What Has the Jewish National Fund Got to Do With Renovating the Ben Gurion Desert Home or With Investment in Education? KKL-JNF Explains

By: Yoav Doron

The Ben Gurion Desert Home has been undergoing an upgrade and renovation in recent years at considerable expense. Anyone coming there who has been there in the past is bound to notice the significant changes, as befitting the Desert Home of our first Prime Minister. Not all of them will be aware, however, that one of the major partners in this project is KKL-JNF - the Jewish National Fund.

What has KKL-JNF, which we all know primarily as the driver of the afforestation of the country and protection of the green spaces around us, got to do with renovating a humble wooden dwelling in Sde-Boker?
Noa Tal, Manager of the Planning Division in KKL-JNF, has the answer: “Ben Gurion’s legacy is our guiding light. He supported settlement in the country’s geographic periphery, he supported consolidating the realization that Israel is here to stay through physical means, through our everyday presence on the ground. This is what actually enabled us to establish the State, and Ben Gurion was at the forefront of all these. Hence the deep bond between his legacy, which lives on and is just as vibrant today. Not only did he establish the State, he also foresaw Israel’s forests. Ben Gurion understood very early on how important forests are going to be here - from many aspects, including environmental, which at the time was something very few people talked about.
There are many beautiful quotations from Ben Gurion about the importance of forests. He spoke about this many times. Ben Gurion is close to and dear to our policy in every step we take. The Desert Home itself is also emblematic of these values - work, humility, and of course the actual remote location in the periphery, investment in places that might seem counterintuitive - that is the core of our work. We try to have our deeds not be extravagant or eye-catching. This dovetails perfectly with the character of the site, which as far as we are concerned is a must-see for every Israeli citizen. After all, a person who knows not where he has come from will find it exceedingly difficult to know which way he is headed.

נועה טל, מנהלת אגף התכנון בקק"ל. צילום: לירון מולדובןNoa Tal, Manager of the Planning Division in KKL-JNF. Photograph: Liron Moldovan

What is KKL-JNF doing in the Negev?

“The very fact of it being the operative branch of the Zionist movement from the very early beginnings means that development of the country’s periphery, north and south, is at the heart of our work. For example, building water reservoirs to enable agriculture in the south, soil conservation along stream banks and soil conservation in general to facilitate the development of farming and for the enjoyment of the open spaces, preparing land for farming and settlement, all of course in full coordination with the Ministries of Housing and Agriculture. Together with the Ministry of Defense, we are building security roads in the south and for the settlements around the Gaza Strip there are special Board of Director decisions. Thus for example we have provided shelters in all the settlements around the Gaza Strip, our forest rangers are involved in putting out the fires in the open spaces - fires which sadly are getting more and more frequent in recent years. They function as firefighters day and night”.

Sounds as if you are involved in every field. Is this not an indication of a government failing?
“I don’t view this as a failing. All the work I have described is in fact modern-day land redemption. This is our mandate, it has always been. If land redemption once meant the acquisition of land, today it means protecting the land. The forests are the only public spaces that are open 24/7, free of charge, and people are free to stay in them for as long as they want. The provision of this service is yet another facet of modern-day land redemption, just like the other work I have described. I see here collaborations and maximizing of strengths since everything is done in coordination with the relevant government ministries. We are effectively the State’s Forestry Authority under the charter between KKL-JNF and the State, which was signed in 1961. That is when we assumed responsibility for the forest, and everything that is being done in them is fully financed by KKL-JNF.
This is how we make a contribution to the State in the name of the goals for which we exist. You’re right when you say there’s not a grain of sand in the country that KKL-JNF is not involved in. We are the largest silent donor the country has and I’m proud of this, it is not somebody’s weakness, it’s really a strength - taking things forward together while each party brings its own strengths to the table and everybody works in close coordination. Of course, there is someone overseeing the whole thing - the State - that goes without saying”.
You said you are silent donors. What do you mean?
“We do so many things people are unaware of, for example, residential land preparation. When we prepare infrastructures for residential areas, this reduces costs for the future occupants of those residences. We don’t wave flags, we don’t tout our work - we do it silently out of an understanding that settlement is important, necessary and vital - and tis is our way of contributing toward the drive to scale up the housing supply in Israel”.
KKL-JNF is a Zionist and Jewish organization. Do you also operate within non-Zionist communities such as the ultra-orthodox and Arabs?

“We work with all the populations in the country since we are effectively the State of Israel’s Forestry Authority. Nobody asks you who and what you are when you enter the forest. It is a neutral space open to all, and we operate there on an egalitarian basis. On other matters, we work with Government ministries. When we do residential and agricultural land preparation we don’t ask who they will be serving. All we know is that it serves the State.

