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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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