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4. The Forest's Many
Shades of Green

“Before it did anything else, the first thing that the Zionist movement did was to set up an official conservation agency—the Jewish National Fund—and start planting trees.” So begins Uri Marinov's stock introduc-tory presentation about Israel and the environment. Marinov was the top environmental public servant in Israel's government during the 1970s and 1980s. His admiration for the JNF is genuine. “No other national movement made land restoration and forestry the centerpiece of its oper-ational activities.”[1]

Aviva Rabinovich, well into her seventies and still one of Israel's most provocative ecologists, presents a very different picture. As the first Chief Scientist at Israel's Nature Reserves Authority from 1970 until 1988, she became appalled at the practices of the Jewish National Fund: “They bring in bulldozers and, if this doesn't work, pneumatic hammers to destroy the stone, and all to plant a few pines. Wildflowers, tulips, and anemones—don't they have any rights? These people are my friends. They are good people. But who gave them the right to destroy?”[2]

No institution in Israel's environmental community has inspired as much controversy and passionate disagreement as the JNF. Some see it as a picture of ecological innovation, a model to the world of the human po-tential to reverse deforestation and desertification. Others can see only the disastrous results of JNF imposition of monotonous European scenery on an unreceptive land—the “pine deserts where only rats can survive.”[3] In any case, now that forests cover over 10 percent of the lands in the north-ern half of Israel, all agree that the JNF changed the face of the country.

Judgment on the merits or defects of JNF activities, and the beauty of the 220 million trees it has planted, ultimately depends on the environ-mental values and aesthetics of the beholder. Advocates tend to exaggerate

early environmental inclinations. Critics sanctimoniously impose the wis-dom of hindsight, with little sensitivity to the ecological and historical mi-lieu (and constraints) in which the organization operated. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The history of the JNF in fact shows a dynamic organization that rewrote its mission statement several times before arriving at its present identity as an “ecological agency.” It evolved in response to the vicissitudes and challenges of the Zionist move-ment. Israel's forests therefore largely reflect the historical exigencies of Zionism, including the JNF's institutional development and the visions of a few passionate leaders.


While Zionist lore associates JNF and forestry with Theodor Herzl's vi-sion, the minutes of the First Congress of the World Zionist Organization suggest otherwise. In fact, the charismatic chairman tried to squelch the proposal for a Jewish National Fund. Only after rival factions forced the issue did Herzl relent and bring the motion before the Congress, just prior to adjournment. Zvi Herman Schapira, a bespectacled, bearded mathemat-ics professor and opponent of Herzl's political Zionism, was the man who actually designed and presented the plan to create a Fund for “acquisition and cultivation of land in Palestine.”[4]

Schapira was a bona fide genius. Born in Lithuania in 1840, he could read Hebrew by the age of two and a half and was already studying the in-scrutable Talmud at the age of four. By the time he was eight, his teachers accepted him as an equal, and he had mastered Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. While still in his early twenties, Rabbi Schapira stumbled on a book about mathematics that captured his potent intellectual curiosity. After serving for three years as a rabbi and yeshiva (religious school) director in the Lithuanian town of Birtushla to fulfill a promise to his father,[5] he set off for a Western education in Germany at the age of twenty-eight.[6]

It was a bold move. With no knowledge of even elementary German, Schapira endured poverty so great that he once stole a loaf of bread to avoid starvation. Once his formal studies began, though, it took him only two years to complete a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Heidelberg. Although he quickly attained the title of professor, it was not a paying position. The heavily accented lecturer was not a popular teacher and had to supplement his family's income by watchmaking.[7]


By the time of the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Schapira had been involved in Chovevei Tzion (the Lovers of Zion network of Zionist groups) for twenty years. When he submitted his idea for a national fund to buy land in Palestine to the organization's 1884 conference in Katowice, the proposal went nowhere. But Schapira was persistent and raised the issue again thirteen years later. The presentation was brief, in deference to the unenthusiastic Herzl's request that Schapira keep his comments short.[8]

The specifics called for the raising of ten million pounds sterling to be invested in a fund, with the interest going to Zionist settlement. Perhaps the most distinctive component of the proposal was the stipulation that “acquired territory shall be inalienable and cannot be sold even to individ-ual Jews; it can only be leased for a period of forty-nine years maximum, according to regulations yet to be devised.”[9] This policy of long-term leas-ing remains the cornerstone of Israeli land policy to this day.

Given the diffidence of the Congress, a compromise motion was ac-cepted that set up a committee to consider the fund as well as a proposed Jewish bank. Eight months later, Schapira died of pneumonia during a visit to Cologne. It would take four more Zionist Congresses for Herzl to change his mind and throw his weight behind a scaled-down version of the proposal.

On December 29, 1901, at the end of a rousing speech, Herzl called for a revote: “Do you want us to start a Jewish National Fund immediately—yes or no?” he thundered, and the frenzied delegates responded with calls of support. “You can, if you wish to, delay its establishment for another two years or even until the coming of the Messiah.” And the obliging crowd answered: “No. No.”[10]


The first donation to the JNF was made by Johan Kremenezky, a Viennese electrical engineer and industrialist, who had taken on Schapira's role among the delegates as chief lobbyist for the Fund. A month later, at the age of fifty-one, Kremenezky was appointed to head the newly created Jewish National Fund, or Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael (KKL), as it is called in Hebrew.[11] Quickly he instituted the three fundraising gimmicks that have been associated with the JNF's remarkable revenues ever since:

  • The “Gold Book” recognizes important events in contributors' lives.

  • JNF stamps, depicting famous sites and personalities, are either collected or used decoratively in correspondence (the stamps were

    even briefly recognized by the Austrian post in 1909 and by the fledgling state of Israel before its post office was organized).

  • The “Blue Boxes,” in use to this day, tapped into centuries of Jewish experience; the so-called “Rabbi Meir Ba'al ha-Ness charity box” had been a fixture in many observant homes in Europe, col-lecting coins to support indigent religious brethren in Palestine. Donations to the new JNF blue boxes, however, went for land re-demption rather than personal handouts.[12]

In fact, the effect of these three fund-raising devices was more symbolic than practical. As with most nonprofit organizations, the majority of the JNF budget has always come from “big donors”[13] or, with the inception of the State, from the payment of user fees on JNF lands.[14] The increasingly ubiquitous JNF blue box, however, raised the consciousness of Jewish com-munities around the world regarding the Fund and its mission. Nothing was more effective than the blue box in giving Jews around the world a sense of involvement with the Yishuv and in making Zionist settlement synonymous with overall Jewish aspirations.

The operational mission of the JNF remained amorphous, however. As early as 1896, Herzl's diary records his friend Kremenezky's enthusiasm for a “national forestry association to plant ten million trees throughout the country” (along with his desire to develop a chemical industry along-side the Dead Sea and hydroelectric plants on the Jordan River).[15] But in retrospect, forestry was a peripheral part of Kremenezky's agenda and re-mained so in the JNF at large until the State of Israel was established. Moreover, prior to World War I, JNF soil reclamation was limited to re-moving stones at Ben Shemen before planting olive trees there and to draining a modest plot near the Kinneret.

During its first twenty years, purchasing land and bankrolling agricultural activity were the centerpieces of the JNF's diverse activities. Other bodies, such as the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) and the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA), were already active in this realm, sponsored by the great patrons of Jewish settlement, Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his son James.[16] In 1903 the JNF acquired its first parcel—200 dunams (about 50 acres) in the new settlement of Hadera—followed by larger parcels in Kfar Hitim and Hulda. Slowly, the JNF (and the world Zionist movement it represented) became the key player in this sphere.

Finding sellers and cutting a reasonable deal were the greatest hurdles that the JNF faced in those days; Zionist activity, after all, was hardly pop-ular among local Arab landowners. The Fund's success in acquiring one

million dunams (100,000 hectares) prior to 1948 was largely attributable to one of the most colorful characters in JNF and Zionist history—Yehoshua Hankin.

Arriving as a teenager in Ottoman Palestine in 1882, Hankin acquired a fluency and familiarity with Arabs and their business practices by help-ing his father in the family's Jaffa store. When, at age twenty-five, he stumbled on a seller of a ten-thousand-dunam tract, he realized he had a unique gift as a real-estate broker. In a moment of mystical acuity, Hankin took an oath dedicating his life to “redeeming the land.” For sixty years he stuck to this sacred mission, largely at the behest of the JNF, who eventu-ally became his best client.[17] Zionist legends abound describing this eccen-tric lone ranger with flowing hair and unruly beard. Fearlessly riding the backcountry on his horse, armed only with Ottoman land titles and sacks of silver, Hankin would go anywhere, any time, to buy yet another parcel of the total six hundred thousand dunams of Palestine he would purchase during his lifetime. During slow periods in the real-estate market, he had to rely on his devoted wife Olga's earnings as a midwife, but the couple never veered from their common quest.[18] In a fittingly peculiar postscript, their graves overlooking one of Hankin's biggest purchases, the Jezreel Valley, are now a popular destination for women with fertility problems, who come to pray for the childless couple's intervention.[19]

Despite heroic individual efforts, from an organizational standpoint the Jewish National Fund was all over the place during its first twenty years of operation: With only moderate success, it dabbled in tree planting, took in orphans from pogroms, subsidized high schools, and even bought the buildings for Israel's national art academy. Limited by a modest budget, it could ill afford such a diffuse strategy. After World War I, however, new leadership would get the organization on track.


Before the State of Israel was established, the JNF was largely associated with the dominating personality of Menahem Ussishkin, its chairman from 1922 to 1941. He took a small, poorly defined, and mismanaged charity and formed a JNF in his own image: pragmatic, aggressive, com-mitted to Jewish labor, open to Zionists of all political persuasions, and re-lentless in the pursuit of “land redemption.”[20] Born in Russia in 1863, Ussishkin, because of his family's affluence and influence, was able to live and study in Moscow, a city closed to most Jews during the Czars' rule. Despite his integration into Russian society, Ussishkin's supplementary

education at home left him with a strong sense of Jewish identification. The pogroms of 1882 had a profound impact on him, and at the age of nineteen he became a devoted member of Hibbat Tzion, precursor of the world Zionist movement.[21]

As one of the few young leaders with the means and time to dedicate himself fully to Zionist causes, Ussishkin became something of a protégé to many early Zionist visionaries, such as Leo Pinsker and Moshe Lilenbloom, while still maintaining close ties with religious Zionist lead-ers. Indeed, part of the stature he enjoyed when he finally moved to Israel was linked to the Yishuv's perception of him as the “last of the first gen-eration.” From the perspective of the young pioneers, Ussishkin had walked among the legends whose writings had shaped their personal ide-ologies and destinies.

By the time of the First Zionist Congress, after fifteen years of activism, Ussishkin was well on his way to becoming the central figure in the pow-erful Russian Zionist movement. In fact, over a period of forty-five years, until his death in 1941, he would attend every Zionist Congress except the sixth, during which he was visiting Palestine.[22] A pragmatist who believed that the collective impact of small acts of settlement was the most likely road to Jewish liberation, he was instinctively suspicious of the grandiose political solutions espoused by the newcomer Herzl. Although he made his peace with the political Zionists, his consolidation of power in Chovevei Tzion during the next twenty years earned him nicknames such as “Dictator of Russian Zionism.”[23] Once he was in Palestine, the epithet would soften, and he would merely be called the “man of iron,” although the British, who found his imperious demeanor insufferable, dubbed him “Czar Menahem.”[24]Our Program, his treatise, proved to be highly influ-ential for many settlers of the Second Aliyah.

