KKL-JNF and the State of Israel Through 75 Years of Zionism and National Development

Article courtesy of Makor Rishon

The Fifth Zionist Congress, which took place in December 1901 in Basel, Switzerland, adopted a historic resolution to establish the Jewish National Fund. This organization’s goal was to acquire lands in the Land of Israel on behalf of, and for the sake of, the Jewish People. Small Blue Coinboxes, which over time would assume a mythical significance, were distributed to Jewish households throughout the Diaspora, collecting money for the Jewish National Fund’s operations. However, the Coinbox was not merely a fundraising vessel. It formed a link between the Diaspora Jewry and the inhabitants of the Land of Israel, a link which, decades later, would culminate in the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

122 have come and gone, during which forests have been planted, land has been prepared, boundaries have been drawn up, swamps have been drained and an Israeli ecosystem has been established. The State of Israel’s development is historically intertwined with the work of the KKL-JNF. As the country continues to develop, the Fund’s work in the environment, society and security has developed with it. A look at six key fields shows just how great the KKL-JNF’s contribution has been to the building of the State.
“From the earliest days of Zionism and the Return to Zion, over 120 years, the KKL-JNF has been working and influencing the shaping of the State”, says KKL-JNF Chair Yifat Ovadia Lusky. “KKL-JNF plays a part in building the conceptual and organizational framework for the establishment of the State. To this day we are involved in developing the country, we continue to manage and cultivate forests and open spaces, we are building and opening roads and trails, we are absorbing immigration, investing in the periphery, and assisting with settlement. For this 75th anniversary of the State of Israel, which is so dear to our hearts, I wish it prosperity, satisfaction, and success and I assure you that KKL-JNF will continue to assist the State to develop, succeed and flourish”. 

Foresting the Land

KKL-JNF forests cover some 920,000 Dunams (92,000 hectares) and are home to over 240 million trees. These expanses, which have earned KKL-JNF the moniker The state’s Chief Forester, enable generations of Israelis to form moving memories. The role of the forests and their contribution toward settlement has undergone changes as the country has developed: “From its inception, KKL-JNF has worked on forestry, which has grown in tandem with the development of the land”, says Gilad Ostrovsky, KKL-JNF Chief Forester. “This is unique to Israel, which differs from other countries where forestry has grown as a commercial-industrial operation.
In the early days, forestry served as a means for taking possession of the land alongside a desire to “green” the land. It was concentrated mainly on mountainsides, where the land is unsuitable for farming. Later on the forests took on another role and they became part of a drive for landscape rehabilitation and increasing soil fertility. Nowadays we can say forests provide a range of benefits, such as land preservation, primarily in agricultural lands. One clear sign of this is in the northern Negev, where agricultural lands are prone to erosion and infestation by invasive species in the croplands. Through planting and construction of land preservation installations, KKL-JNF mitigates and even brings to a halt processes of soil weathering.
In the past, the main goal was to establish forests. However, over the years the goals shifted and were extended, to the point where today we speak of forests primarily as an ecosystem service provider. Forests also provide us with leisure and recreation services plus localized lowering of temperatures, soil conservation, erosion prevention, water retention, and flooding protection in an era of climate change. In a crowded country like ours, the forest is an anchor in the open spaces system”.

יער בן שמן. צילום: טי.אס.אר, ארכיון הצילומים של קק"לBen Shemen Forest. Photo: T.S.R., KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Soil management and preparation

Israel’s Knesset passed the Keren Keyemeth Le Israel Law in 1953, which was intended to authorize the Jewish National Fund to develop and prepare lands for settlement, forestry, and desert redemption. In 1961, the State assigned KKL-JNF the authority to prepare lands for settlement and for forestation. “Through this, the State transformed KKL-JNF into the State’s Forestry Authority of sorts”, says Anat Gold, who is the Central Region Manager and is responsible for managing the forested and open areas and for making them accessible to the public. “It is therefore our duty to plan, protect, develop, manage, and maintain all of the forest areas. We manage some of them jointly with the community in the settlement adjoining the forest under a special project called ‘Community Forests’”. One can find anything and everything in the forest - “natural flora and archaeology, botany, wildlife, heritage sites.

