the Partition Plan on November 29, 1947, only some seven percent of what would become the State of Israel after the war was owned by Jews, and only part of this land was taken over by the colonizing agencies of the Zionist movement, including the JNF. So where did the rest of the land come from?

Palestinian farmers and their Jewish neighbors in the Lake Hula area, northern Palestine, 1946. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO)
Palestinian farmers and their Jewish neighbors in the Lake Hula area, northern Palestine, 1946. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO)

The 1948 war saw over 600,000 acres of land taken by force from the country’s Palestinian inhabitants, 85 percent of whom became refugees in the war. This land was initially transferred to the Israeli Custodianship Council for Absentees’ Property — a body created to decide the fate of the refugees’ property, as defined by the Absentees’ Property Law, which applied the term “absentee” to every person who had left his or her place of residence in Palestine for any place inside or outside the country after the adoption of the Partition Plan in 1947.

Later, refugee lands were transferred over to the JNF according to a plan drawn up during the war. While the guns were still roaring, Ben-Gurion and Weitz discussed the need to “take care” of the depopulated lands and communities “not by the government but with its knowledge, by the National Institutions [the organizations established by the Zionist Movement to administer the colonization of Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel: the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund and the United Israel Appeal.][15]

At the end of the war, it was Weitz and other JNF senior officials who were eager to make sure the Palestinians would not return, who took over land, destroyed depopulated villages, and tried to promote the transfer of the remaining Palestinians — including, among other places, to Argentina.[16]

Why did it happen that way? One can assume that the state, upon its establishment, would take over at least some of the land previously owned by the JNF, and not vice versa. However, the land transfer to the JNF enabled the Israeli government, which wanted to remain within the boundaries of international law, to launder the refugees’ assets.[17] The transfer of land to the JNF prevented refugees and internally displaced persons from returning to their land or being compensated for it, by distancing the properties both from their original owners and from the fledgling mechanisms of law and order, which supposedly tied the hands of “the only democracy in the Middle East.” To this day, the JNF only leases and develops lands for Jews.

The national interest of ensuring Jewish superiority was subsequently complemented by economic considerations. The land reforms initiated in 2009 enabled the privatization of “public” lands, or in other words, cashing in on the Nakba. From the moment the feasibility of refugee return has been successfully minimized in a certain area, the land then is sold on the private market, removing it yet further from its original owners. The state then compensates the JNF for this “loss” through the transfer of new land in National Priority Areas, which is code for all the areas where Palestinians still live in close vicinity to Israeli Jews.

Raymond Burr and Don Galloway, the stars of American television series 'Ironside' which was hugely popular in Israel, plant a tree in Biria Forest, created by the JNF on the ruins of the villages Mughr al-Kheit, Ein A-Zeitun, Amuqa, Fir’im, and Qabaʿa, 1974. (Moshe Milner/GPO)
Raymond Burr and Don Galloway, the stars of American television series ‘Ironside’ which was hugely popular in Israel, plant a tree in Biria Forest, created by the JNF on the ruins of the villages Mughr al-Kheit, Ein A-Zeitun, Amuqa, Fir’im, and Qabaʿa, 1974. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

A feature, not a bug, of the regime

In 1905, Yitzhak Epstein, who lived in the Galilee and witnessed the expulsion of fellahin with his own eyes, delivered a famous speech at the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel, highlighting the Zionist project’s tendency to ignore the indigenous population:

Among the difficult questions related to the idea of the revival of our nation on its land, there is one that outweighs all others: that of our attitude towards the Arabs. This question, on whose proper solution depends our national hope, has not been forgotten but rather completely ignored by the Zionists, and in its true form is barely mentioned in the literature of our movement. The fact that it was possible to turn away from such a fundamental question, and that after thirty years of settlement work it needs to be addressed like a new inquiry — this unfortunate fact is highly emblematic of the irresponsibility prevalent in our movement and shows that we are still dabbling in the matter rather than delving into its core. One simple fact we have forgotten: that there lives in our Land of Promise an entire nation, that has clung to it for centuries and has never considered leaving it. It is about time that we uproot the misguided thought, now common among the Zionists, that in the Land of Israel there is land lying fallow due to the shortage of farmhands and the laziness of the inhabitants. There are no barren fields — on the contrary, every fellah does his best to extend his plot to the uncultivated lands around it, if that does not require excessive work. Thus, when we seek to lay claim to the land, should we thereupon not ask ourselves immediately: What will the fellahin whose fields we buy do? [18]

The fact that so many are still able to “turn away from such a fundamental question,” not just 30 but now over 120 years later is much more than “unfortunate.” It is tragic. So is the fact that so many in Jewish-Israeli society still associate the JNF with positive values, despite the organization being one of the pioneers of the organized dispossession of the Palestinian people, and despite its acting incessantly to erase any remnant of the lives that used to be here before 1948, as well as those cut short later.[19] All this by a supposedly private NGO, whose special status in the Israeli Land Council enables the state to act with blatant discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens, contrary to its own laws. And this is before we even get to the ecological damages and economic and political corruption associated with the JNF.