Ussishkin arrived in Palestine following World War I, at age fifty-eight, a stage of life when many immigrants would be finishing their careers. But with his fierce energy, signature gray beard, and historic credentials, he be-came a central figure in Yishuv politics. Indeed, he was a natural choice to assume the JNF leadership from the unpopular Dutch industrialist Nehemia Di Lieme,[25] who had taken on the job when the JNF offices moved to neutral Holland during World War I. Perhaps his background in insurance made him naturally cautious, opposing the purchase of the Jezreel Valley properties. But he was completely out of touch with the op-timistic spirit in the Zionist movement following World War I and failed to attain widespread support in the movement. Di Lieme argued against the Jezreel purchase on procedural grounds (the Palestine representatives

had never received formal approval from JNF headquarters in London), as well as for financial reasons (the price was outrageous, given JNF's modest resources). His bureaucratic perspective left him looking feckless alongside the passionate Ussishkin.[26]

The contrast between the two men could not have been greater. Di Lieme was Western; Ussishkin was Eastern European. Di Lieme was a newcomer to Zionism; Ussishkin had been in the thick of things for forty years. Di Lieme was analytical; Ussishkin, emotional. Di Lieme was fiscally conservative; Ussishkin, bold and optimistic. Di Lieme wanted the JNF to focus on the urban sector, where the danger of land speculation was great-est, whereas Ussishkin was a ruralist. Di Lieme saw Europe as the key playing field, whereas Ussishkin established the JNF offices in Jerusalem. Di Lieme's JNF board operated in German, but Ussishkin's minutes were entirely in Hebrew.

In short, by 1922 Ussishkin was the right man to translate the promise of the Balfour Declaration into the territorial basis for the third Jewish commonwealth: Average land purchases during his tenure as the head of JNF were forty thousand dunams a year, reaching as high as one hundred thousand by the time of his death.[27] Above all he was pragmatic. In the 1920s, for example, middle-class Zionist representatives were fearful that JNF national ownership would discourage private initiative, while Labor Zionists took the extreme view that private ownership by Jews should be suspended in Palestine. Ussishkin wisely took the middle road, arguing that areas that could be used for citrus should be left for private entrepre-neurs, but that the JNF should redeem land that private enterprise would be hesitant to buy.[28]

In retrospect, Ussishkin kept his message simple,[29] with only two issues on his agenda. The first was fundamentally political: broadening the land base for Jewish settlement while creating footholds in regions that lacked Jewish presence. The second was cultural: outreach and fund-raising to bring Diaspora Jewry to the Zionist cause. Trees were perceived as a bio-logical declaration of Jewish sovereignty; a forest's merits were primarily evaluated by its contribution to geopolitical facts, establishing borders de jure under the arcane Turkish land laws as well as marking out property lines de facto.

Many who worked with Ussishkin found him intimidating, and he used his overpowering style to squelch opposition and get things done. At the same time, old-timers in Israel remember fondly that, unlike most of his contemporaries, he kept his speeches short.[30] Ussishkin's stubbornness and frugality were legendary. He would personally review expense accounts

from JNF agents around the world, canceling claims he felt were excessive. Paradoxically he was largely uninvolved in the details of what actually went on regarding the purchase and management of JNF lands, preferring instead to deal with the “big picture.”[31] Ussishkin did not bring a tremen-dous passion for forestry to his new job. Future JNF Director General Shimon Ben Shemesh's first ten years at the Jerusalem headquarters coin-cided with Ussishkin's final ten years. “Ussishkin definitely didn't know from trees,” Ben Shemesh recalled. “He was an urban sort. He didn't think about those things but rather focused on making money and taking care of the immigrants or getting the funds to start the University.”[32]

Ussishkin was quite talented in this most important funtion—fund-raising. In the annals of Zionist fund-raising, undoubtedly Golda Meir's visit to the United States in 1947 (to fund arms for the new State) ranks as the top achievement. Ussishkin's earlier 1927 visit to Canada, however, would also make the “top ten.” Canada was home to 150,000 Jews, many of whom had recently arrived from Russia, where Ussishkin was some-thing of a Zionist celebrity. The packed crowds who came to hear him speak learned of the opportunity to buy the thirty-thousand-dunam Hefer Valley and thereby link Haifa and Tel Aviv. The Canadians delivered: Ussishkin would sail home with $309,000 in checks for the next major JNF purchase after the Jezreel Valley.[33]

When Ussishkin died of a heart attack on October 10, 1941, the entire Jewish world mourned him. The collection of obituaries from the Jewish press around the world, kept at the JNF archives, is remarkable.[34] The ubiquitous JNF blue boxes made Ussishkin the best-known Zionist leader of his day, with the possible exception of Chaim Weizmann. His death was the top story from Melbourne to Montreal.

But by then Ussishkin's work was largely over. The advent of World War II and the tough British restriction on Jewish land acquisition outside of the Negev finally slowed JNF's relentless land acquisition. Meanwhile, however, the JNF under Ussishkin had bought close to a million dunams of land that literally shaped the borders for the new state.[35] (Zionist publica-tions wistfully speak of a JNF deal that almost went through in Samaria in the 1940s and could have led to Jewish sovereignty there as well.)


Menahem Ussishkin's lukewarm commitment to trees was typical of early Zionist leaders. Herzl, having witnessed “the barrenness of the land” in 1900 during his only visit to Palestine, seemed to support anything that

offered some shade. In his diary he called for the planting of ten million trees in Palestine.[36] Yet given the many emergencies facing the Zionist movement, initiatives in this area remained symbolic. An interesting Herzlian anecdote foreshadowed future controversies surrounding Zionist forestry. During this visit Herzl participated in a tree-planting ceremony outside of Jerusalem. After his death, the cypress tree he planted was mys-teriously uprooted, allegedly by anti-Zionist orthodox Jews who found his secular viewpoint blasphemous. But the Zionists got the last word, plant-ing another two hundred saplings on the site with much fanfare.[37]

The forests envisioned by the European Zionists were decidedly European in nature. Herzl embraced forests as a Zionist issue only after discussions with Otto Warburg, a professor of botany and an expert in African and Asian flora. (Warburg was also a politician who ultimately be-came the third president of the Zionist Organization.) Warburg confirmed that planting trees would improve the country's climate and economy, and he recommended a decidedly non-Middle Eastern planting mix of African, Asian, and Australian fruit trees.[38]

The impulse to plant trees went beyond pragmatic and political consid-erations of preventing erosion and asserting Jewish ownership. There was a deeper psychological component to the JNF vision of land redemption. The Jewish immigrants saw the treeless land as more than ugly; they saw it as abandoned and awaiting a redeemer. Trees not only transformed the landscape into something more familiar and hospitable—the woods also evoked the freedom of the European settlers' youth. They were a source of spiritual renewal, a validating biological symbol of their hopes for a Jewish and Hebrew cultural renaissance.

Although forestry held a respectable place in the JNF's general ideol-ogy, it made for better rhetoric than policy. In terms of budget and orga-nizational energy, it remained a low policy priority. For example, soon after he was elected chairman in 1922, Ussishkin presented to the JNF an organizational strategy that barely mentioned forestry. Trees were consid-ered by Ussishkin to be primarily sentimental, at best an exigency re-quired because under the old Turkish law the JNF had to demonstrate pos-session of purchased land if it were to maintain ownership. Ussishkin's strategic plan for the JNF cited forestry only in passing, as a tool for gar-nering small donations from communities that wanted to name forests after themselves.[39] By 1948 trees covered only about twelve thousand dunams, or 1 percent of all JNF lands.[40]

Perhaps the strongest proof that forestry was not a serious part of the original JNF mission was the establishment of a separate “Olive Tree

Donations” fund in 1903 by the Sixth Zionist Congress. Donors could pur-chase a tree for six deutsche marks. For Otto Warburg, who spearheaded the initiative, both their longevity and the economic potential made olive trees the natural choice. Soon this fund was merged with the JNF, but it would take a full decade for the JNF to launch an afforestation project. Herzl's death in 1904, at the age of forty-four, provided the impetus (and fund-raising opportunity) for the JNF's first memorial forest east of Jaffa. The project was a dreadful failure, however.[41] Ravaged by the violence and anarchy of World War I, the wooded area had dropped from 1400 to 173 dunams, with only some fourteen thousand trees left standing.[42]

In fact, some afforestation efforts in the Yishuv that preceded the es-tablishment of the JNF were highly successful. For example, Jamal Pasha, Ottoman commander of the Jaffa region and later of the entire colony, was hardly a friend of Jewish settlement, yet he had a begrudging respect for their afforestation achievements. After visiting Rishon L'Tzion in the early 1900s, he was so impressed by the ability of groves planted there to con-tain the Mediterranean sand dunes that he granted the settlers rights to continue their efforts until they reached the sea. This decision infuriated the local Arab populations, who frequently responded by uprooting the plantings even though their own lands stood to benefit from the soil con-servation efforts.[43]

The eucalyptus emerged as the Yishuv's tree of choice during this pe-riod. Prior to 1920, some 78 percent of all JNF trees were eucalyptus.[44] The first eucalyptus seeds were sent to Palestine in the 1880s from Australia. Several characteristics soon led to their popularity. First, they are fast-growing trees. In six years they can grow twenty meters tall with a one-meter trunk radius. In 1939, fifty-five years after they were first planted, the first eucalyptus trees at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school were close to fifty meters in height. Second, eucalyptus was seen as the most ef-fective biological assistant in overall swamp-reclamation efforts. Their thirsty root system enables eucalyptus trees to flourish in wetlands, and they have been used around the world to dry swamps.[45]

In 1900 eucalyptus trees were first introduced on a large scale by Baron Edmond de Rothschild's development agency, PICA, as a swamp-draining measure in Hadera. No forestry work was more thankless.[46] The business of planting eucalyptus was so nasty that one of Rothschild's agents decided to compensate the foresters by giving them each a bottle of cognac per day as a perk. Morale quickly improved, and although workers began to arrive at work completely drunk, this did not seem to affect the productivity of their labor.[47]


Soon the eucalyptus spread out far beyond the original towns of Petah Tikva and Zichron Yaakov. The tree was usually planted in the springtime in communities and settlements throughout the Yishuv. So common was the tree that Arabs began to call it shajarat al-Yahud, or “the Jews' tree.” The greatest enthusiasts harbored illusions of the eucalyptus providing the basis for a local lumber industry; a crate factory even sprang up briefly in Jaffa that relied solely on eucalyptus wood.[48] It was only logical that the JNF would continue this trend when it assumed the role as chief forester of the Yishuv. During the 1920s, however, the tree fell out of favor. Between 1920 and 1925, 53 percent of all JNF trees planted were eucalyp-tus. A year later the rate dropped to 32 percent, and by 1930 JNF hardly planted them at all.[49] What were the reasons for the disenchantment? Fifty years later, ecologists around the world came to loathe the Australian tree that had immigrated so enthusiastically. Eucalyptus trees were seen as adversely affecting the soil, water cycle, wildlife, biodiversity, fire cycle, and local vegetation.[50] The JNF's reasons for discontinuation, however, were more prosaic. There were fewer wetlands that needed to be drained.[51]


When the JNF returned to its afforestation work at the Herzl Forest after the Great War, it no longer planted fruit trees. As it began a more system-atic forestry effort, cypress, tamarisk, acacia, casuarina (beefwood), and, ul-timately, pine replaced the eucalyptus. Chaim Blass, who began his long career in the JNF afforestation department during the Ussishkin period, explains the rationale behind that era's approach:

Foresting really began with the first kibbutzim that took on projects of a few hundred dunams with JNF money. There were two ideological goals to the initiative. First, to help the economies of the kibbutz. But there was also a practical element: holding the lands, so that they wouldn't revert to Arab hands. And tree planting was a good way to achieve it. First of all, British law protected trees, which provided us with some legitimacy. And there was no activity that could hold land as cheaply as forests. Just a year or two's work and the trees really didn't need any more help.[52]

For the Jewish settlers who actually did the planting, trees indeed meant steady paying jobs. Aesthetics, however, offered a motivational bonus, although not always enough to overcome the drudgery of the work. One of the kibbutz members who made a living planting JNF trees in 1921 was a recently arrived American immigrant named Golda Meirson,

who would later shorten her last name to Meir. She found the job miser-able, but in retrospect was extremely proud that both she and her trees survived.[53]

The JNF afforestation policy prior to 1948 was devised by Akiva Ettinger, one of the JNF's first scientists. Ettinger had a Ph.D. in agronomy and had studied in Germany. He was sent by Baron Maurice de Hirsch to travel around the world to look for appropriate farmlands for Jewish set-tlement. He began work at the JNF after it relocated to The Hague during World War I. When he later moved to Palestine, he brought with him clear ideas about how forestry should be conducted there: “Planting many fast-growing trees that do not require long-term maintenance, and at the same time planting on lands that cannot be utilized for agriculture other than forestry, such as rocky lands, swamps, and moving sand dunes.”[54] No one played a greater role in implementing Ettinger's practical but ultimately controversial JNF strategy than his assistant and successor, Yosef Weitz.