Moreover, forests are important for historic reasons: the British and the Turks planted forests here to produce timber. We continued with this work in the 1950s to redeem the wilderness through development of the forests for the sake of improving the quality of life, for leisure and recreation”. KKL-JNF is the leading body in the country when it comes to development of off-road cycling infrastructures. So far it has opened up some 1300 kilometers of trails. “The plan is to triple this figure and to connect between communities by crossing the open spaces”.
The Central Region forests are the most-visited forests, most familiar to the general public. Over a million people each year visit each one of them, with Ben Shemen Forest alone hosting over 5 million visitors per year. “The open spaces are open to the public, they are accessible and disabled-accessible and they contribute to public health in a variety of ways”.

יער קהילתי מגדל העמק. צילום: גיא אסיאגCommunity Forest Migdal HaEmek. Photo: Guy Asayag

Construction of reservoirs and agriculture development

One of the main ways in which KKL-JNF contributes toward agriculture in Israel is through the construction of water projects for agricultural irrigation. “During the first years of independence, we worked intensively on land preparation and development of infrastructures for farming, which would serve as the foundation for agriculture mainly in the periphery.
Water was a problem but it was not highly acute”, says Yossi Schreiber, until recently Manager of the KKL-JNF Engineering Division, which is responsible for promoting and executing the engineering projects in KKL-JNF. “In the 1980s, the water crisis in Israel took a turn for the worse and it became clear that solutions had to be found for development of new water sources which would be stable and sustainable. Initially, KKL-JNF together with the Water Authority built reservoirs in which marginal water from flooding and stream surpluses was collected. The conversation about treated wastewater reclamation was at its infancy back then”, says Yossi. “The 1990s saw the beginning of construction of reservoirs for pooling and use of purified treated wastewater for agriculture. this effectively saved Israeli agriculture”.
In the 1990s, as part of the struggle with the water crisis, KKL-JNF busied itself with preparing platforms for horticulture greenhouses - a cultivation method that allows the production of three times the crop from the same amount of water. Another significant contribution to the water sector was through the Agamon Hula Project, for which KKL-JNF was responsible, where one of its key components was to protect the Kinneret waters and prevent its continued contamination.
To date, KKL-JNF has built 240 reservoirs which annually produce some 380 million cubic meters of recycled and marginal waters for agriculture. These waters are a stable, affordable source for farmers and they have been providing a fixed quota over the years. “The amount of treated wastewater is only increasing as the population grows and we do not foresee a shortage of it. Our intention is to see a state in which some 90% of all the treated wastewater gets recycled for irrigation, thereby enabling the continued survival of the agricultural project. To this end, KKL-JNF is allocating substantial resources and is continuing to build reservoirs”.

מאגר יתיר. צילום: אוירי מורדגןYatir Reservoir. Photo: Aerial photograph, Moradgan

A bird’s eye view

If you look skyward these days, you’ll be able to spot birds on their migration route to the cold northern countries. The diverse habitats in Israel enable them to stop here and “refuel” themselves for their long onward journey. “In recent decades we have reached the realization that the KKL-JNF forests constitute a rich habitat, forming an ecosystem meriting their own specific attention. The birds are the spearhead in our understanding of the forest ecosystem”, says Yaron Cherka, the Chief Ornithologist at KKL-JNF.
“Above and beyond their being an excellent bioindicator for the state of the land, they are also a wonderful bridgehead for bonding the Israeli public with our nature”. The birdwatching trend is gaining traction in Israel, and KKL-JNF is facilitating its growth. To date, KKL-JNF has established five birdwatching centers spanning the entire country - from the Agamon Hula International Birdwatching Center in the north to the Birdwatching Park in Eilat. These centers form a substantial tourist attraction and a magnet for birdwatching enthusiasts.
In addition to these, the children’s and adults’ birdwatching classes, events for the general public, and support for academic research, all ensure the continuity of the man-to-nature bond. “Interest in birdwatching is also important for coping with the climate change crisis: deserts are encroaching worldwide, and more and more bird species are arriving in Israel from Africa.
The encounter with these species contributes toward environmental awareness”. The birds are also an enriching agricultural factor: “Bees, which pollinate the plants on which we rely for food production, are gradually dwindling in numbers. Not everyone is aware that birds, too, are pollinators and that they even provide a substantial biological pest control service. Without birds and their place in the ecosystem and in the man-to-nature bond, there’s nothing that’s going to be left here”.

