The Redeemers of the Land
by Naftali Greenwood
"Redemption of the Land" in modern times is the purchase, reclamation and settlement of land in Eretz Israel by the Jewish National Fund, by private individuals and organizations and later by the State of Israel.
The Late Ottoman Period: Redemption Begins and Consolidates
Redemption of land in Eretz Israel, much of which had fallen into neglect under foreign rule, began in the mid-1850s with the first attempts to enable Jews to live productively in Ottoman Palestine without reliance on the "old yishuv" model of overseas support. Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) made the first known land purchase: 10 hectares (1 hectare=2.5 acres) of orange groves in Jaffa (1855). Other private acquisitions followed, and by 1882, some 2,200 hectares had been purchased by Jews.
Although several of the first Zionist villages (moshavot) were built on this land, the areas were not contiguous and the idea of using land purchase to prepare for Jewish sovereignty was far in the future. Each purchase entailed a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure vis-a-vis the local Turkish authorities, which, in the final declining phase of the Ottoman Empire, were either hostile to or uninterested in Jewish holdings in the sparsely populated backwater province that Palestine had become. Nearly all land was owned by the state (and was passed on to subsequent sovereigns) or by private and public entities through title or leasing arrangements. This state of affairs, coupled with the frequent need to resort to bribery in official dealings, gave the Jewish purchases a clandestine complexion that would recur in subsequent years.
The second enduring aspect of land redemption, reclamation, reflected the effects of protracted environmental neglect in Palestine. Reclamation – itself a time-honored practice, as evident in the ancient terraces visible on the hillsides, dates from the late nineteenth century: draining of swamps, clearing of stones, terrace creation and repair were all undertaken. Throughout, the main motive has been to prevent topsoil erosion. The third facet of land redemption, economically viable settlement, followed as a matter of course.
In 1900, Rothschild transferred the settlements, their agricultural enterprises, and 25,000 hectares of land to the ICA, which he continued to support in various ways. During this period, the newly formed Zionist Organization embarked on the same land-redemption model: purchase, reclamation and settlement. For this purpose, it established two central agencies. First was the Jewish National Fund (JNF), or Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael in Hebrew, founded on December 29, 1901, whose charter specified land purchase in Eretz Israel – redemption of the land – as the organization’s sole pursuit. In its first decade, the JNF built a worldwide fundraising organization based on sale of stamps, collection boxes in homes and schools and solicitation of donations. Its first modest purchases were made in 1904 and 1908 in Lower Galilee, Judea, and the Lake Kinneret region, and two forms of settlement that would prove crucial in the land-acquisition enterprise were pioneered there: the cooperative (moshav) and the collective (kevutsa, later kibbutz).
In its first years of activity, the Zionist Organization focused on placing Jewish immigrants in agricultural settlements. Because few such immigrants had agricultural training, Ruppin initiated the establishment of a series of training facilities, known as "National Farms," on JNF land. Alumni of this training settled as lessees in other JNF-sponsored localities, including the original villages. Most importantly, however, the farms served as incubators for the philosophies and practices of various kinds of rural settlement.
Thus the land-redemption model had consolidated by the time British rule came into effect (1920). It was institutional as distinct from entrepreneurial (although its leading figures thought entrepreneurially), and increasingly rural as against urban. Nearly all of the settlers were lessors, not owners, of their land.
The British Mandate Period
The British Mandate restored the governmental stability that had been disrupted by World War I and augured, under the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a regime initially sympathetic to Zionist aims. It also made other parts of the country available for redemption: the Negev, Transjordan and the Golan Heights.
The Jewish institutional redeemers continued to work with increased vigor, both on rural land acquisition and urban settlement. Examples of urban projects are the "garden neighborhoods" of Jerusalem, the Allenby Street area in Tel Aviv, several neighborhoods in Haifa and various localities on the coastal plain.
The second phase in land redemption, reclamation, became crucial during the Mandate period, because much of the available territory was in marshy valleys. Thus, PICA began to drain swamps, turning over the land to existing or newly founded rural settlements there. In 1934, a 5,600-hectare concession was acquired, from two Arab families in Syria, to drain and settle the Huleh Valley in the eastern Upper Galilee "panhandle." The JNF, by purchasing additional land in the northern Huleh Valley, achieved virtual contiguity between Metulla and Rosh Pina.
Private redeemers also made their appearance at this time. One such agency, the American Zion Commonwealth Company, bought the land in the Jezreel Valley on which Afula was founded. Private capital elicited vigorous expansion of citrus plantations on the coastal plain and sustained the establishment of a string of villages there. As time passed, a distinction took shape (with exceptions on either side): private imported capital gravitated to the urban sector; Jewish national capital funded pioneering rural settlement.