When Yosef Weitz was appointed head of the JNF lands and afforestation department in 1932, afforestation received a great boost. Weitz brought a forester's bias to the job, although the new position involved general re-sponsibility for land acquisition and settlement. He would remain the key player at the JNF until his death forty years later and would deserve his nickname, “the father of the forests” (Figure 6). Indeed, probably no sin-gle sector of Israel's environment was influenced by a single individual as much as Israeli forests were by Yosef Weitz. Weitz was a truly prolific writer, so we know much about him. His personal diaries stretch on for five volumes, and his definitive 1970 history, Forestry and Afforestation in Israel, is almost autobiographical.

Forestry was not Weitz's first love. He had grown up around wood, be-cause his father was in the lumber business, but when he left his small town in Russia for Palestine at the age of eighteen, he was a typical Second Aliyah farmer. Steeped in the culture and politics of Labor Zionism, he started as an agricultural worker in Rehovoth in 1908, moved on to Hadera, and eventually reached the Galilee. There, at Sejira, he was made a farm manager owing to his formidable organizational skills and work ethic. He was also very smart, and, like many of his generation who never attended university, he displayed extraordinary autodidactic talents. His collected papers in the JNF archives in Jerusalem reveal all sorts of sur-prises, including a 1919 academic journal article that he wrote in French

about sand dune reclamation techniques. A few months after this publica-tion appeared, the JNF came calling (Figure 7).

When Akiva Ettinger, then the JNF's chief agronomist, asked Weitz to join his staff, the immigrant farm manager was already 31 with no formal training in forestry. But he was a quick study. Weitz's longtime personal assistant, Shimon Ben Shemesh, believes that most of his boss's strategies, as well as his conceptual approach to afforestation, were taken directly from Ettinger. Yet Weitz gets credit for several JNF innovations—such as importing the first date palms from Egypt to the Kinneret and to Degania and bringing carob scions from Cyprus for grafting.[55]

Weitz's career was a marathon run during which he rarely slowed down. Throughout the fifty years he worked at the JNF, photographs of him show the same erect figure with wire spectacles, thinning hair, dark mustache, enormous walking stick, and very few smiles. The first foresters who worked under him during the 1930s speak of him adoringly as a father figure,[56] but Weitz's public persona was strictly authoritarian. In the early days of the new nation, Professor Heinrich Mendelssohn came to talk with Weitz about setting aside some lands in the Huleh swamp as a nature reserve before the JNF drained the land. “He started screaming at me and banging on the table. ‘You want the land for the an-imals and plants, and if it was up to you, there'd be none left for the Jews. You're an ocher Yisrael (an enemy of Israel),’ he yelled and then threw me out of his office. I remember he called me an ocher Yisrael, because my Hebrew has never been that great, and I had to look the expression up in the dictionary.”[57]

Weitz was never comfortable as an office bureaucrat. His diaries are filled with the frustration of a caged bird, and he sounds truly happy only when recounting his numerous trips across the country. Environmentalists who passionately opposed his approach to develop-ment still retained great respect for his familiarity with the specifics of local geography.[58] A field visit by Weitz would begin at 6:00 a.m., with workers joining him at his home for a full breakfast that always included an omelet.[59] Often he brought his wife or one of his three sons on visits. Ben Shemesh fondly remembers Weitz's inclination to convene depart-mental meetings under the shade of the trees.[60] Despite his reputation for stubbornness, however, Weitz eventually would make his peace with the environmentalists and show remarkable intellectual openness.

During the War of Independence, Weitz was the leading figure on the three-member “Transfer Committee,” which sought to expedite the depar-ture of local Arabs, and which operated at first with tacit and later formal

approval of the prime minister.[61] As a result, some historians have painted a one-dimensional picture of Weitz as a callous, Arab-hating official.[62] That view, however, ignores the historical circumstances as well as Weitz's tire-less efforts to offer Arabs compensation for lost lands. As an indication of his actual position on the Palestinian issue, he opposed occupation of the West Bank after 1967 and even refused to attend dedication ceremonies when old JNF settlements at Gush Etzion were resurrected.[63]

It is a much more sentimental Weitz that emerges from his diary. Recalling his first serious afforestation effort with stone pine trees (Pinus pinea L.) in the Herzl Forest at Huldah in 1922, he wrote:

One morning, I'm coming up the road from the train, filled with blissful expectations of “the forest.” I climb, skipping up the incline to see my soft, newly nurtured darlings. But then they came into view and my eyes turned black. The green saplings had turned brown, except for a few isolated ones here and there, and from the heights I could hear the ridicule of the Angel of Death. I fall to my knees and gently touch the saplings. Needles crumble and fall, leaving only a few orphaned needles behind. I dig out all the soil around the saplings to uncover the mystery of their sudden demise, and I don't find anything but a broken heart and tears in my eyes. I was ashamed of myself. My heart asked remorsefully: “What will I show Ettinger?” and total failure encompassed and followed me.[64]

Weitz not only had to overcome grief from lost trees: His youngest and dearest son, Yehiam, was killed in a 1946 Palmach demolition attack. In a posthumously published journal entry he writes: “I don't have the courage to go out on the street, to come to the office, to look at the everyday world. Only the plants in the garden look at me honestly. It is only with them that I can talk.”[65] Still, Weitz would bounce back and lead the JNF through its most ecologically controversial period.


In absolute terms, before 1948 JNF forestry was overshadowed by British efforts.[66] Nonetheless, this period has enormous conceptual significance. In a sense, the thirty years of the Mandate served as a pilot run during which the JNF established the strategy that would accompany it during its most intensive period of afforestation after Israel's independence. It was during the 1930s that the Aleppo (or Hebrew, or “Jerusalem”) pine (P. halepensis) became the dominant tree in JNF forests. Its emergence was swift. At the start of the 1920s, JNF forestry projects were initiated at eight sites. The foresters had no clear preference for any given tree type, eucalyptus experience

notwithstanding. They experimented with a variety of species and combinations. On three mountainous locations (Ben Shemen, Huldah, and Kiryat Anavim) the stone pine was favored. The five wetland and sand dune planting locations (Beer Tuviah, Rishon L'Tzion, Merchaviah, Kinneret, and Degania) featured eucalyptus and tamarisk.

By the time work commenced at the larger Balfour Forest near Kibbutz Ginnegar and Mishmar ha-Emeq in 1929, needle-leafed conifers, in particu-lar pine trees, had captured JNF hearts and minds. For the JNF foresters, the results looked like what a forest should be. The trees seemed adaptable to various climates and seasonal rain patterns. Most of all, they grew quickly. By 1936, forest plantings were integrated in the creation of new settlements such as ha-Zorea, Chanita, Ein ha-Shofet, and Kfar Choresh. In 1939, before World War II slowed afforestation efforts, over half of the JNF forests were located in the general vicinity of the Jezreel Valley.[67] All were planted in Jerusalem pine, with little use of stone and brutia (P. brutia) pine species.[68] Many veteran JNF foresters argue that it was available terrain rather than doctrine that was behind the shift in inclination to pine trees.[69] But as is often the case, exigency can turn into ideology.

The scientific debate about the indigenousness of the Aleppo or Jerusalem pine species has not been entirely resolved. For years the prevailing view was that of the noted botanist Michael Zohari, who saw the tree as the proverbial etz ha-shemen, or “tree of oil” from the Bible. He emphatically argued that even where no signs survive today, before man's intervention the hills of Israel were covered with pine trees. The tree might even be climax flora (the fully developed natural vegetation when ecological equilibrium is reached with climate and soil) in areas from Zfat to Samaria.[70] This view is now dis-puted. Based on genetic and enzyme analysis, later researchers would show that the brutia pine was in fact the dominant local variety. Their tests suggest that the Jerusalem pine is predominantly a North African species whose seeds were imported in ancient days and planted in isolated locations.[71]

How in twentieth-century Israel did the Jerusalem pine attain this “most favored tree” status? (In 1994, two decades after its official fall from grace, this species of pine tree still constituted more than half of the forested lands in Israel.[72]) In an extremely thorough study of JNF planting records, Nili Lipshitz and Gideon Biger of Tel Aviv University document the sudden ascendance of the Jerusalem pine, which came to dominate JNF afforestation for fifty years. As early as 1918 Akiva Ettinger reported the first JNF plantings of Jerusalem pine. They were only 4 percent of the trees planted in the Herzl Forest, hardly noticeable when half of the groves were eucalyptus.[73] Of this original pine stand, only 13 percent survived World

War I. In future comparisons, however, Jerusalem pines consistently out-performed the oak trees planted between 1926 and 1929 at Kiryat Anavim, as well as the carobs and other species in the Balfour and Mishmar ha-Emeq Forests. Yosef Weitz began to take note.

When the Jerusalem pine successfully replaced his failed crop of stone pines at the Huldah site, Weitz was sure he had found a winner. The per-centage of Jerusalem pines planted skyrocketed; by 1926 they constituted more than 50 percent of the 69,335 JNF trees planted in Palestine. After 1930 this percentage would increase to 86 percent, and peak at 98 percent in 1934.[74] What was the appeal of this particular conifer? A 1936 article by Weitz, “Forest Trees in the Land of Israel: The Jerusalem Pine,” spared no praise of this botanical wonder, revealing the JNF thinking that prevailed until the 1970s:

For one, it adapts to different climates: from the Jordan Valley, the wasteland receives its shade. In Jericho and Degania you will meet it. In the coastal plains and in the Sharon it will flourish, and on mountains eight hundred to one thousand meters above sea level. For another, it does not discriminate according to soil type. It is happy to blossom in sandy and organic soils alike, and even on rocks it sends its roots to explode them and grab hold. It finds soils rich in lime to be most pleasant, so it can be planted in the most desolate places in the land. And, finally, it expands and grows quickly.[75]

With Weitz overseeing every detail, an entire JNF science was developed for planting pine trees, as foresters moved up the learning curve and cor-rected flaws in their silviculture technique for the species.