אגמון החולה. צילום: יוסי זליגר
Agamon Hula. Photo: Yossi Selinger

Education for Exceptionalism and Reducing Disparities in the Periphery

“From its beginnings, the KKL-JNF has been bolstering settlement throughout the country while gaining the hearts and minds of the population”, says Ayal Cohen, Manager of the KKL–JNF Heritage Centers Department. “The Education and Community Division at KKL-JNF operates special educational programs in Israel and abroad. It provides substantial support for youth movements and organizations and for the Pre-Military Academies in an effort to provide the cadets Zionist, environmental, ecological, love of country values and other values”.
KKL-JNF Heritage Centers is a flagship project, “which was born out of the need to change the alarming trend toward polarization within Israeli society, which is a consequence of the rift between the social classes as witnessed in the growing disparities between the periphery and the center of the country in Israel”, says Cohen. “When it comes to education, these disparities are expressed in low percentages of students eligible for high-quality matriculation. These impact the availability of roles in the military, the enrollment for tertiary studies and therefore also the earning capacity, the range of opportunities, and social mobility.
A teenager that chooses to arrive at a KKL-JNF Heritage Center undergoes an induction process, which includes preparation of a “tailor-made suit”, which includes a broad variety of programs and tools, all adapted for the 21st century and also leadership programs, Zionism programs, heritage programs and reinforcement of the individual’s sense of capability and belonging.
This special mix drives the graduates from the KKL–JNF heritage centers to become contributors and leaders within Israeli society”. Nowadays there are two such KKL–JNF heritage centers - one in Nof HaGalil and another in Kiryat Malakhi. Seven more centers are under construction in the northern and southern peripheries. “These centers are designed and adapted for Gen-Z. All of the activity within them is free of charge for the benefit of youth and the community. It is all conducted in full cooperation with the local authority”.

מרכז מורשת קק"ל בקרית מלאכי. צילום: חיים ורסנו, ארכיון הצילומים של קק"לKKL–JNF Heritage Center in Kiryat Malakhi. Photo: Haim Varsano, KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Aliya (Immigration), Settlement and Zionism

This past decade, thanks to collaborations with the Nefesh B’Nefesh NGO and the Alya de groupe NGO, KKL-JNF has helped approximately 15,000 immigrants from North America and over 1,000 immigrants from France to arrive in Israel and settle in the Negev, the Galilee, and Jerusalem.
“New Zionism is not only about reaching cities like Tel Aviv or Raanana. Rather, it is about settling in Carmiel and Arad”, says Sariel Gon, Fundraising Department Manager in the Resource and Foreign Relations Division in KKL-JNF. “A family arriving in these places makes a greater contribution toward the country’s development”. The Aliya package the State grants the immigrants is augmented by a financial incentive package from Jewish National Fund and the above NGOs, aimed at encouraging the settlers to arrive in the Galilee, the Negev and Jerusalem.
One example of the contribution of these Olim to these places is for example 13 physicians, new immigrants from France, who have settled in Nahariya. “The contribution they are making to the northern periphery is immeasurable. KKL-JNF has encouraged the Alya de groupe NGO to focus on the Negev and Galilee. They identified the need for physicians at the Nahariya and Tzfat hospitals and presented the possibility of going to Nahariya to the physicians. They came for a tour of the land, assisted by KKL-JNF guides who are working on strengthening bonds with Israel and the sense of belonging and of making a meaningful contribution”.
In addition, KKL-JNF and the Nefesh B’Nefesh NGO have developed the Zinuk B’Aliya Program encouraging the North American Jewish community to settle in the periphery. “It is amazing to discover how the immigrants, who arrive from industrialized countries like the United States and Canada leave their comfortable lives behind, make Aliya to Israel, choose to settle specifically in the Negev and in the Galilee, thereby becoming latter-day pioneers in the development of robust Anglo-Saxon communities like the ones that have emerged in Mitzpe Netofa in the north and in Retamim or Yeroham in the south”. Gon adds that “life in these areas enable many of the Olim to realize their dreams, whether this is a career change or addition to an existing career, and to develop boutique culinary businesses, which contribute not only to local tourism but to the State of Israel’s economy as a whole”.
Released on April 21, 2023