From its inception, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) - called Keren Kayemet L'Israel in Hebrew - was charged with the task of fundraising in Jewish communities for the purpose of purchasing land in Eretz Yisrael to create a homeland for the Jewish people. JNF's signature Blue Boxes, which were used to collect the necessary funds, are now known worldwide as a symbol of Zionism. JNF's work is evident in every facet of life in Israel, from beautiful forests to vital reservoirs to the innovative farming techniques being used on kibbutzim throughout the nation. While JNF has been instrumental in realizing the Zionist dream, the challenge of developing and protecting the land grows everyday. Today, the organization has made security a priority, announcing in 2001 a $10 million initiative to build security bypass roads along Israel's northern border with Lebanon.
JNF's work can be divided into three phases. During its first 50 years, JNF was charged with the task of purchasing the land. Over the next 50 years, JNF directed its efforts to developing the land, planting over 220 million trees, building infrastructure for housing, parks and recreation areas, and helping to settle immigrants from across the globe. In the upcoming years, JNF will continue to develop the land but focus its attention on preserving the environment, conserving scarce natural resources, and continuing to find ways to alleviate Israel's chronic water shortage.
In the Beginning…
It was the fourth day of the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1901. The delegates had spent the day debating a proposal for the establishment of a national fund to purchase land in Palestine, as had been suggested at the first Congress four years earlier by mathematics professor Zvi Hermann Schapira. At the time, the proposal had been received enthusiastically, though its implementation had been deferred.
Although Schapira had died in the summer of 1898, the idea of a fund had won a large following, and members of the new Zionist movement spoke passionately of it at every Zionist gathering. Yet three congresses had passed without any practical decision being taken.
At times it seemed that the dream of a Jewish state was destined to remain just that-only a dream. But Theodor Herzl was unwavering-it was time to take action, and he was determined that before the Congress came to an end, a national fund would be established. And the dream of a Jewish state — a return to the Homeland — would be one step closer to becoming a reality.
The delegates continued to debate the merit of a national fund, eventually voting to table the motion. Theodor Herzl, who had not been present at the vote, hurried to the congress hall, and delivered a passionate plea for the fund's immediate establishment, declaring, "After striving for so many years to set up the fund, we do not want to disperse again without having done anything." His speech turned the delegates around, and when Herzl called for a revote, the delegates were firmly on his side. The congress resolved that "the fund shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole," and announced its first undertaking: the collection of £200,000. One of the delegates immediately pledged the first donation: £10 in memory of the man who had conceived and fought so hard for the fund but had not lived to see his dream realized, Professor Zvi Hermann Schapira. Herzl made the second donation and his aide, the third. And with this, the dream of a national fund became a reality.
Over the next 50 years, Jewish National Fund, as it came to be known, would purchase land throughout Palestine, land that would one day become the State of Israel. Jews from around the world collected spare change in tin "Blue Boxes" so that one day a return to the Homeland would be possible. The Blue Box itself came to be seen as a symbol of Zionism, and it was distributed in Jewish communities everywhere.
The very act of collecting funds in a Blue Box strengthened the bond that the Jewish community felt with their homeland and its people. It was an expression of the irrevocable ties between Diaspora Jewry and Eretz Yisrael, as well as a way to tie disparate communities together as one people. Alone, Jews could not attain their dream of a return to the Homeland, but together, through Jewish National Fund, they could build a nation.
The Dream is Realized
In the spring of 1903, JNF acquired its first parcel of land: 800 acres in Hadera. From the start, the organization focused on greening the land through the planting of trees. JNF got involved in tree planting for many reasons, including as a way to fulfill the Biblical commandment. In order to solidify ownership of land purchased by JNF on behalf of the Jewish community, and in accordance with prevailing laws of the day, trees were planted whenever a new piece of land was purchased. In 1908, the first JNF trees were planted at Hulda: olive trees in memory of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism.
By the time Israel became a state in 1948, JNF owned 12.5 percent of all the land of Israel (on which 80 percent of Israel's population now lives). With this ownership came the responsibility of transforming the land into a beautiful and fertile area that would be a suitable home for the new state.
As the country grew and new issues arose, JNF evolved to address Israel's most pressing needs. Over the years, the range of issues included afforestation and providing Israel with healthy green space; building infrastructure for essential new communities for Israel's growing population; building access roads to help disperse the population; providing employment for waves of new immigrants; and improving the quality of life for Israelis across the country.
Today, JNF is putting its century of experience to work with Blueprint Negev, supporting Israel’s newest generation of pioneers in developing, inhabiting and preserving the Negev Desert – Israel’s last frontier.
Blueprint Negev will lead to a 70% growth in the Negev’s population, close the economic and educational gaps that exist, reduce the unemployment rate, create quality of life for all residents, and build a stronger Israel. The plan, which includes a government investment of over $4 billion, non-profit investment of $600 million, and private investment of $2.5 billion, includes doubling the size of the city of Be’er Sheva; infrastructure; housing loans and incentives; education; employment opportunities; tourism; partnerships; bolstering existing towns; the military; building new communities; the Bedouin; the environment; and water.
The Negev Desert is 60% of Israel’s landmass but home to only 8% of its population. Its development is vital for Israel’s future and will drive dramatic change to the region, making a real difference to Israel and her residents.