JNF pine forests in this period were perhaps most distinct for their high density of planting. Forests around the world rarely have more than one thousand trees per hectare (one hundred per dunam), leaving ten square meters per tree. In contrast, even at the end of the 1960s JNF tree density typically reached four to six hundred per dunam.[76] High-density plantings were thought to offer a visually satisfying rapid green cover, inhibit com-peting vegetation, direct tree energy into the main trunk rather than the branches, and ensure sufficient numbers of surviving trees.[77]

The real reason for the density, however, was the JNF vision of an Israeli timber industry. Intensive growth might make forests impassable for hikers, but would increase their profitability as tree farms.[78] The silvi-culture life-cycle theory adopted by the JNF advocated continuous prun-ing until trees reached the age of fifteen. More important, thinning was supposed to be done ten years after the planting of saplings and to be re-peated every five or six years until the end of the forest's rotation, at about

age fifty. By that time, tree density might be as low as twenty-five to thirty trees per dunam.[79] Yet this schedule was rarely met, because of personnel constraints. The result was unnaturally straight stands of weakened trees that were vulnerable to fire, prone to collapse in storms, and highly sus-ceptible to drought.[80]

Although the planting menu favored by British government foresters during the Mandate was more diverse than that of the JNF, roughly half of the thirty-one million trees the British planted be-tween 1920 and 1948 were also pine. Unlike the JNF, the government workforce was almost entirely Arab. But the British also saw forestry as an important step in fighting soil erosion, stabilizing sand dunes, and providing timber for the local economy. The fact that the British also preferred P. halepensis was interpreted for many years as a vote of con-fidence in JNF forestry methods.[81]


Jerusalem pine trees have a natural life expectancy of eighty to one hun-dred years; if irrigated, they may live to be 150. In fact, only a fraction sur-vived that long. The pine forests of both the British and the JNF were under a constant state of siege prior to 1948. Arson and other forms of what Mandate officials called “political sabotage” were a constant problem for the JNF; the Jerusalem pine's flammable sap literally added fuel to the proverbial flames. During the Arab Revolt of 1936, vandalism became so violent that JNF planting efforts became unsafe. This led to a strategy of pairing a young forest with an adjacent kibbutz that could protect it. The Arabs saw the forests as easy military targets, and, in fact, the young forests were used to conceal the illegal bunkers and clandestine military training of the Haganah and Palmach.

In retrospect, the Arab disturbances proved counterproductive. The JNF defiantly planted one million saplings between 1936 and 1938, almost dou-ble previous afforestation efforts.[82] The arson doubly backfired, much as the Intifada would fifty years later: While foresters became more vigilant, JNF fund-raisers were quite adept at exploiting the destruction of helpless trees. The JNF budget expanded considerably in the late 1930s, as a sym-pathetic Jewish public around the world dug into their pockets to fight the flames with record donations.[83]

But the greatest threat to the young forests was not from fires but from insects—in particular an aphid known locally as the Jerusalem pine blast (Matsucoccus josephi). Lipshitz and Biger's research suggests that as early

as 1933 the first definitive scientific identification of the blasts was made on the Carmel.[84] Damage to trees from this persistent airborne pest in-cludes both acute and chronic injuries. The crawlers love everything about Jerusalem pines, settling on all parts of the tree that lie above ground. The preferred sites are the partially smooth stem sections with scaly bark in mature trees and the buds and the base of the fast-growing shoots. The pests dry out the branches and in acute cases cause the death of the tree within months. When damage is chronic, the process can last for decades, as limbs slowly dry and atrophy.[85]

In 1935, with a 70 percent loss in the Mishmar ha-Emeq forest, JNF forestry officials could no longer ignore the scourge. A formal scientific survey revealed that, in contrast, the stone pines in the forest were un-harmed.[86] Several of the Yishuv's top botanists, including Hebrew University professors Hillel Oppenheimer and Fritz Bodenheimer, were enlisted in the research efforts. (Oppenheimer's site visits to the JNF's northern forests were coordinated by Sharon Weitz, Yosef's middle son, who had already joined his father's afforestation department and would eventually run it.) The chief government entomologist, Dr. Karl Shveig, identified other problematic pests such as the caterpillar Evetria rhyacca buoliana (nicknamed by Shveig the “Pine Fire”). But the biological detec-tives explicitly singled out the Matsucoccus blasts as the key guilty party.

There was little the entomologists could do to help, however, particu-larly once the upper branches of trees became infested. This scientific im-potence was apparent in October 1938 when Professor Oppenheimer sub-mitted his report to Weitz. The professor sounded a clear warning about the long-term implications of the pest problem: “After the disease has spread to such a great extent, I doubt if we can continue to successfully grow forests comprised only of densely planted Jerusalem pines.”[87] The warning went unheeded. Although allowing for some diversity among its conifers, on the whole JNF managers remained obtuse for forty years. Planting policy eventually changed, but as recently as 1969 JNF literature still hailed the Jerusalem pine as its flagship species.[88]


On March 10, 1949, two Israeli brigades took competing routes down through Israel's southern Arava to see who would be first to reach the po-lice station at Um Rash Rash at the northern tip of the Red Sea. They both made it safely; not a shot was fired as Israel's southern border was thus forged. The armistice agreement with Egypt had been signed two weeks

earlier on the island of Rhodes. The War of Independence was over, and the newly independent State of Israel woke to discover that it held over twenty million dunams of land—far more than that allocated under the UN-approved partition plan. With the exception of the Etzion block, which fell to Jordan early in the war, the borders included virtually all the JNF forests.

The creation of the State of Israel touched off something of an identity crisis for the Jewish National Fund. Military victories had expeditiously completed the primary mission for which the JNF had toiled so patiently and steadfastly: The land of Israel was under Jewish jurisdiction. What was left to be done? Even in the area of forestry, the JNF was no longer the only player. Israel's Ministry of Agriculture inherited the British forestry department, whose professional experience and woodlands exceeded those of the JNF. To complicate matters, the future of the JNF was linked to a broader issue: the relationship between its parent institution, the Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel it had created.

There was no real reason for concern, however. No one ever thought se-riously about closing down the JNF. Despite tension with the JNF over Arab refugee policy, Aaron Zisling, the leftist Mapam party interim Minister of Agriculture, wrote to the JNF Directorate requesting that it continue its work.[89] Actual land purchases by the JNF, in fact, reached a new peak immediately after the War of Independence: On the block were the so-called Absentee Properties—lands abandoned by Arabs during the course of hostilities. The JNF believed that it, rather than the State, should hold these lands. First of all, it assumed that the Fund would be in a better position to pay for the “millions” in compensation that would ultimately be exacted. Second, given the instability of the new State politically, and Israel's unresolved demographic situation, the JNF felt better able to guar-antee Jewish land ownership.[90] Yosef Weitz took the lead in negotiations with his old Second Aliyah comrades who now held power.

The new Israeli government was initially receptive to Weitz's over-tures. As a result, JNF land holdings tripled between 1948 and 1954, from 936,000 to 3,396,333 dunams. The acquisition of such controversial lands remains an enormous source of bitterness and outrage for Arab-Israelis and Palestinians, who still see the JNF as representing the most imperial-istic aspects of Zionism. As the diplomatic stalemate set in and Israel's map stabilized, however, the government reconsidered its position, and the real-estate sweepstakes promptly ceased. When James de Rothschild, Edmond's son, transferred the baron's remaining Israeli land holdings to the JNF in 1957 (including 3,000 dunams of woodlands),[91] this brought

JNF-owned territory close to its final level of 3.6 million dunams or 15 percent of the country's lands.[92]

Fundraising was reason enough for the state to preserve the organiza-tional infrastructure of the JNF, a nongovernmental corporation with a nonpolitical persona, forty-eight national affiliates around the globe, and unparalleled name recognition among Jewish communities in the world. In retrospect, however, this was probably the least compelling reason to con-tinue the JNF. After the creation of the State of Israel, the JNF was no longer dependent on donations from the Diaspora: In 1997, for instance, 83 percent of the its budget came from payments of Israeli leases.[93] United Jewish Appeal and Israel bonds would soon supplant the high profile of the JNF in Diaspora fund-raising.

The JNF scandal of 1996, however, offers an excellent example of how detached the Israeli JNF program has become from its Diaspora supporters since independence. That year, American JNF offices were rocked by jour-nalist Yosef Abramowitz's claims of illegal diversion of funds to South American JNF offices and general mismanagement.[94] A subsequent probe revealed that despite its slogan that “Israel is our only business,” only 21 percent of U.S. donations to the JNF were reaching Israel. The scandal resulted in the unceremonious resignation of the JNF's senior American management.[95] Before 1948 this sort of public-relations debacle would have been a major source of concern for the Yishuv, but now the story failed to crack the newspapers in Israel.

Of course, sentimental factors, as well as the natural tendency of bu-reaucracies to perpetuate themselves, helped keep the JNF alive after the establishment of the State. There was a substantive reason too, however. With colossal challenges facing a young nation in every conceivable sphere, the government of Israel was truly relieved to have an existing and reliable nongovernment agency to which it could delegate some of its functions. It would take a decade for the formalities to be worked out, but the new focus of the JNF was soon apparent: infrastructure and agricul-tural land development, with a particular emphasis on forestry. The JNF would maintain its status as an independent institution within the World Zionist Organization, working with the Jewish people in Israel and abroad to raise funds “for the redemption of the land from its barrenness.”[96]

The JNF would require internal and external reorganization to adapt to this new role. The first formal institutional change by the JNF after inde-pendence was the establishment of a legal entity in Israel for the Jewish National Fund.[97] Since 1907, the JNF had been registered as an English company, Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael Ltd.[98] Now it was established as an

Israeli corporation: Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael. Working out a relationship between the JNF and its government counterparts in areas where activities overlapped was a thornier task. The functional division of labor in the area of afforestation was set forth in a 1949 proposal by Weitz: The govern-ment's Forestry Division would be involved in applied research into plant-ing techniques, particularly in semiarid areas, and into industrial timber opportunities as well. In addition, the government would establish nurs-eries for subsidized distribution of saplings to citizens and for educational initiatives. The JNF, in turn, would be responsible for improving indige-nous forests, afforesting hilly regions, stopping the spread of sand dunes, and planting windbreaks. In addition, the Israeli army formed a special tree-planting unit to shield sensitive roads from enemy cannon and rifle sights.[99]

As is often the case, sorting out responsibilities was easier on paper than in the field. Amihu Goor and his staff at the Ministry of Agriculture's Forestry Department were perceived by JNF leaders as tainted by their as-sociation with Mandate foresters. (Goor, whose sister had married the son of England's first High Commissioner to Palestine and who had completed degrees at Oxford and Yale, perceived himself as something of an aristo-crat during the Mandate.[100] Those credentials did little to endear him to Yosef Weitz.) Coordination between the competing agencies fell apart, and the appointed liaison committee soon stopped meeting. The inefficiency associated with duplication of efforts set in.

The problem was not limited to civilian government foresters. JNF foresters saw the commander of the military's forestry division, General Akiva Atzmon, as unrealistic and suffering from perennial flights of fan-tasy.[101] It was not until 1959 that the government granted the JNF full au-thority over afforestation, and it was not until 1964 that the Ministry of Agriculture bowed out of the forestry business altogether, disbanding its department.[102] The supremacy of the Forestry Department (operating under JNF's Land Development Department) in related matters was un-contested at last and remains so today. This remarkable autonomy en-trusted to a private agency has been criticized by environmentalists and developers alike. Ultimately the traditional autocratic approach was chal-lenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2001 ruled that present JNF forestry procedures were inherently undemocratic and illegal.[103]

The final stage in the institutional evolution of the JNF came about in its 1961 covenant with the Israeli government and in a series of Knesset laws that formalized government land policy in Israel. The covenant was the cul-mination of a lengthy negotiation process that began when Ben-Gurion

appointed a joint JNF-government committee in 1957 to consider issues of land ownership and development. By the time the covenant was signed on November 28, 1961, it was rendered a mere formality. The Knesset had already enacted a Basic Law for Lands some eighteen months earlier, which constituted a somewhat more binding statutory expression of the agree-ment. Of the covenant's principles, none had greater symbolic significance than the State's pronouncement that the land of Israel is owned by the Jewish people and must not be sold in perpetuity.[104]

The JNF entrusted the management of its lands to a newly established Israel Lands Administration, which also oversaw government holdings. In practice this means that leasehold agreements issued by the Lands Administration mirror the standard JNF contract prior to the covenant (for example, they run for 49 years with an option for renewal). Both en-tities maintain formal ownership of their lands. Supervision, however, is in the hands of the Israel Lands Administration, which is overseen by a coun-cil of six JNF and seven governmental representatives. The JNF retains the right to withdraw from the covenant if the Basic Law is repealed or amended without its approval.

