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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Statehood and Peoplehood

Galilee Diary #359, October 14, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

And Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver… So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were within its border, were purchased by Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city… And the field and the cave… were purchased by Abraham from the children of Heth, for a burial plot.
-Genesis 23:16-20

One of the first institutional expressions of Zionism was the creation of a fund for the purchase of land in what was then called Palestine (Eretz Yisrael), on behalf of the entire Jewish people. The Jewish National Fund was created at the fifth Zionist congress in 1901 and immediately began to purchase plots of land for agriculture and for the building of towns, from local and absentee Arab landowners. The JNF’s ubiquitous “little blue box” for collecting coins became a symbol of the grass roots involvement of Jews everywhere in the Zionist endeavor. The JNF continued to purchase land until the establishment of the state made that effort no longer relevant. About 60% of the JNF’s lands were purchased before 1948, and 40% were obtained in the years just after the war – lands belonging to Arabs who fled the country during the war and whose property was considered abandoned and taken over by the government, then transferred to the JNF at a nominal price. The fund then turned its efforts to various projects in afforestation, water resource development, infrastructure development, and education. The land it had acquired, 17% of the total area of the state in its 1948 borders, was transferred to the administration of the Israel Lands Authority in 1961 and is thus treated as state land (over 90% of the land in Israel is state land; you cannot buy it, only lease it for 49 years).

Several years ago, in a lottery for lots for building homes in Karmiel, an Arab family from a nearby village received a lot. But then, it was announced that the land for the neighborhood was JNF land, and since it had been bought on behalf of the Jewish people worldwide, it could not be leased to non-Jews. This episode led to a series of court opinions and attempts to respond to these opinions through legislation. The matter is not yet resolved, and is a subject of heated public debate:

On the one hand, the JNF was established to purchase land in Eretz Yisrael on behalf of the whole Jewish people wherever they are. Therefore, it is argued, to lease that land to Arabs would be a betrayal of trust, as the Jews who put their pennies in the blue box over the past century understood they were contributing to the irrevocable restoration of Jewish ownership of the land. This argument seems to imply that there is a difference between the state of Israel and Jewish people – the JNF was not purchasing land in order to build a state on it, but to be the perpetual property of the Jewish people without reference to the boundaries of the state.

On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that the intention of the founders of the JNF – and of the donors over the years – was to make possible the creation of a Jewish sovereign state by acquiring a critical mass of the land of Eretz Yisrael for Jewish settlement. The effort succeeded, and we indeed have a Jewish state, which owns over 90% of its land, which it cannot, by law, sell in perpetuity, but only lease for 49 years at a time. This state defines itself as a democracy guaranteeing basic freedoms to all citizens. Thus, we cannot justify ethnic discrimination in the distribution of land rights.

So: does the Jewish state represent the Jewish people? Or is the Jewish people an entity (indeed, a legal entity) that is somehow separate from and above the authority of the state? Does anyone speak for “the entire Jewish people?”

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