On educational matters there are KKL-JNF houses and there too nobody checks which population is arriving there. Nof HaGalil, for example, is a completely mixed city. We have attendance at our activities there from all sectors of society with no filtering whatsoever. On the contrary, the KKL-JNF houses are intended to serve as a solid foundation for all the children of Israel’s periphery, regardless of who they are. Yes, we are a Zionist organization and we will not do anything in contradiction of Zionist values”.
What is your vision for the future?

“Sadly, forests in Israel are taken for granted. Our responsibility as the forestry authority is to safeguard the forests vigilantly - it is a tremendous responsibility and we uphold it under extremely difficult conditions. My vision is that a law will be passed protecting the forest lands in Israel and that we will continue doing what we do today, protecting what we already have, from all aspects, in order to safeguard the continued existence of the State of Israel”.

“Reduction of our socio-economic disparities is everybody’s mission”

David Ben Gurion regarded education to be a key fundamental of the revival of the Jewish people in their country. He said: “Clearly education in general, and primary education in particular, is not the only tool for shaping the younger generation. The streets, the press, cinema, family life, and other factors also influence. But without a doubt school in general, and primary education in particular, is a leading, perhaps deciding factor, in shaping the spiritual image of our youth and ultimately - of our people”.Avi Mossan is the Manager of the Education and Community Division in KKL-JNF. Avi works in accordance with Ben Gurion’s vision, investing considerable resources and thought in educating Israel’s children. I ask him first of all what is the connection between a foundation, which is responsible for afforesting our country, and whose symbol is the “Blue Coinbox”, and education.
“The Blue Coinbox is a great success, perhaps the first Hebrew start-up”, says Mossan, “a start-up that spawned public engagement in the creation of this incredible miracle named the State of Israel. This box fostered collaborations spanning the world before the advent of the Internet, before technology got involved, proving that anyone can make a contribution toward great success. For me, this is a symbol and model. From here I view the present and the future. What we in the Education and Community Division do is actually work with people and the land, which as far as we are concerned are the same thing, since social engagement is vital for solidarity, and we do this through empowering various strata in Israeli society.

צילום: לירון מולדובןPhotograph: Liron Moldovan

And there is also the issue of environmental responsibility. Nowadays this is our lifeblood, it’s one of the burning issues being debated worldwide and in Israel. Our responsibility as stewards of the environment is about what can be fixed in order for the place we live in to be a better, healthier place. The mission of the educational process we create is to reach out to every possible audience within reach, with special emphasis on our socio-geographic periphery. We invest heavily in training, in creating educational programs that deal with Zionism, love of country and the country’s heritage. For us these are the matters that form the common denominator for working with the entire Israeli public”.
This was not KKL-JNF’s historic mission. When did you venture into education?

“Education is a lengthy process. Anyone working in education knows that a single lesson does not make an education, nor does a week or even a month. As far as I am concerned, our educational and values-based process began at the very same time the KKL-JNF was established. When people realized that in order to redeem lands they have got to make a contribution, that they have to motivate themselves for activism - this is precisely the educational breakthrough we are working for - to motivate into action in order to accomplish certain values. A century ago the Council of Teachers for KKL-JNF was established because KKL-JNF was rightfully perceived as one of the key factors in building the foundations of the State, so that already back then the linkage existed between KKL-JNF and educating the future generations.

Besides preparing the land, there is also the priming of hearts and minds, and in order for a youngster growing up here to feel the urge to continue contributing toward the State and to become a party to this work within it, one must begin the educational and values-based process from the pre-school age. It is no coincidence that your parents and mine took part every Friday morning in the ceremony of making a contribution into the Blue Coinbox, where the funds raised went toward the redemption of one acre after another. This is how the State was built and this is how - through different means - we maintain it today”.