It might have seemed that by transferring administrative authority for its lands to a government agency, the JNF struck a foolish deal, yielding its primary source of influence, but in retrospect the agreement turned out to be lucrative. The direct influence of the JNF was extended to the 92 per-cent of Israel's lands that were now State-administered. An Advisory Board to the Israel Lands Administration even has a JNF majority. Yosef Weitz was appointed as the first director of the Israel Lands Administration, during its first six years bringing his distinctively JNF perspective to the task. Most important, the JNF maintained the revenues from its considerable holdings. Had forestry been solely a governmental activity, its level of appropriations would be far smaller than the level it enjoys today. And despite being a nongovernmental corporation, the JNF maintains almost total independence in determining forest policy.


In a speech to the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces in 1949, Yosef Weitz described the state of the forests inherited by the JNF and his vision for the future. He classified 170,000 dunams of Israel's land as forest, cov-ering less than 1 percent of the country and consisting of dispersed tree stands of modest dimensions. He called for a 1700 percent increase in the nation's forestland.[105]


Weitz would have no trouble adapting to the JNF's new organizational identity and tackling the challenge of developing a forestry policy for the new nation. He had been waiting almost thirty years to do just that. For the first time his ambitious visions of a forested country enjoyed substantial political backing, and at the highest level: from the seemingly omnipotent prime minister. Not so much Zionist ideals as massive unemployment sent JNF planting into high gear. Ben-Gurion's enthusiasm for forestry is best understood within the dynamic context of Israeli demography, his Bible-thumping rhetoric notwithstanding. Almost overnight the population had grown from six hundred thousand to one million people. At the end of 1949, one in ten Israelis languished in immigrant camps. The situation in the camps was more than just a drain on national resources; it was demor-alizing both for a young country that failed to meet its own expectations and for disappointed and increasingly bitter immigrants.[106]

For many years JNF tree planting was inversely proportional to the na-tional employment situation. For instance, in the early 1960s, when the country reached full employment, plantings tapered off and work became more capital intensive. Plantings waxed again during the recession of the mid-1960s.[107] The massive wave of Russian and Ethiopian immigration that began at end of the 1980s once again put job creation on the JNF agenda.[108]

Chaim Blass recalls one of the most famous forestry stories of the pe-riod from August of 1949:“Ben-Gurion had no patience. He wanted to set-tle the country in one day. He came to Weitz after the War and told him that he wanted to plant one billion trees over the next decade—one hun-dred million a year. Imagine Yosef Weitz's frustration.”[109] In his diary, Weitz wondered whether the prime minister, who insisted on seeing the forests in political rather than botanical terms, had lost his mind.[110] Ben-Gurion was so concerned about unemployment that he pressured Weitz to plant in summertime, when the likelihood of success was lowest.[111]

Still, the JNF Forestry Department responded to the prime minister's marching orders with an unprecedented campaign.[112] Weitz, for his part, was strongly opposed to offering charity to new immigrants and saw in-culcation of a work ethic as a crucial part of acculturation.[113] Dividing its operations into four geographic regions, the JNF set up work villages where immigrants were sent to reclaim and plant JNF lands. The work was highly regimented, almost military in style, and the immigrants had to meet daily production quotas.[114]

Forestry thus became the paramount JNF task, because it was the most labor intensive. By 1950, Weitz could report to Ben-Gurion the planting of

a million eucalyptus and tamarisk seedlings for windbreaks and shelter belts in the Negev, with a 60 percent success rate. During the JNF fiscal year 5610 (1950/1951), 12,650 dunams were planted—four times the level of the previous year. In 1951/1952, the number increased to 56,400 dunams—five times the area that had been planted by JNF during its first fifty years![115] For the rest of the 1950s the number dropped to around twenty thousand dunams and six million trees per year.[116]

The JNF's accomplishments as an agricultural assistance agency during this period deserve mention along with its forestry work. The hundred new rural settlements established each year during the 1950s had a very tenuous economic basis. The contribution of JNF workers, who prepared some thirty thousand dunams a year for cultivation, was critical. The most ambitious of these projects, the controversial draining of the Huleh swamp, will be considered at length in the next chapter. This level of in-tensity eventually dissipated: During the 1960s the amount of soil recla-mation declined by 50 percent, reflecting an 80 percent drop in new settle-ments.[117] But JNF aid found other forms, including the start of a poultry industry for financially beleaguered mountain settlements.[118]

It was during the critical post-independence period that the JNF's new institutional identity came together. Three factors elevated afforestation's status during this process: its ability to offer a quick fix for unemployment; the need for the JNF to find a new organizational niche in an independent Israel; and Yosef Weitz's personal proclivities. When these factors combined with the commitment of Israel's early leaders to a pioneering culture of land settlement, and their desire to import a European natural aesthetic, JNF's new functional role was cast. With time, a more mature and sophis-ticated ecological program would emerge. But its roots remained planted in the unique circumstances that characterized the incipient State of Israel.


Mordechai Ruach arrived in Israel from Egypt in 1949 at the start of the mass migration from Arab countries, and, like thousands of other immi-grants from countries such as Morocco, Yemen, and Kurdistan, he found temporary employment with the JNF. The work was hard because it was designed to be labor intensive and light on capital. Workers used simple hoes, shovels, and manual drills. Israelis were typically cynical about the quality of the JNF's immigrant employees, whose work was subsidized by the Ministry of Labor. Chaim Blass still bristles at such sneers when re-calling the dedication of these olim to the new forestry projects.[119] Ruach

also remembers most clearly the zeal of fellow immigrant workers who, like the Second Aliyah pioneers fifty years earlier, saw planting as a form of personal redemption and a sacred rite. Newly arrived Yemenite workers would kiss the ground each time they finished planting a row.[120]

Because of the unprecedented magnitude of the planting, improvisation characterized much of the decision making in the field. To a certain extent this was unavoidable. Even under normal circumstances, rainfall can un-dermine the best-laid plans and afforestation schedules: A few weeks with-out rain in the winter can jeopardize a planting timetable, and plentiful showers can extend a season beyond expectations. Weather offered many surprises during that energetic period. During Haifa's freak snowstorm of 1950, for example, a desperate effort to shovel the snow off pine seedlings in the country's largest nursery proved hopeless. To the astonishment of the foresters, those trees left safely under the protective snow blanket sur-vived, whereas the few exposed seedlings died.[121]

One failed experiment from the period involved carob trees. The carob is not mentioned in the Bible but figures prominently in the Mishna and Talmud, suggesting that it was imported from Yemen with the Nabateans after the destruction of the First Temple.[122] The carob tree has thick dark evergreen leaves that form a broad green crown. The black pods of the carob are rich in sugar and are sometimes used as a chocolate substitute. Although materials in the pods can be extracted for certain paints and glue, Weitz was most excited by their potential to replace imported fodder for cows and poultry. The tree requires deep soil where plowing is possible, but it can also survive in relatively high altitudes with little rainfall. JNF ex-periments indicated that one ton of carob fruit could be harvested from each dunam of trees. Twenty thousand dunams were planted alongside the conifers in the Judean hills and the Galilee. Then suddenly dairy farmers began complaining that the fruit inhibited milk production. The project was abandoned, but the trees remain.[123]

By this time, JNF planners were making a clear distinction between protective and productive forests. Along with their political, military, and aesthetic benefits, the former were designed to prevent erosion, stop sand dune movement, and mitigate the effects of dust storms. They were not designed to produce wood. Although most JNF officials argue that economic profit was never a key factor in planting strategies, some foresters, educated in Europe, clung to illusory hopes for a serious Israeli timber industry.[124] Even in the late 1980s, JNF planners had to provide as-surances that new tree species could eventually be logged to support the elusive particle-board industry.[125]


Today, timber yields exceed one hundred thousand tons per year, showing a steady increase. Roughly 40 percent of the wood comes from thinning activities, another 40 percent comes from felling conifers, and the remaining 20 percent from eucalyptus trees.[126] This provides about 10 percent of domestic wood consumption. While this is not an insignif-icant level, logging no longer seems to influence JNF decision makers or supporters.


The pace and magnitude of the postwar tree-planting blitz did not go un-noticed by the small, but vocal, environmental community in the nascent State. Without exception, Israeli environmentalists liked forests and the biodiversity they could support. Yet sterile rows of scrawny JNF pines, sep-arated by fire lines into symmetrical matrices, left them with a cold sense of alienation rather than any renewed feeling of closeness to nature.[127] As the JNF brought mass-production forestry to greater and greater tracts of Israel's land, the results produced indignation.

In fact, the first organized environmental campaign in the State of Israel was directed against a JNF plan to establish a settlement on the site of a native oak forest. A coalition of activist zoologists and members of Kibbutz Alonim wrote Yosef Weitz: “We sacrificed strength and blood so that these ancient oaks wouldn't be destroyed by our Arab neighbors. There is no justification for these trees to be uprooted by the State of Israel.” Weitz assented and ordered the plan revised to preserve the trees.[128] This case of accommodation was an exception that proved the rule. To begin with there was an ideological divide that was difficult to bridge. “A forest is not just trees but other plants, as well as a place for an-imals to live,” railed conservation leader Azariah Alon. “The foresters re-fused to accept this: ‘We're foresters—not zookeepers,’ they said.”[129]

Little enraged environmentalists more than JNF methods of planting. As the JNF acquired heavy equipment, tree plantings took on the sort of envi-ronmental insensitivity usually associated with Green caricaturizations of agribusiness. The attack was multipronged. First, fires were lit to erase any remnant of indigenous bushes, trees, and brush. Next, bulldozers were brought on to sweep away the debris; then plows prepared the soil for plant-ing. Finally, pesticides ensured that the new pine seedlings would not be troubled by other undesirable biological activity. Environmentalists charged that the underlying soil inevitably suffered from the relentless onslaught, while the surrounding ecosystem was irreversibly knocked off balance.


Once the trees grew, their needles formed a highly acidic ground cover that decomposed very slowly. The result was a sterile forest bed inhos-pitable to additional undergrowth and to most animal populations. Environmentalists coined the term “the pine deserts” to describe them, seeing even humans as aliens among the crowded rows of skinny trees. Although Israelis make their way in droves to these forests during holi-days, they tend to stay in the crowded picnic/playground chanyonim and rarely wander the forests themselves. Professor Mendelssohn rejects the term “forests” altogether for these sites: “The JNF planted pine orchards. A forest is an ecosystem that develops over thousands of years.”[130]

In addition to the ecological critique, there was an aesthetic one. As Knesset Member Rachel Zabari complained in parliament, despite their os-tensible contribution to security, the walls of JNF trees blocked scenic vis-tas.[131] JNF foresters generally lacked a sense of landscape. For instance, the same fire prevention lines that cut the woods into perpendicular farming cubes could have been designed to flow with the contours of the land.[132]

Another complaint that became more angry with time involved the use of chemicals. During the 1960s, the JNF foresters' reliance on pesticides grew. Environmentalists could not forgive the JNF for pressing on with Jerusalem pine monoculture, even after JNF's own scientific research sug-gested that the Matsucoccus aphids undermined its sustainability. The results could only be decimation or chemical dependence. Chemicals were used in the fight against each of the three primary adversaries of trees: weeds, fires, and pests. Until the trees' second year, when saplings are strong enough to withstand competitive flora, they need weeding twice in the springtime (weeds are less problematic during the dry summer months). The JNF's first forests were weeded by hoeing around the base of the trees, which subdued annual plants and reduced water loss to evaporation.[133] When the costs of labor increased, however, chemicals became the primary means of control. Foresters claim that their practices are fundamentally dif-ferent from agricultural chemical dependence. Crop farmers spray on an ongoing basis, whereas foresters apply herbicides only once or twice at the start of a forest's life cycle, which can last sixty years or more.[134] Yet this argument does not cover the growing role of herbicides in forest fire prevention, where spraying is continuous (the ten-meter fire prevention lines separating stands of trees are useless if they fill up with opportunistic brush). The argument also fails to address the change in the composition and diversity of natural species caused by the chemical applications.

