By Elliott J. Steinberg
(Calgary) – In these difficult times, it’s important to internalize our history and know the truth. In that vein, I’ll share with you a story about the formation of the State of Israel that you may not know. I think the most interesting part of this story is how land was purchased. Who owned it before? How were the owners convinced to part with their land? The story’s characters and bold actions may surprise you.
As the most prolific purchaser and developer of land in pre-1948 Palestine, and today in Israel, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL) has a history that is an essential part of the rebuilding of our Jewish Homeland. Although JNF Canada is an independent Canadian charitable organization, we share this history with our friends at KKL in Israel.
In 1897, at the First Zionist Conference in Vienna, a proposal was put forth by delegate Zvi Schapira, to form a charitable organization to raise funds for purchasing land in Palestine as a first step toward rebuilding a Jewish Home. Of course, individuals like Baron de Rothschild and Moses Montefiore had already been doing so on their own dime for years. The difference was that this new entity called KKL would be the Jewish people’s official means of investing in Eretz Yisrael. It took a few years of bickering to decide to proceed (nu?) and Theodor Herzl expressed his frustration by stating, “Yours is the power to decide whether to postpone the establishment of the fund for another two years, or until the coming of the Messiah!” The resolution passed by only 105 to 82 votes.
KKL was off and running, with an initial donation by the fund’s first Chairperson Yonah Kremenetsky, and the second donation by Theodor Herzl. In 1904, Kremenetsky initiated the Blue Box to collect coins from Jews around the world. KKL began purchasing land, literally with pennies.
By 1905, KKL had purchased a few thousand dunams (a dunam is a little more than an acre) of land for agricultural settlements; educational facilities such as the now well known Betzalel School of Art and Design; and a number of high schools and training facilities. KKL also provided financing for most of the founders and first inhabitants of Tel Aviv in 1910, and funded construction of the Hadar HaCarmel neighbourhood in Haifa.
A key figure in this story is Yehoshua Hankin, who I like to call a Middle Eastern cowboy. He had without a doubt made the biggest impact on the Zionist endeavour.
Yehoshua described his process as “unravelling a tangle of registrations, hazy borders, ownership rights and inheritance quarrels; and patience, patience, patience.” Again and again, mounted on horseback, Hankin rode out to tents in the heart of the desert, to clay huts in the Valley, and to the mansions of rich effendis for protracted, laborious negotiations. He spent many hours negotiating Arab-style – drinking coffee by campfires at night and smoking water-pipes in tents by day, in order to restore more and more land to the Jews in the name of Zionism.
In one instance, Hankin returned to Jaffa to announce that he had purchased the Jezreel Valley from the Sursuks, a Syrian family living in Beirut, whose lands were worked by tenant farmers (who, without legal rights to the land, were evicted). Ironically, Hankin secured a bridge loan for the purchase from a Sursuk relative in Egypt. He rode on horseback through the Sinai desert to secure that loan.
KKL’s vision at the time had to be broad in order for Jewish development to succeed in every way. This included agricultural research, as the land purchased by The Fund was usually fallow, swampy, or inherently difficult for agriculture, such as in the Negev Desert. And of course from the beginning, KKL planted trees and developed water resources.
As the 1910s wore on, land was set aside for Technion University, and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. By this time, KKL owned only 4% of all Jewish-owned land, but that would change through stubborn determination, despite restrictions put in place by the new rulers of Palestine – the British. More on that later.
Interestingly, at the 1920 London Conference of Zionist Representatives, KKL established a new fund to focus on supporting an influx of immigrants, at that time mostly from Yemen. This new fund would be called Keren HaYesod, which is today the Israel arm of Jewish Federations around the world, independent of KKL.
The third and fourth decades of KKL proved to be the most challenging, between British restriction on Jewish immigration and land ownership, Arab riots, and even internal squabbles about how much money to spend purchasing land. In the end, the people on the ground in Israel like Yehoshua Hankin and Menachem Usshiskin ignored the KKL executive, and purchased as much land as they could. They considered it a criminal act not to. Usshiskin even travelled to Canada in 1927, raising enough funds to purchase the Hefer Valley. Years later, KKL-JNF executives would thank them for their stubbornness and insubordination.
Even though the British had enacted strict regulations about where Jews could buy land, KKL agents nonetheless secured land with funds and “facts on the ground” – typically a water tower and a stockade – as this was recognized by the British as true ownership that cemented (as it were) mere ownership on paper. On more than one occasion, hundreds of Jews would load up trucks with building materials, and overnight transform thousands of dunams of land with those “facts on the ground.” By 1935, KKL owned 41% (358,000 dunams) of all Jewish-owned land in Palestine, and had planted 1.7 million trees. The Peel Commission of 1937, and a later unnamed British initiative to divide the land prompted even greater efforts to secure land for the future.
By the fifth decade of KKL’s work, the focus shifted to developing the Negev, building new communities and infrastructure to support life in the desert. When the UN proposed the Partition Plan of 1947, the Jewish portions of the plan had been clearly delineated by 5 decades of frantic legal land purchases and development. Arguably, there has never in history been such a prolific effort to restore an indigenous people on its ancient homeland, through countless obstacles, culminating in Israel’s declaration of Independence in May 1948.
The tradition of diaspora Jews investing in Israel continues today.
Elliott Steinberg is Executive Director of JNF Calgary.