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JNF's Blueprint Negev: Paving Israel's Last Great Places

By Dr. Daniel Orenstein

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Aug. 25, 2005) — The Jewish National Fund, which has spent the last decade or so attempting to market themselves as Israel’s premier environmental organization, is revving up the engines of their fleet of bulldozers. This time, they’ve targeted the Negev: Israel’s final frontier. The country’s last great natural reserve. The only place in the country where landscapes can be viewed largely without roads and power lines. Where the stars are visible at night. Where ecologists still can release large mammals into the wild and hope that they may survive in the wilderness.

While mining operations, waste disposal and the army occupies more than half of the Negev, its value for Israelis seeking quiet and expanse within Israel’s border is still unsurpassed. But this situation seems to unnerve the JNF, which, rather than applying the timeless wisdom of the Hebrew prophets who sought solitude in the desert, prefers to resurrect David Ben-Gurion’s now anachronistic view of the Negev as a wasteland in need of development. Instead of continuing its reform into a bona fide environmental organization that protects natural resources, JNF is allowing itself to be pulled back, as if by the momentum of a bulldozer that has no brakes, to its early 20th-century role at the forefront of Jewish settlement in Palestine.

As official owners of 13 percent of Israel’s land, and with a cooperative deal with the Israel Lands Authority to jointly manage even more, the JNF indeed bears an overwhelming burden of responsibility in assuring that the land of Israel will be as inviting for future generations as it has been for ourselves and our ancestors.  Unfortunately, hiding behind their pine trees does not camouflage the fact that the organization cannot get the development bug out of its system — and with dwindling nature in Israel, JNF cannot continue to pave the land and call itself green at the same time.

Today, as planners and activists across Israel are working to preserve open spaces, JNF is looking to conquer the Negev.

“The Negev is a massive land reserve waiting to be developed,” JNF declares on its website. Ignoring the heavy usage of the land by the Israeli army and the large population of Bedouin in the northern Negev, JNF claims that the Negev is “almost untouched.”  JNF's Blueprint Negev campaign calls for bringing a half million people to 25 new communities in the Negev.

Not included on the website, but well known to all those who follow the issue, is JNF’s complicity in the establishment of single-family ranches, and JNF's widespread use of savannization — terracing and planting exotic species on hillsides — as political maneuvers to control land against Bedouin encroachment.

JNF must get out of the development business and adopt a vision that may seem radical but is surprisingly compatible with the guiding principles of the organization.

Agriculture in Israel is rapidly losing its value, both economically and ideologically. In the face of growing pressure to rezone agricultural land in the center of the country for development, the greatest reserve of open space in this region may soon be developed. JNF, which holds title to much of this land and leases it for agricultural use, could step in and support a new vision of cultural, working landscapes. In such a landscape, modern agriculture could give way to restoration of traditional agriculture, initiation of organic and/or high-tech cultivation, and subleasing plots for urban dwellers to garden. Such land use would emphasize primarily aesthetic, recreational and ecological value of retaining the space as open — but would be more attractive for urban dwellers to utilize than would be irrigated crops and groves. Working models of such a project are already found in Sataf along the Jerusalem corridor and at Park HaCholot, along the coastal sand dunes.

Rather than redirecting funds to new superfluous communities in the Negev, JNF could redouble its past efforts to support existing communities — development towns, Bedouin towns and Kibbutzim. Each could benefit from new neighborhoods, and the environmental impact of expanding existing communities rather than establishing new ones is self-evident.

The organization has much to be proud of in its 100-plus-year history: Foresting the land, paving roads to far-flung communities, preventing erosion of soil and degradation of river banks, and increasing water supplies in a thirsty country. As times change, and the demands of the Jewish state change, JNF did its best to adapt, reassessing its goals and proceeding accordingly. When the new country needed new rural communities and neighborhoods, JNF paved the way. When new immigrants needed work, JNF provided. When Israel’s densely populated central region was running out of public recreation areas, JNF provided a crucial and much utilized chain of parks across the country.

The land of Israel cannot withstand the onslaught of another development binge that JNF is proposing. Rather than allowing momentum of past ideologies carry JNF, it needs a clean break with its past, a rapid reassessment of Israel’s needs, and a rise to the challenge of a country in need of preservation of its landscape.



Dr. Daniel Orenstein is an advisory-board member of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.



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