The JNF herbicide of choice for many years has been simazine. Selected because of its marginal impact on perennials, the chemical successfully

prevents germination of annual plants. It is especially effective when ap-plied at the start of winter, after the first rains. Unfortunately simazine is also a hazardous poison and is classified as a possible carcinogen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to revoke the tolerance level for simazine in 1996 after studies indicated that the chemical caused cancer in female rats. Sheep and cattle are especially sensitive to it.[135] Seven European countries, including Germany, Holland, and Sweden, have im-posed stringent restrictions on comparable chemicals. The chemical is highly stable, making it a potential groundwater contaminant in addition to a potential health threat to people and animals that frequent the forest. The chemical was first identified in Israel's rural aquifers during the 1970s. Subsequent studies identified residue levels in groundwater two to three days after spraying that were orders of magnitude higher than the 0.004-milligram-per-liter standard set in the United States.[136]

Spraying has also been directed at a variety of insects that are enemies of Israel's pines. For example, the pine processionary caterpillar is prima-rily controlled through the aerial spraying of endosulfan and difluben-zuron.[137] Here again, the ecological impacts of decades of spraying have not been studied but may be extremely severe. Endosulfan is a chlorinated hydrocarbon (and therefore highly persistent), designed to damage in-sects' central nervous systems. Human exposure to endosulfan can lead quickly to lack of coordination, gagging, vomiting, diarrhea, agitation, con-vulsions, and loss of consciousness. The chemical causes cell mutations, al-though there is as yet insufficient data to classify endosulfan as a carcino-gen. Nonetheless, sheep, cows, and pigs that grazed in fields where the chemical was sprayed have gone blind, and there is much evidence indi-cating that birds and fish are particularly sensitive.[138]

In all fairness, it must be said that the JNF tries not to spray excessively. The quantities applied have been reduced, and foresters are at least di-rected to be more selective and spray only in critical situations.[139] For in-stance, although the Mediterranean pine shoot moth, a common Middle Eastern pest, attacks all species of pines, especially when they are young, it generally destroys only shoots and does not kill the trees. Hence the JNF does not spray against it.[140] And the damage that rats do to carob trees has no chemical panacea, so no spraying is attempted. And as for the pesky Matsucoccus josephi and the Jerusalem pines, years of research concluded that continuous, good-old-fashioned pruning probably offers the best de-fense.[141] Behold, the saw is mightier than the spray.

It is possible that Rachel Carson's 1961 polemic against pesticides, Silent Spring, influenced the Forestry Department. Since the 1960s, official

JNF publications have bemoaned the side effects of spraying, and Israeli forest managers have called for biological alternatives, including the development of natural predator populations so as “not to upset the bio-logical equilibrium in woodlands.”[142] However, when one considers the ample budget of the JNF and its broad research agenda, these calls seem to be nothing more than lip service. Integrated pest management as part of an ecological forestry strategy was never an organizational priority, and calls for alternatives to simazine made today may carry no more force than those made thirty years earlier.[143]

Conflicts between the JNF and environmentalists sometimes spilled over into the personal realm and could grow ugly. Although many JNF foresters and environmental advocates were actually friends, some were not. Azariah Alon remembers almost coming to blows with Sharon Weitz when the second-generation Weitz was in charge of the Northern Region Forestry Department. The Gilboa Mountain, famed for its iris flowers, lies across the valley from Alon's kibbutz, Beit ha-Shita. When he saw JNF planters coming to burn the lands and all the local flowers with them, it was too much and he brought kibbutz members with him to stop the JNF work. Eventually they agreed to submit the matter to Sharon's father, Yosef.[144] The compromise, a stark border between the open nature reserve and the shaded pine forest, is symbolic of the clashing aesthetic and eco-logical perceptions of the period.


Frequently the ideological fervor of the JNF left it deaf to environmental critiques, even when they were substantiated professionally. Novelist Meir Shalev relates a story from the 1950s when the JNF drained the Huleh swamp. A Dutch reclamation expert who was hired as a consultant warned that the peat in the ground could undermine the project. “Then the JNF hydrologist stood up, hit the table with his fist and declared, ‘Our peat is Zionist peat. Our peat will not do damage.’ As is known, the Dutch have much experience in the reclamation of land. But even they had not yet met land with a political conscience.”[145]

Perhaps in spite of its critics, however, the JNF perspective eventually began to change. It was not philosophy, but biological realism, that led to the shift away from planting Jerusalem pines. Quite simply, the insatiable M. josephi blasts thrived, and trees succumbed in an uncontrollable epi-demic. It became particularly dramatic when it snowed and weakened branches collapsed. Extensive damage to the Sha'ar ha-Gai forest on the

Jerusalem highway in the winter of 1972 was the most identifiable turn-ing point, but the process had begun much earlier. The press clamored for a simple explanation, and of course there was none.

“I had to call a press conference because it became a politically sensitive issue,” recalls JNF forester Chaim Blass. “The damaged trees were on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highways. Government ministers passed by them on their way to work and were bound to be confused by the reports. The Jerusalem Post threw up a headline: ‘The Sha'ar ha-Gai Forest Is Dying,’ but I explained that this is just a stage. There is undergrowth. And if you go see the forest, it really is still very much alive.”[146]

But press conferences could not save the trees. The crisis, which coin-cided with Yosef Weitz's death, brought with it the end of an era. A 1984 internal report described 20 percent of JNF pine plantations sustaining damage nationwide, with extensive mortality and damage among mature trees. At the same time, natural stands were largely uninfested.[147] By the end of the 1990s M. josephi spread to the forests in the previously unin-fected southern region, causing heavy damage.[148] The Forestry Department finally got the message.

During the 1970s, praise for Jerusalem pine trees in official JNF publica-tions became more muted. Wood that Weitz had once called “the best of the pines that can be used for furniture and building materials” was now re-ferred to as “inferior in quality when compared with other commercial tim-ber pines, but its high resistance to drought led to its past popularity.”[149] By 1973, the brutia pine was elevated as an equal to the Jerusalem pine in offi-cial JNF publications and called “best suited” for the country's hills.[150] In 1987, conifers (pines and cypress) still made up 65 percent of all forest trees in Israel, but Jerusalem pines were only 11 percent. (Eucalyptus were 8.5 percent and oaks 7.5 percent.) Today conifers cover less than half of newly planted lands.[151] During the same period, tree density also dropped dramat-ically, from roughly 300 per dunam to 120 to 150. With no reduction in the area of annual forest expansion, in the 1980s the JNF was planting three mil-lion saplings per year, as opposed to six million during the 1960s.[152]

Native trees suddenly made more sense to foresters. Evolution had granted them the requisite natural protection for local conditions. Trees that survive in arid climates generally are protected from grazing animals by a coat of thorns. For example, the local oak, Quercus calliprinos, only reaches a quarter of the size of European or North American species, but its tiny acorns have small thorns on the edges of their thick waxy leaves. Although the tree grows very slowly, its roots can penetrate hard limestone and dolomite. Today it is just one of the forty types of trees that the JNF mixes.


The new biodiversity can be seen as part of a natural, organizational, and botanical progression. Now in his 80s, Chaim Blass still represents the unrepentant first generation of Israeli pine foresters:

The pines were the pioneers—it was the first stage, and that's how we saw it. At the time, beginning in the thirties, we had to be efficient. Bringing in a more diverse combination of local species is a logical next step. Today foresters come up to me and tell me, “Thanks to you, we have work,” because there is little new land left that can be converted to forests. We had to grab as much as we could and create facts.

Dr. Yerahmiel Kaplan, one of the first formally trained forestry experts to join the JNF in 1945, is equally unapologetic:

If I were religious I would thank G-d for the Jerusalem pine. It was the only appropriate tree at the time. It may be aggressive, sending roots in all directions and dominating other species. But this is what allows it to compete for water. The truth is that pine and eucalyptus were the only JNF trees to survive World War I. It was a clear sign of what would last in Israel.[153]

The younger generation of foresters basically concur with this perspec-tive, citing the increased preservation value that planning commissions as-sign to JNF forests, regardless of their ecological merits.[154] In the debate over legitimate reclamation versus conservation, environmentalists may also tend to overstate their case or attack a JNF that no longer exists.

Policy analyst Danny Orenstein represents the new generation of edu-cators who have spent time working at the JNF. He has stronger Green cre-dentials than most environmentalist critics, holding a master's degree in desert ecology from Ben-Gurion University. “The ecological critique needs to remember the challenges that JNF faced at the different stages and avoid the ‘Monday morning quarterback’ phenomenon,” he explains. “For exam-ple, with the creation of the State there was a political side to forestry, which required tree planting to delineate the borders. JNF was playing with a completely different set of priorities and directives back then.”[155]

Pine forests may not be as desolate as Green rhetoric suggests. At the very least they produce the popular pine mushrooms. After rains subside, Israelis flock to these woods to pick the Suillus granitulus for their soups and omelets. Wildlife was never really a JNF priority, and there have been many raging arguments over the years with nature lovers who saw the woods as habitat rather than as timber production centers. The JNF in-variably countered that ecologists had a tendency to exaggerate and over-state their case.


Indeed, pine forests probably do not provide a rich microhabitat for the variety of plants, insects, birds, and small mammals that are found in na-tive brushlands. Yet even in a prototypic pine desert such as the Negev's Lahav Forest, JNF workers report rich populations of hyenas, wildcats, foxes, porcupines, and snakes that have managed to adapt. These animals may feed off the garbage of nearby kibbutzim and Bedouin settlements, retreating to the safety of the forest to sleep.[156] Unnatural perhaps, and certainly a nuisance to farmers—but Israel is filled with examples of wildlife successfully adapting to changes imposed by man.

New global considerations may ultimately provide the most compelling reason to alter the traditional suspicion that environmentalists have of conifers. Israeli ecologists have not yet internalized the meaning of the greenhouse effect and the potential value of increasing carbon storage. Humanity may no longer enjoy the luxury of taking an across-the-board hands-off approach to open spaces. If, for example, the aggressive anti-desertification tactics of the JNF were adopted in arid regions around the planet, it might, beyond food and fiber benefits, contribute to stabilized global carbon dioxide levels.[157]


The Eshtaol nursery is located at the foot of the Judean hills just off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. Hidden behind the moshav of the same name lies a massive arboretum, headquarters and nerve center for the JNF Forestry Department. As one wanders through the thousands of rows of saplings, one searches in vain for a Jerusalem pine tree: Oaks, cypress, carobs abound, but there is not a Jerusalem pine tree on the lot.

The profusion of species reflects a new ecological perspective that began to “infiltrate” the JNF during the 1980s and 1990s. One important figure in the transition was Dr. Menahem Sachs. It was in 1981 that Sachs took a leave of absence as an ecological researcher at the Volcani Institute. A short, ebullient man with a goatee and a big smile, he was given the role of policy maker for the Forestry Department, and in 1994 he was ap-pointed director. Besides his training in ecology, he brought with him an openness to change.