A JNF forest built on the remains of the depopulated Palestinian village of Lubya. (Courtesy of Umayma Diab)
A JNF forest built on the remains of the depopulated Palestinian village of Lubya. (Courtesy of Umayma Diab)

The JNF’s anniversary celebrations are hardly marred by news of the right-wing takeover of the power positions in The National Institutions, and the promotion of the decision to regulate the JNF’s operations in the West Bank to expand Jewish settlements there. “The acquisition of land in the Occupied Territories is an irremovable stain on the JNF’s glorious record,” wrote Peace Now on its website. “Apart for the fact that this is a shady and disreputable area, purchasing lands for Jewish settlements compromises the chances for peace and a two-state solution and threatens the future of Israel and of the Zionist vision.”

Revisiting the history of the JNF and its leaders shows that purchasing land in the West Bank, kicking families out of their homes in East Jerusalem, and sending bulldozers to trample farming equipment and houses in the Negev-Naqab are far from stains on a glorious record, nor are they an anomaly. They are fundamental features of the JNF’s mandate. As the organization marks its 120th anniversary, it is high time to stop colluding with its projects and propaganda and demand the Jewish National Fund be disbanded immediately.


[1] This section is largely based on learning materials developed in Zochrot’s Education Department. I thank the entire Zochrot team, and especially Noga Kadman, Adva Seltzer and Amaya Galili for their dedicated and methodical work.

[2] Ahad Ha’am (nom de plume of Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg), “Truth from the Land of Israel, Hamelitz 22 (1891).

[3] Yitzhak Epstein, “A Hidden Question”, Hashiloah 17 (1907).

[4] R. Binyamin, “A Bundle of Letters (about the Situation in the Country),” Hatkufa 16 (1922): 481-482.

[5] Yitzhak Zitrin, “Haim Margaliot Kalvarisky, the Land Redeemer and the Arab Question: An Anatomy of Jewish-Arab Relations, between Utopia and Reality,” Cathedra 162 (2017), 35-66.

1919, Central Zionist Archive, J1/8777. Quoted in Tom Segev, Yamei Kalaniot [published in English as One Palestine, Complete] (Keter, 1999), 98-99.

[6] Haim Margaliot Kalvarisky, 1919, Central Zionist Archive, J1/8777. Quoted in Tom Segev, Yamei Kalaniot [published in English as One Palestine, Complete] (Keter, 1999), 98-99.

[7] Ahad Ha’am, “Truth from the Land of Israel”.

[8] R. Binyamin, “A Bundle of Letters”, 481-482.

[9] Theodor Herzl, Complete Diaries, edited by Raphael Patai, translated by Harry Zohn 5 (New York: Herzl Press, 1960), 88-89, June 12, 1895

[10] As emphasized by Benny Morris, we need to recall that at that time, the poor represented more than 90 percent of the population of Palestine. Benny Morris, “Looking back: A personal assessment of the Zionist experience (Israel at 50),” Tikkun 13, no. 2 (1998): 40-49.

[11] Quoted in Jacques Kano, “The Land Problem in the National Conflict between Jews and Arabs, 1917-1990” (Sifriat HaPoalim, 1992), 47.

[12] Elhanan Oren, “From the Transfer Proposal, 1937-1938, to ‘A Transfer in Retrospect’, 1947-1948,” Iyunim Bitkumat Israel 7 (1997: 75-85; Yossi Katz, “Of Unbending Mind: Yosef Weitz and the Transfer Concept,” Iyunim Bitkumat Israel 8 (1998): 347-353; Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992).

[13] Benny Morris, Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 (Am Oved, 2003), 142.

[14] Yosef Weitz, “My Diaries and Letters for the Boys”, 2, (Masada, 1965), 181. Quoted in Katz, “Of Unbending Mind”, 348-349.

[15] Yosef Weitz, “My Diaries and Letters,” 3, 287; David Ben-Gurion, The War Diary, 2, 287, quoted by Oren, “From the Transfer Proposal,” 82.

[16] Gadi Elgazi, “Learning to Rob: In the Negev Lands, 1948,”, Haokets, November 7, 2013 (Hebrew); Katz, “Of Unbending Mind”, 8.

[17] Uzi Loya, “Behind the Term ‘Laundering Absentee Property’”, Haokets, August 14, 2020 (Hebrew).

[18] Yitzhak Epstein, “A Hidden Question”, Hashiloah 17 (1907).

[19] Tamar Berger, “What Are the Stones of Canada Park Silent About?”, Haokets, September 16, 2020 (Hebrew); Noga Kadman, Erased from Space and consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (Indiana University Press, 2015); Gadi Elgazi “From Gir Forest to Um Hiran: Comments on the Colonial Nature and Its Guardians”, Theory and Criticism 27 (2010): 232-253.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets and translated into English by Ami Asher. Read it here.