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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.)

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