Sachs claims that the actual revolution in JNF afforestation can be traced to the sabbatical visit there of Imanuel Noy-Meir during the mid-1980s. Noy-Meir is a prominent professor in ecology at Hebrew University. Sachs told Noy-Meir to review all afforestation activities and “tell the JNF how to improve.” Noy-Meir's conclusions, published in a

little-known article entitled “An Ecological Viewpoint on Afforestation in Israel: Past and Future,”[158] appear to have had a huge impact. “If you hear us singing a new song in the JNF these days,” says Sachs, “he wrote the libretto.”[159]

Noy-Meir clarified that high tree density can actually shorten the life span of entire populations. Typically in nature there is a process of self-thinning, when smaller and weaker plants that cannot compete with the stronger ones die off. Then the stronger trees can exploit the remaining resources. However, in the absence of significant differences in population, all the plants will be equally weak and retarded. In times of crisis (drought or pests) they lack the strength to survive these challenges. When trees are scattered in a mixed stand, on the other hand, the spread of pests and pathogens is slowed.[160]

Noy-Meir's operational recommendations confirmed many of the envi-ronmentalists' positions:

Past [JNF] afforestation policy and methods were suitable for their time and efficient in achieving the afforestation objectives of the period. However they created today's problems. … Nowadays, most of the in-habitants know and cherish the country's indigenous flora and fauna. In ‘making the wasteland bloom’ for the future, the important thing is not the number of hectares or trees which are planted annually, but rather the quality of the landscape and the environment as they are shaped by the various afforestation actions.[161]

This new ecological identity ostensibly goes beyond trees. The JNF's cur-rent strategic master plan and the promotional material with which it is marketed abroad are purely environmental and address areas other than forestry. For example, the sewage infrastructure so desperately needed to preserve water quality has suddenly become a hot item. The contribution of the JNF primarily comes at the delivery end, rather than in treatment; by the mid-1990s JNF heavy equipment had been used to create thirty-four ponds for storing recycled wastewater.[162] Stream restoration is another area where, with great fanfare, the JNF moved to assume a “leading role.” Although the Ministry of the Environment likes to take credit for this national initiative, the JNF provided over 80 percent of the funding and has the heavy equipment and experience necessary to stabilize the gradients of the banks and plant the anchoring vegetation and protective foliage.[163]

This born-again environmental spirit infects the JNF educational appa-ratus. In the 1930s the JNF established the JNF Teachers' Council to dis-seminate its materials and message in the schools of the Yishuv. Today, with the backing of the Ministry of Education, it fields a staff of naturalist educators, tour guides, and a magazine entitled Roots that broadcasts

largely pop-ecology “good news” from the JNF. A new Community and Forests Department was recently established. Perhaps the only Zionist youth movement to show any signs of real growth in the United States during the 1990s is that sponsored by the JNF, with a national student or-ganization called “Eco-Zionism.”

The ecological mission of the JNF received a major legislative boost with the government's approval of National Master Plan (or “TAMA”) 22 on November 16, 1995.[164] As part of Israel's planning and building system, national master plans zone various areas of land for a different purposes. When the cabinet approves a national master plan, the land designations carry the force of law. Several dozen such plans have been approved since the system was enacted in 1965. These include nationwide blueprints for roads, power plants, mining, garbage disposal, coastal and tourist develop-ment, and, as of March 22, 1995, forests.

The JNF was one of three institutions charged with preparation of the Plan by the National Planning Commission during the 1970s. Yet its gov-ernmental partners, the Israel Lands Administration and the Interior Ministry's Planning Division, had no time for the venture. As the most in-terested party, the JNF ended up drawing up the proposal, not only setting the borders to forests, but determining the character of each stand of for-est. The lack of a participating governmental ministry committed to forestry impaired the Master Plan's progress. It was not until the early 1980s that a draft forestry plan was ready, but the Minister of Agriculture's opposition froze all progress for a decade.[165] Only after JNF representatives resolved the outstanding areas of conflict with agricultural interests in the early 1990s was the plan ready to go through the tedious regional review process.

From both a legal and a substantive perspective, the fifteen brief sec-tions in the seven-page plan were revolutionary. Under National Master Plan 22, the JNF is responsible for managing close to two million dunams—one tenth of the nation's lands. For a country with a population density as high as Israel's, the plan represents a serious official endorse-ment of forestry. Some six hundred thousand dunams have already been planted, and the plan calls for three hundred thousand more. The remaining lands falling within the forestry master plan are to remain as open spaces. By comparison, prior to the plan's approval, the JNF Forestry Department oversaw only eight hundred thousand dunams.[166] The mas-ter plan reflects the new ecological approach in the JNF. It recognizes seven different types of forests, from “natural forests for preservation” to “human-planted existing forests,” and stipulates those areas in which

indigenous flora must be maintained. Moreover, the plan's regulatory orienation for the first time allows the JNF to work “in a calmer atmos-phere,” whereas in the past its staff had to hurry so as not to lose land to developers.[167]

Old habits, however, are hard to break, and JNF foresters have not al-ways been strict in sticking to prescriptions of the master plan. In June 1998, Adam Teva V'din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), a public-interest environmental group, filed a Supreme Court petition against the JNF, arguing that it was systematically destroying native woodlands in contravention to the zoning restrictions of the plan. Its most compelling arguments charged that the JNF was circumventing statutory procedures for public participation and oversight of forestry activities.[168] Three years later, in the legal equivalent of a technical knockout, the Supreme Court sided with the petitioners, frequently citing the vitriolic professional affidavit submitted by Dr. Aviva Rabinovich. Justice Mischa Cheshin wrote the unanimous decision that rejected the JNF's planting policies out of hand. The JNF's ongoing refusal to promulgate detailed forestry plans that could be reviewed by the public rendered their af-forestation activities between the years 1996 and 2001 patently illegal.[169] Israel's press made some fuss about the fact that, for the first time, one en-vironmental organization was suing another.[170]

Nor does having an area protected as a forest on paper ensure its preservation. Here the JNF is exploring a new role. In 1996, the Forestry Department introduced a watchdog system, capable of identifying development plans that are potentially harmful to forests.[171] During the first sixteen months of the computerized tracking system, 474 suspect plans came to light. The JNF, however, is hardly a radical organization. Only very modest efforts are made to get developers and government agencies to minimize damage on JNF lands. In a few isolated cases, the JNF has filed legal objections with planning authorities to stop lands designated as forests from being compromised. Ultimately, the political leadership of the JNF has consistently been disinclined to translate its considerable statutory responsibility into an operational commitment. The thirty-six-person JNF board, appointed by the full gamut of Zionist political factions, may well have been unaware of the enormous envi-ronmental challenges it was avoiding. Many environmentalists came to believe that JNF leadership was simply afraid to get entangled in a fight with powerful government and business interests. The growing number of reports highlighting corruption, and a damning comptroller's report alleging “dangerous and damaging mismanagement” by JNF chairmen,

did little to change this impression.[172] This rift within the Green ranks is unfortunate. With virtually identical interests on conservation issues, activism and common campaigns hold great potential for healing the old rifts between environmentalists and the JNF.


In many areas environmentalists and JNF foresters have reached some un-derstanding. At the same time, a clash of perceptions, objectives, and val-ues continues to generate tensions and animosity. At the end of the day, the JNF remains a development agency whose raison d'être requires that it intervene in nature. While the degree of gentleness and sensitivity may vary, improving the environment is philosophically no different from re-deeming the land. For example, the JNF is still in the road-construction business. This began as part of its contribution to the 1948 war effort, en-suring supply lines to the many besieged communities on JNF lands. Once their asphalt capabilities were recognized, however, JNF bulldozers were increasingly pressed into such service. Between 1948 and 1964 the JNF paved 1500 kilometers of roads, primarily to connect new and existing settle-ments.[173] By the 1990s, it passed the 6000-kilometer mark.[174]

Today drivers entering the newly expanded Mitzpeh Ramon highway at the Zichor junction are jolted by a bright green billboard proclaiming the central role of the JNF in the project. Ecologists might wonder why the JNF would want to boast about a road that cuts through one of the coun-try's largest nature reserves. If the JNF really wants to stake its claim as an environmental agency, why is it not laying railroad tracks?

By the end of the century, the JNF Mechanical Equipment Division still had a budget of over fifty-five million shekels a year.[175] Its fleet of over a hundred pieces of heavy earth-moving equipment is replaced at a rate of roughly fifteen pieces per year.[176] In the same way that pacifists fear ar-mament buildups, environmentalists know that the machinery is not there to collect dust.

Dr. Benny Shalmon has been on the cutting edge of conservation activ-ity in Israel for almost thirty years and is among the most senior public-interest scientists in Israel. His moderate stance reflects a consensus among environmentalists: “I feel that the JNF has changed. They are much more sensitive, having learned that monocultures don't work—from the point of view of forestry, even disregarding ecology. They have moved be-yond the conifers. The problem remains, however, that they have a lot of money and a lot of machinery. When they have an idea, they don't try it

out gingerly and consider it after extensive experimentation. They work on a large scale and still lack the patience to really learn. For example, they still want to transform the Negev desert into a forest.”[177]

Indeed, the appropriate approach toward Israel's deserts remains a heated area of controversy. Afforestation efforts in the desert regions began during the 1950s, a relatively wet period; yet years of low rainfall during the early 1960s led to less impressive results. JNF efforts moved north, to semiarid areas, where rainfall exceeded two hundred millime-ters.[178] The resulting pine forests at Yatir and Lahav are among Israel's largest and are unprecedented for such a parched region. At the same time, “making the desert green” remained a Zionist axiom, and JNF research steadily progressed, exploring ways to grow trees in more arid zones. The JNF first began applied research on saline, arid soils in 1939 at Kibbutz Beit ha-Arava, north of the Dead Sea. During the 1980s, researchers associated with Ben-Gurion University's Sde Boqer campus began to develop the in-novative techniques that today support JNF flagship antidesertification initiatives.

“Savannization” has become an important buzzword since 1986, when the JNF began planting and water harvesting on three experimen-tal arid sites. Some thirty species of salt-resistant and water-efficient trees are scattered on water-enriched patches in the otherwise barren and crusted terrain. The landscaping reduces soil erosion and gullies, while deep infiltration of water into subsoils is enhanced by dividing the basin into runoff-collecting areas that are irrigated by a redirected flow from contributing lands.[179] The result looks nothing like a forest but is closer to an African savanna, with only ten trees per dunam. A remarkable assortment of 130 additional plant species and grasses takes advantage of the improved conditions in collecting areas to support seasonal grazing. The resulting positive feedback loop continues, as foraging animals, attracted to the shrubs, leave excrement that enhances the soil's organic content.[180]

Beyond savannization the other JNF innovation, limans (from the Greek for “pond of standing water”), involve smaller, isolated man-made oases. Research began in 1962 when rain was channeled into microcatch-ment basins between one and six dunams in size. Eucalyptus, acacia, tamarisk, and pine have all been successfully planted in these pool-like depressions. Even in areas south of Beer Sheva, having less than one hun-dred millimeters of rainfall, the trees at these sites survive the summer months based entirely on runoff from the surrounding watershed during the sporadic winter rainfalls. Limans have been planted by the hundreds,

breaking up the desert landscape and serving as rest areas for motorists, army units in the field, and herds.[181]

The JNF promotes these projects as part of a larger development initia-tive called “Action Plan Negev.” This plan is designed to provide employ-ment and to improve the standard of living in Israel's last “frontier” region. Billions of shekels are ultimately to be invested in hothouse agriculture, fish ponds, orchards, olive plantations, and associated infrastructures. The afforestation that is to accompany the entire endeavor is suitably ambi-tious: the JNF talks about planting one million dunams.

