Planting a Nation

Settler colonialism and the Jewish National Fund

by Joshua Kurtz

published February 10, 2017

“It was nothing: sand and sand. We are going to bring to the Negev life,” two Israeli men affirm in an advertisement for the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Only sixty seconds long, the video is directed specifically at American Jews, who are told that they can “make their voices heard” by donating to the JNF, an organization dedicated to preserving and developing Israeli lands and best known for its extensive afforestation (establishing a forest on land not previously forested) projects. The commercial depicts the JNF as the ‘savior’ of Israel, redeeming the holy land at the same time as it liberates the Jewish people. By framing donations both as charitable deeds and as expressions of Jewish identity, the JNF positions itself as a bridge between Israeli and diasporic Jewish communities (Jews who live outside of the holy land).

Responding to Nicholas Kristof’s 2015 New York Times op-ed "The Two Israels," which examined the JNF’s responsibility for the destruction of Bedouin communities in the Negev Desert, the president of the JNF assured, “JNF is not a political actor in Israel, but rather a 501(c)3 charity and a United Nations approved non-governmental organization (NGO).” This is a familiar narrative, especially for Jews who grew up in communities—synagogues, schools, local businesses—in which the JNF’s iconic blue donation boxes were proudly displayed. Reflecting the success of the JNF’s extensive marketing campaigns, most Jewish education institutions frame the JNF as an apolitical, humanitarian actor in Israel, thus failing to recognize the organization’s role in colonizing Palestine.  




The Jewish National Fund was originally envisioned by Hermann Schapira, a Russian mathematician, at the first Zionist Congress in 1897. Schapira proposed the creation of a territorial fund that would collect donations from diasporic Jews in order to purchase land in what was then Ottoman Palestine. Referencing the Biblical commandment, “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity,” the JNF imagined its territory to be collectively held by the Jewish people. The land could not be sold, but leased for periods of forty-nine years, harkening to the Biblical decree that defined every forty-ninth year a “Jubilee Year,” during which all land was returned to its rightful owner. At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, regulations regarding the JNF’s land policies were clarified and expanded. Most significantly, the congress ruled that the JNF’s territories could be leased only to Jews, a policy that continues to have serious implications for non-Jews living on Israel-occupied land. 

When the state of Israel was founded in 1947, the JNF increased its land acquisitions significantly through state-sponsored policies of seizing and selling land that was thought to have been ‘abandoned’ by the Palestinians who fled the violence that followed the partition. Within a few years, the JNF tripled its land holdings in Israel. After 1948 the organization steadily shifted its focus from land acquisition to land development, particularly         infrastructure and afforestation. In recent decades, the JNF has transitioned from acting as a territorial trust, committed to purchasing Palestinian land in preparation for the return of the Jewish people, to a progressive environmental organization dedicated to redeeming a land that had been devastated due to erosion, poor grazing and agricultural practices, and decades of war. Framing itself to the world as a model of environmental innovation, the JNF proudly asserts, “KKL [The Hebrew translation], born in 1901, is Israel’s largest green organization and the oldest green organization in the world.”




When the conservative Likud party came to power in 1978, the Israeli government introduced a series of programs and policies designed to normalize and legalize the construction of settlements in the Palestinian territories. The state launched an extensive land registration program in order to locate lands that could not be proven to be privately owned or in active use by Palestinians. Any territory that fell into either of these categories was deemed “state land” and seized by the government, often for the construction of new settlements. Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect and scholar of spatial politics, noted in his book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, “In total, by the early 1990s, more than 28 percent of the land area of the West Bank…were registered under Israeli ownership.” 

Prior to 1979, the policy of the Israeli government was to support and develop the Palestinian agrarian economy by offering loans to farmers and training them in modern agricultural techniques. This policy was short-lived, for as Weizman noted, “By 1979, when the government realized that the expansion of the Palestinian agrarian economy was counterproductive to its aim of annexing uncultivated lands, it stopped the policy that actively encouraged cultivation altogether.” The Israeli state, however, did not merely phase out agricultural development programs in the Palestinian territories, it also reduced water quotas for Palestinian farmers, forcing them to find jobs as day laborers in Israel. By creating conditions that hindered Palestinian agriculture, Israel multiplied the number of uncultivated lands in the West Bank, facilitating further land re-possession and settlement construction. In 1961, the JNF signed a treaty with the Israeli government that effectively designated the JNF as the official agency for afforestation and land development.

Soon after the state expanded its settlement constructions, the JNF began planting pine forests in areas around greater Jerusalem deemed ‘state land.’ Weizman argued that “these planting programmes were undertaken to prevent Palestinian planting, and to maintain land reserves for new settlements or for the future expansion of existing ones.” Pine trees were chosen because deposits of acidic pine needles kill small plants beneath the trees, making the land unusable for Palestinian shepherds. Prior to planting these pine forests, the JNF often uprooted olive trees, which have both religious and economic significance for Palestinians. 