As the Zionist movement consolidated its intentions, which became clear to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the country, these activities met with increasing obstacles. The first was economic, as Arabs who had but recently acquired their estates caused the price of land in the country to skyrocket. The best state land in the Beit She’an Valley (near the Jordan River south of Tiberias), for example, was distributed by the Mandate government in the early 1920s to Bedouin, who did not know what to do with it. The Arab owners of the Huleh Valley concession area, who lived in Syria, had acquired the area, most of which was swampy if not altogether inundated, from the Turkish Sultan in 1914. Both sold their holdings to Jews at an exorbitant profit.
As the Mandate period progressed and the commitment to eventual statehood solidified, the third phase of land redemption, settlement, became a factor in determining the future state’s boundaries. Thus, purchases were extensive in the marshy, malarial coastal plain and inland valleys and less so in the upland areas of Judea and Samaria. Several purchases and settlement ventures were carried out on the Golan Heights, without lasting success. Almost no transactions had been made in Transjordan, which was originally part of the British Mandate. Often, the determining factors for purchase were the sheer availability and affordability of land.
By May 1948, when the Mandate expired and Israel was about to proclaim its statehood, land redemption had placed nearly one-tenth of the country under Jewish ownership, the rest being owned by the government or by Arabs. Reclamation efforts had eliminated most marshes, with the exception of those in the Huleh Valley, and allowed Jewish agriculture to thrive as it had not since the Roman era. The country had 277 Jewish rural settlements – 15 villages (another 30 had become urban in the meantime), 99 moshavim, 159 kibbutzim, and 4 others. Their 111,000 inhabitants accounted for nearly 20 percent of the total Jewish population.
Statehood: New Meanings of Land Redemption
The War of Independence confirmed the role of land redemption in the retention of physical control of land area. Attacks in continuously settled areas were repulsed while several isolated settlements had to be evacuated or were destroyed.
When the armistice went into effect in 1949, Israel found itself with the following assets:
Source: Encyclopedia Judaica
The acquisition by Israel of "state land" transformed the nature and purposes of land redemption. Purchases meant to secure physical control became largely passe; reclamation and settlement, no longer politically or militarily constrained, gathered momentum. Some of the pre-statehood settlement agencies gave way to government bodies; the rest focused on new functions. PICA transferred 12,000 hectares to the JNF and the rest of its holdings to the state, which leased some to the farmers in the villages PICA had once sponsored. James de Rothschild bequeathed all of its other assets to the state. The PLDC, newly renamed the Israel Land Development Corporation, stopped buying land in 1954 and has focused since then on development, building, and readying land for use. In the Huleh Valley, JNF carried out the 6,000-hectare reclamation project in 1951-1958.
In 1960, the Israel Lands Authority was created to manage state land plus the 80,000 hectares owned by the JNF. The Israel Lands Authority Law, passed in the same year, lays down the principle that state and JNF lands shall not be sold, but remain in perpetuity a possession of the State of Israel. Thus, by 1968, state agencies held 92% of the country’s area.
The state, in conjunction with the JNF and the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization , continued to build rural settlements, some for new immigrants. Another 439 were established between 1948 and 1970. Nearly three-fourths of the new settlements were moshavim; this cooperative form of settlement partially eclipsed the kibbutz way of life. The historical defense goal in land redemption metamorphosed into a new purpose: by filling the periphery, Israel intended, among other things, to avert challenges to its sovereignty there. A new, state-sponsored settlement agency appeared: the Nahal corps of the Israel Defense Forces, which established many border settlements as military outposts which later became civilian settlements.
The reclamation motif in land redemption rose to primacy. The Huleh project brought the total marshland reclaimed to nearly 100,000 hectares, approximately one-fourth of cultivated land within the 1949 armistice lines. Anti-desertification efforts, launched intensively after the War of Independence and pursued to the present day, have given Israel a worldwide reputation. Saline soil (prevalent in the Negev and the Arava Valley) has been reclaimed by means of leaching. This effort, along with irrigation, using the National Water Carrier, has been so effective that the current Israeli generation thinks of Be’er Sheva as being situated on the edge, not in the middle, of the desert.
In these two senses, swamp draining and afforestation, modern environmental thinking has enriched land redemption with a new concept: revitalization. The Huleh Valley draining, once completed, was found to be problematic as newly dried underground peat deposits ignited into smoldering fires that defied all extinguishers’ efforts and rendered much of the area unsuitable for cultivation. Therefore, part of the valley was reflooded in 1995 and annexed to an existing nature reserve. In afforestation, the aging eucalyptus trees used in marsh control are gradually dying off, and the pines preferred by the early afforesters for their scenic value have proved less than optimal in Israel’s climate, tending to burn easily. Thus, some of the older forests are being replanted with a more diverse mix that approximates the country’s indigenous flora.
Of the institutions that turned land redemption from a Biblical-sounding slogan to a reality, one remains large and influential: the Jewish National Fund. Now in its tenth decade, it has evolved into Israel’s largest land-development agency, with leading roles in afforestation, development of land and agricultural and environmental R&D. It attracts roughly $100 million per year in donations as well as $600 million per year in revenues of the Israel Lands Authority. It continues to carry out its original mission: perpetuation of Jewish national ownership of land in the Jewish national home.