Not every one sees this vision as a blessing: Making more water avail-able can destroy the competitive advantage of arid-zone species in their in-teractions with species less adapted to the desert. The expansion of flora also contributes to a new distribution of animals in the region, with win-ners and losers. Among the winners are crested larks, chukars, and red foxes, whose ranges have expanded dramatically with the new plantings. Other populations, such as sand partridges, brown-necked ravens, and foxes besides the red fox, may suffer from the new competition.[182]

While the new savannas, such as the Sayeret Shaked Park, are fascinat-ing as an ecological experiment, many find the resulting sparse landscape uninspiring or even unattractive. In fact, it has been argued that excessive afforestation may detract from the Negev's appeal as a tourist site.[183] Ecologist Noam Gressel argues that despite the increase in tree cover, the desert-adapted species provide little shade, and their low density offers lit-tle in terms of cooling for recreational purposes. It is even conceivable that, in the long term, the diversion of water may have a negative effect.

The savannas are designed to be a more sustainable model of afforesta-tion, but are they? Part of the criticism of the conventional pine forests involves the inability of JNF pine saplings to survive outside of a nursery in semiarid zones. Many trees in the savannas are also incapable of natu-rally regenerating. While biodiversity is much greater on managed lands, there is nothing indigenous about many of the trees. The exotic eucalyptus are planted in savannas more than any other tree type: this implies that perpetual, intensive management will have to accompany these sites if they are to endure as botanical attractions. These issues all come back to a complex ethical question: Is the goal of these projects preservation of eco-logical process or content?

A related ideological and ecological debate that will not go away re-volves around the legitimacy of JNF efforts to improve native woodlands, or so-called natural forests. These constitute roughly a quarter of the lands

in Israel designated as forests, including some of the most interesting and highest-quality stands. Originally the issue focused on the 440,000 dunams declared by the British as forest reserves, but with the JNF's cen-tral role in overseeing National Master Plan 22, the zone of contention has widened.

For instance, the most characteristic of Israel's indigenous trees in these woodlands is the Mediterranean oak. It can reach considerable heights and offers extensive shade year-round when it grows unencumbered. Yet when-ever it is cut or burned, it coppices, growing a great number of new branches, none of which becomes a new trunk. Each branch produces a few twigs and leaves on its upper part. Together they create an extremely thick bush, through which little sunlight can penetrate. Not only can grasses not grow below, but the tree forms a thicket that becomes impenetrable for grazing.[184] To what extent should the JNF be involved in improving such natural stands? The JNF afforestation policy has not changed in thirty years. Standard procedure involves a three-step, seven-year process for “improving” such environments by pruning low in the tree, transforming the natural landscape.[185]

Because the work in these stands is especially labor intensive, JNF progress is slow. In 1996, the JNF thinned three thousand dunams and constructed eight kilometers of forest roads on these lands. Environmental activists claim that the JNF still brings its herbicides and conifer bias to the task.[186] The real issue is aesthetic and philosophical, however. Under JNF policy, eventually all native bushes will be crafted into an improved, accessible form. Forests will end up more like gardens than wilderness—lovely to some people, inappropriate in the opinion of others. Although satisfaction levels of Israelis visiting JNF forests is extremely high, it is largely a social or recreational experience, much as urban dwellers enjoy their local parks: as pleasant places.[187] For more profound natural experiences, they prefer the authenticity of the south-ern desert wilderness.[188] Its new ecological sensitivities notwithstand-ing, today's JNF remains confident that it is on the right track with such policies.

“There is very little that is natural in Israel,” explains forester Menahem Sachs. “There has been civilization here for the past ten thou-sand years. Man determined what is left. We burned the flora. We created the landscape. … As of 1995 there were only three hundred square meters of open space for every person in Israel. By international standards, this is nothing. In these circumstances, I believe that you have to manage the

lands. If I work intelligently, I will make relatively few mistakes. But you can't take man out of the ecosystem. The lands will only deteriorate.”[189]


Few expressions are as used and abused in today's environmental lingo as “sustainable development.” First coined in 1987 by the United Nations' Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development,[190] the term offered a compromise that enabled developed and developing countries to declare a common strategy. In fact they hardly agreed on anything beyond the phrase that has remained sufficiently amorphous to enable even egre-gious polluters to wield it as a shibboleth. For many environmentalists “sustainable development” is just an oxymoron.[191]

As a development agency with environmental pretensions, the JNF has naturally drifted toward the ideology of sustainability. It is more than a rhetorical shift: the influence of the landscape architects and ecologists on the staff is undeniable. The JNF has a compelling operational definition for ecologically sustainable forests, based on Noy-Meir's work, although such sustainability in practice remains an elusive goal.[192]

The JNF's long-term, institutional sustainability, however, will require more than simply improving the biodiversity, indigenousness, pest resist-ance, and regenerative capacity of its trees. To begin with, its work must be based on broad-based enthusiasm across all sectors of Israeli society for trees and forestlands. At present, baseline support seems solid.[193] The outpouring of outrage and empathy for lost trees after a spate of politi-cally motivated arson events validates JNF claims for the popularity and educational success of its current approach. Israelis, who rarely donate to environmental causes, were responsive to the media campaign calling for contributions to replace trees lost in a major fire in the Carmel Park. Based on the level of pledges, in 1993 economics professor Motti Schecter set the value of this forest alone at six hundred million shekels.[194] As the population of users grows, the value should rise accordingly. Yet, decision makers have yet to internalize this appreciation in formal and informal cost-benefit equations. By the time they do, it may be too late.

Demographic trends suggest that early in the next century the north-ern half of Israel will be twice as crowded as Holland, Europe's most densely populated country. Open spaces, already disappearing at an alarm-ing rate, will be increasingly in demand for development. With the simul-taneous development of new urban centers at Modi'in, Kiryat Sefer, Elad, and Shoham, the plains and Judean hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

are giving way to pavement and buildings. Trees are not sacrosanct and cannot seem to stem the tide: Forests surrounding these communities, such as the mature woods at Ben Shemen, are feeling the pressure.[195]

The survival of Israel's forests and open spaces may well depend on the ability of the JNF to define itself once again—this time as a much more ag-gressive advocate for the lands with which it has been entrusted. As envi-ronmentalists well know, modifying National Master Plans is not that dif-ficult. What begins as a few isolated challenges to a protected region can quickly turn into a deluge of development. The JNF took its first baby steps toward assuming such a role by creating a computerized tracking system that attempts to protect lands designated as forests in Master Plan 22. Yet it has not begun to utilize its public-relations and political powers to meet the forces of development head-on. It is time to cash in some of the bull-dozers for the attorneys, planners, and spin doctors required to win a fight that may go on indefinitely.

The ability of the JNF to provide high-quality recreational sites will also be crucial to forest preservation. If the people of Israel are to accept limitations on suburbanization and sprawl, they must believe that they are getting a fair return for their residential self-discipline. At the behest of the new Land Development Department director, Gidon Vitkon, in 2000 the JNF began to address these issues systematically through the creation of its Forest and Community Department. Run by Meir Barzilia, an an-thropologist by training, the department intends to build coalitions of forestland users and supporters.[196] In a rare example of the potential for partnerships, the JNF and grass-roots environmental groups have begun to collaborate in local preservation efforts to save the Jerusalem Forest. Other campaigns, like the successful grass-roots protests that saved the Shaked Forest in 2000, prove that such partnerships can be victorious.

With revenues close to one billion shekels[197] (four times the Ministry of the Environment budget), the JNF has some of Israel's deepest pockets. Here again, if the public and politicians do not believe they are getting their money's worth, they will find a way to siphon away its funds. Recreation as the primary engine behind popular support for forestry is something the JNF management understood as early as the 1960s. As the trees grew taller, forests became a favorite destination for vacationers. Picnic sites, rest-room facilities, playgrounds, and grills were developed accordingly. Before terrorism damped the enthusiasm of Israeli picnickers, twelve million visi-tors a year availed themselves of JNF sites,[198] but present capacity is already inadequate. According to a survey of the Israeli population in the late 1980s, one-third of a dunam of recreation area should be available for each

individual in order to provide a desirable quality of life.[199] Even the two million dunams provided under National Master Plan 22 is only half the amount needed to accommodate the ten million Israelis who will be seek-ing relief from their crowded cities in the first part of the new century. Moreover, as crucial habitats disappear, the JNF must also dedicate more thought to accommodating homeless wildlife populations.

The JNF needs to be responsive to the pulse of popular culture while pre-serving its own sense of ecological integrity. Some environmentalists resent the JNF for its unique, nonaccountable status. No other organization holds such government functions without attendant institutional oversight. Eventually, the Supreme Court called on the JNF to stop acting like a “State within the State.”[200] There is little to suggest, however, that any of the Israeli government ministries would be more responsive to public and sci-entific scrutiny, should they be given authority in these areas.

The JNF still suffers much of the ossification that characterizes estab-lished and inflated Israeli bureaucracies. Even after a concerted effort to re-tire or release twelve hundred employees in 1998, it still employs nineteen hundred people. That same year, a political compromise in the Jewish Agency produced rotating JNF cochairmanships between long-time Likud and Labor party activists—which has proven to be a formula for paralysis and partisan political squabbling.[201] Over the years the JNF has attempted to remain open-minded, but no institution really enjoys criticism, any more than people do. In recent years, unfortunately, the Chairman and the politically partisan JNF board of directors, who ultimately determine funding priorities, have done little to implement external recommenda-tions or indeed to follow the professional judgment of their senior ecolog-ical staff. New leadership with strong technical literacy in ecology and natural resource management is needed to instill within the JNF the envi-ronmental ethic, the nimbleness, and the humility required to reinvent itself in light of changing political and ecological realities.

Viewed over a tumultuous century of activities, ultimately, the JNF has proven that it is very capable of institutional change. There is little if any similarity between the Jewish National Fund created in Vienna and today's collection of geographers, landscape architects, foresters, and edu-cators. Menahem Ussishkin and Zvi Herman Schapira might not under-stand the nuances of the current JNF's desert research agenda or the attractions offered in its recreation plans. Yet they would certainly iden-tify with the underlying and continuing impulse. In biological terms, because of its willingness to evolve, the JNF not only has survived but in many ways has flourished.


Mistakes along the way must be weighed against the historical achieve-ments of the JNF. Without the Jewish National Fund, it is unlikely that the Zionist movement would have created a sufficient demographic, agricul-tural, and economic base to launch a new nation. The amount of forests in Israel would be comparable to those in its neighbors—measured in tens of thousands of dunams instead of millions. The desert would be expanding rather than contracting. For most Israelis, the pine trees that soften the rocky hillsides and whose friendly green shade beckons are one of the in-tangibles that makes life in their demanding country a little sweeter.

It is time that environmentalists embrace the JNF as the powerful ally it should be in the larger and more important context of determining the ultimate fate of the land of Israel. JNF representatives at the Israel Lands Administration board have been unrelenting in fighting for continued public ownership of lands amidst growing pressures for privatization. The clear financial motives involved makes their position no less critical envi-ronmentally. At the same time, the JNF cannot rest on its laurels but needs to face its ultimate challenge, a challenge that is already knocking on the door: Will future generations see anything in Israel that resembles the land of the Bible, or will they simply swelter in a sprawl indistinguishable from southern California concrete? To be sure, if Israel's open spaces be-come dysfunctional because of mismanagement, society will have little use for them. The JNF must continue to apply its new ecological knowledge in managing a more diverse and stable network of woodlands. Yet the ques-tion very soon will not be which species of conifers should be planted, but whether any lands remain for forests at all. With its financial resources, educational infrastructure, legislative authority, and historical prestige, the JNF ought to be leading this fight.

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