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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND PRESENTS...Its First Century

by Mel Salberg, 100th Anniversary Chair

Jewish National Fund (JNF) is celebrating its 100th Anniversary as the caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners--Jewish people everywhere.

From its inception, JNF 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, recently announcing $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.

JNF's first century is full of accomplishments that have benefited the Jewish nation and provided a foundation for Israel's growth as their homeland. With the support of Jews from around the world, the organization is looking towards the next century...and beyond.

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
As the 1990s approached, JNF identified a new need for Israel - one that was already becoming an issue for Israel's population, its economy, its historically vital agriculture sector, and relations with its neighbors. In the early part of the decade, inconsistent rainfall, government bureaucracy and the influx of one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia had begun to strain the country's already limited natural water resources. Israel was suffering through the worst drought in recorded history-a drought that continues to this day. Working with the government and other water experts, JNF built its first water reservoirs and dams to help provide new resources to Israel's people.

Today, over a decade later, JNF is a major force in water resource development in Israel. JNF has built over 120 water projects that have increased Israel's water supply by over six percent. JNF also leads the River Rehabilitation Authority, a body charged with cleaning and restoring Israel's heavily polluted rivers and streams - returning them to the people of Israel. JNF has proposed a $250 million combined initiative with the government to build 100 additional reservoirs over the next five years. This would account for an additional 53 billion gallons of water for the people of Israel.

Since 1901, Jewish National Fund has planted over 220 million trees, built over 120 dams and reservoirs, developed over 250,000 acres of land, created more than 400 parks throughout Israel and educated students around the world about Israel and the environment. The work of JNF, its supporters and volunteers from around the world can be seen everywhere in Israel.

What does this mean for the average person? In Israel, it means that every Israeli benefits from the work of JNF. Whether it is a family picnicking in a forest, a disabled child enjoying a specially designed playground, or a farmer making use of recycled water for his flower crop, JNF is a vital part of daily life in Israel. In the United States, it means that every one of the JNF's contributors has been given the gift of a direct link to the land of Israel, whether by planting a tree in memory of a loved one, supporting the water campaign or sponsoring an educational program. For as JNF's mission statement declares, Jewish National Fund is the caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners - Jewish people everywhere.

Over the past century, JNF has built the foundation for the Jewish homeland--transforming the Zionist dream into reality. In the next 100 years, the organization will preserve that foundation and keep the dream alive.

 

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