In 2002, the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine launched the Olive Tree Campaign, which was organized to assist Palestinian farmers plant olive trees. Similar to the JNF’s fundraising structure, the campaign raises money internationally from individuals who, by donating to the fund, can ‘sponsor’ a particular tree. Baha Hilo, the coordinator of the campaign, commented in an interview with Al Jazeera, “Our campaign is to help Palestinian farmers maintain ownership of their property—and once olive trees are planted, it is evidence that the land is being cultivated.” According to a law that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, uncultivated land in the West Bank is subject to state seizure; planting olive trees, therefore, is both a symbolic and material act of resistance, reasserting the significance of olive trees in Palestinian culture and protecting Palestinian lands from demolition. The initiative has planted over 70,000 olive trees since 2002, and the campaign has fostered extensive international support since its founding. Hilo told Al Jazeera, “When a field is taken by Israel, it’s no longer just the farmer who it is being taken from, but from all the international sponsors all over the world.”   

In her scholarship on state forests in Southeast Asia, Nancy Peluso defines the “political forest” as a space that is deemed a forest by the nation-state. She comments, “We need to understand the category ‘forest’ as produced through normalizing discourses rather than simply as a universal or biological categories.” The forest, in other words, is a political category, implicated in structures of power and violence. The common assumption that forests are 'natural' spaces—spaces that have existed forever—effectively render them useful instruments of state power. Referring to the JNF’s forests around Jerusalem, Weizman asserts, “The lines separating pines and olives are among the many boundaries produced by the colonization of the West Bank.”  The JNF’s forests physically and symbolically articulate the border between Israeli and Palestinian space and culture by inhibiting Palestinian farming and herding. The pine tree is an instrument of border control, demarcating “their” land from “ours.” Moreover, by claiming that these forests are ‘natural’ spaces, the JNF perpetuates the recurrent conceptualization of Palestinian territory as vacant and abandoned, thus erasing the history of people working and living on the land. Peluso proposes, “We need to ‘de-forest’ our minds to recognize the contours of what political forests…have caused history to forget.” De-foresting our minds involves recognizing the JNF’s forests as intersectional spaces; never merely biological, these forests serve as national and cultural borders, perpetuating the ongoing colonization of Palestine. 




In an essay on the JNF, Joanna C. Long, a geographer at the University of London, argued that landscapes cannot be understood merely as natural or scenic objects, but rather as spaces that shape the ways in which citizens identify with the nation. Forests introduce new modes of thinking about one’s relationship to a particular space—new ways of ‘seeing’ nature as it functions in the construction and preservation of the state. Long suggested, “Within JNF landscapes, the nationalized subject is...the citizen-planter. Physically fit, adventurous and rooted in nature, the citizen-planter is a fearless pioneer and seeker of freedom who is emotionally attached to the very soil of Palestine.” The JNF’s forests produce citizens whose national identity is contingent upon a deep, historic, and spiritual relationship to the land. These people view themselves as the rightful inheritors of the land, assigned the responsibility of preserving the land’s ‘recently-restored’ value.

The transformation from diasporic Jew to citizen-planter is celebrated and performed each year during Tu B’Shvat, a holiday that is not referenced in Jewish scripture or liturgy, yet has become incredibly popular in Jewish communities globally. Tu B’Shvat was popularized in the 1920’s by the Teacher’s Movement of the JNF, which had also been responsible for distributing Blue Boxes to schools throughout the diaspora. Long contends that given the holiday’s relative obscurity, the Teacher’s Movement could easily re-appropriate the festival through a Zionist lens. Technically the “birthday of the trees,” the festival became “a ritual through which to cultivate modern Hebrew identity in Israel-Palestine.” First designated a holiday by the British Mandatory Government, the holiday has gradually developed into an educational festival whereby Jewish children are initiated as citizen-planters. Israel’s first Knesset (parliament) opened on Tu B’Shvat in 1949, with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion planting trees alongside Israeli schoolchildren. This correlation was clearly intentional and symbolic; to this day, members of the Knesset plant trees with children every year during Tu B’Shvat, celebrating the birthday both of the trees and of the nation. 




This past fall, dozens of forest fires broke out throughout Israel, most extensively in Haifa, a port city in northern Israel. Israeli officials attributed the fires to strong winds and dry atmospheric conditions, but also to terror-inspired arson. Danny Atar, the world chairman of the JNF, asserted, “Whoever wanted to scar our country’s lands and to turn flowering green lands into heaps of ashes—failed. I promise that for every tree that was burned, we’ll plant two new ones…we will restore our forests as quickly as possible and color Israel green once again.” In his statement, Atar again frames the JNF as a humanitarian organization, responding quickly and forcefully to a crisis situation instigated by a perceived threat. However, his comment candidly summarizes the broader mission of the JNF: to “color Israel green once again.” Atar guarantees that the JNF will redeem the land as it has always done, washing away the history of the Palestinians in the process. He threatens those who attempt to thwart such efforts, promising to plant two new trees—which, in practice, may involve the extension of a border or the further destruction of Palestinian agrarian land—for every Israeli tree that was destroyed. 

Over the past weeks, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the construction of over 5,000 new settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. ‘De-Foresting’ our minds requires that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize that the JNF is a colonial agency, contributing to the ongoing erasure of Palestinian history, culture, and community. Resisting the Israeli occupation has taken many forms, including widespread demonstrations against the destruction of Palestinian farmland. In the past several years, hundreds of international volunteers have travelled to Palestine to assist Palestinian activists plant olive groves in order to reassert the right to live and work on their land. Commenting on the Olive Tree Campaign’s resistance tactics, Baha Hilo told Al Jazeera, “We’re not a militia, our weapons are our pickaxes and shovels, our hands and our olive trees.” 


JOSHUA KURTZ B’17 would rather plant trees in his backyard.