So, is KKL-JNF filling in the crack in the education system, which is not fulfilling this function well enough?
“The education system has its pride of place, we have no intention to replace it. KKL-JNF operates in the informal and formal education systems, as complementary and supporting education - and even when we enter schools, this does not replace them. We enjoy the advantages of informal education, which creates an empowering experience with a difference for each and every person. When you make a contribution toward the environment through the rehabilitation of forests after fires or by opening up trails - work we do with youths and pre-military prep programs - it is exhilarating to see them wanting to be a part of the effort. This is how we create something for them they will never forget. When the teenagers arrive at the forest and prune olive trees, this is hard work, it forces them to exert themselves, it gives them the feeling that this is their forest, that they have worked for its sake. They feel a sense of partnership, of engagement, and they will know how to protect it and will also want others following in their footsteps to enjoy the results of their work”.
“This applies not only to teenagers. We also provide activities for adults, we work with new immigrants and with special-needs communities, they are all given the values of heritage, sustainability, and environment. All this is done within the broader framework of Zionism and love of country. We reach out to hundreds of thousands of teenagers and children each year. We are full partners with social organizations, the Council of Youth Movements in Israel, the Council for Youth Organizations, the Council of Pre-Military Academies, and with at-risk youths - in other words, we are players in a variety of games and we work with a whole range of audiences.
And it is important to point out that practically all this work is subsidized to enable everyone to take part. The educational process at KKL-JNF is intended to safeguard this miracle called the State of Israel, to nurture what we have been bequeathed by our founding fathers, our grandparents who worked so hard so that we would have a state of our own. The young generation is the future decision-making generation. Our role is to provide them with the values of Zionism and love of country in order for them to make good decisions when their time comes”.
At the end of the day, besides values, do you also invest a lot of money in this activity?

“We invest plenty of resources in reducing disparities in the socio-geographic periphery. We all read the news, we all are aware that educational institutions are starved for money. If we want the youth in the periphery to join in the educational work, this requires resources. You cannot leave boys and girls behind just because their parents, don’t have the money they need for their everyday existence, let alone anything to spare for educational activity. It is our job to help them participate and receive these national values, which are formative of the State’s future leadership. If we weren’t there, with the resources we invest, we would be untrue to our mission”.

What is your vision for the educational work at KKL-JNF?
“I am very hopeful that in the years to come we will be able to become even more influential in the empowerment of youth in the peripheries, bringing them up to par with the rest of the country in terms of opportunities and knowledge. Our Forest and Field Centers are an excellent platform for transferring the knowledge and experience at subsidized prices. Anyone not joining is doing a disservice to themselves and to their students. There is one such center in Lavi Forest near Golani Interchange, at Zippori, at Nes-Harim in the Jerusalem Hills, at Shuni near Binyamina, and in the Yatir Forest. There are spaces there for pitching tents, for self-guided excursions, and also huts for overnight accommodation. These sites are secured and fenced. They are excellent points for departure on field trips with an option for guide services by the KKL-JNF guides who have been trained specifically on heritage, sustainability, and love of country.
In addition, we have recently opened the KKL-JNF Heritage Centers in periphery towns, which are intended to provide youths an opportunity to become high achievers in 21st-century skills while at the same time learning about the history and heritage of our people and our land. We are also working directly with over fifty periphery towns and villages. I hope we will be able to initiate more and more in-depth processes which will have a favorable future effect on our country. For us it is of great importance to encourage enlistment for meaningful army service and national service, thereby making the enlistment candidates feel a full sense of engagement, to bring out the best in them for the sake of the community. This might all sound self-evident or even cliché, however, it must be said, particularly in these turbulent times”.
Yifat Ovadia-Lusky, KKL-JNF Chair - “Ben Gurion can be proud of us”
“Ben Gurion definitely be proud of our plans for the Negev. Last month I unveiled a new vision for KKL-JNF. One of the key items there includes the development of the Negev, the Galilee, the Golan, and the Jordan Valley. I consider this mission a return to our shared Zionist values. I regard KKL-JNF to be a key partner in accelerating the development of the Negev. This is a Zionist of the highest importance. Although it has been decades since Ben Gurion positioned the Negev as a national high priority, the challenges the region faces prevail to this day. We at KKL-JNF recently signed a historic five-year agreement with the State of Israel. Under this agreement, we will be equal partners to the construction and execution of projects and initiatives for the State: land preparation, settlement development, and allocation of resources toward turning the Negev into an attractive place.

יפעת עובדיה לוסקי, יו"ר קק"ל. צילום: לירון מולדובןYifat Ovadia-Lusky, KKL-JNF Chair. Photograph: Liron Moldovan 

The challenge here is two-fold - besides preparing the region and development of the settlements there, we are also partners in instilling Zionist education, in investment in Pre-Military Academies, youth movements, and KKL-JNF Centers. The human capital is a substantial component of all of this. This is Zionism in action.

If we fail to till the land, we will simply lose it. Here at KKL-JNF, the Negev is at the core of our vision and the professional level is fully enlisted for it.  I am convinced that in the coming two years we will be making a difference in the Negev which the Israeli public will be able to observe on the ground.
Article courtesy of Makor Rishon.  Released on June 30, 2023