The JNF must go back to its roots

By Sylvia Rothschild, May 24, 2012

As with so many diaspora Jews for more than 100 years, a Jewish National Fund blue collection box stood in my home as I was growing up, and I have one still.

I loved the box because it symbolised that all Jews were part of the land of Israel; that our money went towards caring for the people and the land on which they lived. Jewish values drove the JNF as it made the green-inked line of the 1949 demarcation borders a real green line of trees - the JNF did not plant on land that it or the state did not own.

On a rabbinic mission in the 1990s, I saw for myself the remarkable environmental work carried out by the JNF: water treatment and recycling, fish farming in the desert, pioneering methods of cultivation, and I was impressed. But my feelings have changed.

The JNF calls itself Israel's leading humanitarian and environmental charity but, in developing the Negev, it is ignoring the local Bedouin community and dispossessing its members from their ancestral lands.

The village of Al-Arakib, north of Be'ersheva, is home to Bedouin families who have documents from the Ottoman period detailing their purchase of the land in 1906 and who lived there until they were told to leave, temporarily, in 1953, although they continued to farm there. They are, belatedly, fighting for legal recognition of their rights of ownership, in a complex legal process that includes Ottoman, British Mandate and early Israeli state laws.

The ethical niceties should take precedence

Like a number of Bedouin villages in the Negev, they are not recognised, caught between not having understood the need to register with the Mandate, and Israel land law that claimed land for the state unless there was proof of ownership by Ottoman or British legal title.

Families have come back to live there in order to demonstrate ownership, building shacks to live in, which, without legal permit, are routinely bulldozed by the Israeli authorities. The villagers are caught in an alien world, because their historic methods of buying and selling and settling and farming the land are not recognised in the formal legal system.

Land these people inherited from their ancestors is declared not theirs. In contrast, previous regimes had accepted their internal systems of ownership and rights.

The Negev is important to Israel - it comprises a large part of its land mass and can be developed to sustain its inhabitants. But riding roughshod over the indigenous people and denying them the dignity of their attachment to the land is no way to build a community.

We can no longer accept the adage that this is a land without a people for a people without a land. Irrespective of the legal niceties, the ethical ones should surely take precedence. Our tradition teaches that all human beings are in the image of God, that we must care for those who live with us, and that we should be honest in our business dealings.

By foresting the land where the Bedouin have traditionally lived and farmed, we will preclude them from ever living there again. And state policies of transferring indigenous populations to government-created towns and away from their land is one that has been discredited in a number of countries.

The right to self-determination is enshrined in the UN Charter - and the same should be true of the democratic state of Israel.

The moral case should be heard loud and clear. To forcibly deny historic rights to an ancestral land should be anathema to Jews.

Should the JNF act for the state by planting, and so obliterating, the land of Al-Arakib, all that will be left will be the village cemetery among the trees. I'm all for beautifying Israel and developing its ecology, but I don't believe in uprooting people in order to plant trees.

Sylvia Rothschild is a rabbi at Wimbledon & District Synagogue

Last updated: 3:50pm, May 24 2012