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Zionism, the JNF and Absentee Landlords in Mandate Palestine / Israel

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Zionist purchases of land in the Mandate of Palestine

Zionism and the Land

While Zionism encouraged Jews to move to the Land of Israel (then part of the British Mandate of Palestine which also included Jordan) there were a number of practical problems to be overcome. The Zionist ideal was for Jews to return to the land. This didn't simply mean living in the land to extend the rule of their home countries (as colonists did across the world), it meant returning to the land in a far more literal sense - actually farming it and getting their hands dirty in person. Where imperialist development expanded into countries for cheap labour and stripped them of resources (to be set back home) the Zionists did the work themselves, with university professors and tailors working side by side with spades in their hands. There was no home to send resources back to, instead money was gathered from cross the world and set to help support those returning to the land. Ofcourse to live off the land, land first needed to be purchased. The Jewish National Fund (JNF, originally called the KKL after the hebrew of it's name) sought to purchase land from absentee land lords for use by communal settlements. The project sought to legally aquire land enabling the Jewish community to grow and form a home in the Land of Israel.

Absentee Landlords

Land in Palestine was largely owned by absentee landlords who lived in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. Absentee landlords were not unique to the Mandate of Palestine. The refusal of absentee landlords to sell land to local residents lead to riots on Prince Edward Island (Canada) in the 1860's and in Ireland (from the 1640's) contributed significantly to the trouble that continues till today.

The problem of absentee landlords is not only historic, even today absentee landlords prevent land improvement, reduction of poverty and increases in living standards. Unlike someone who lives near the land they own and manage, absentee landlords do not take much interest in the land. They drain local wealth, particularly that of rural areas and the Third World. At the time question, Palestine was definitly part of the third world, about 80 percent of the Palestinian Arabs were debt-ridden peasants, semi-nomads and Bedouins. The Zionist sought to change this, and they did. In 1937 the Peel Commission (a British Royal Commission of inquiry) issues a report that concluded that the Jews in Palestine (along with the work of the British Administration) had resulted in higher wages, an improved standard of living and ample employment opportunities 1. More on absentee landlords at Wikipedia.

Local ownership increases local prosperity

The Zionists sought land that was largely uncultivated, swampy, cheap and, most important, without tenants. The Zionists were largely socialists with a high degree of concern for their fellow man. In 1920, Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion expressed his concern about the Arab fellahin, whom he viewed as "the most important asset of the native population." Ben-Gurion said "under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them." He advocated helping liberate them from their oppressors. "Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement," Ben-Gurion added, "should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price"2. Of the land purchased 73 percent of Jewish plots were purchased from large land owners (not fellahs) and rather than "fair prices" the unfertile land was purchased at tenfold the price that fertile land in Iowa was going for3. As a result of local Zionists becoming responsible for the land and working it with care, the land became fertile, and the communities (both Jewish and Arab) prospered.

The JNF today

The JNF continues to manage large amounts of land in Israel. The land has been purchased with money donated by the Jewish community across the world specifically for land improvement and to establish Jewish communities in Israel. The Land owned by JNF is held in trust for the Jewish people - after all it is their money that paid for it! In 2005 the Israeli attorney General ruled that should JNF sell land, it must do so without any for of discrimination and that explicitly means that it must be offered to non Jews as well as Jews. JNF (like the national trusts in the UK and other countries) does not usually sell the land it manages, instead it lease soem of it to community groups and establishes forests on other sections of it's land. Israel is the only country to have more trees at the start of this century than it had at the start fo last century - this is almost entirely due to the efforts of JNF and the money donated by Jewish communities across the world to help Israel and the environment.

Visit the Jewish National Fund (international - history of the JNF), Jewish National Fund in the UK or Jewish National Fund in Australia.

1 Palestine Royal Commission (1937), pp. 241-242
2 Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War, (London: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 32
3 Aumann, p. 13

External Zionism Links

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Wikipedia article about Zionism - A comprehensive article including the history of Zionism  as well as links to specific topics and articles about anti-Zionism.

Zionism - Table of contents at the Jewish Virtual Library

Zionism article at Infoplease

Zionism - Definition and Brief History - A balanced article that covers the definitions and history of Zionism as well as opposition to Zionism and criticisms by Arabs,  Jewish anti-Zionists.

Labor Zionism - Early History and Critique - Contribution of Labor Zionism to the creation of the Jewish state, and problems of Labor Zionism in a changing reality.

The US Library of congress has a comprehensive and balanced set of articles about Zionism:

Zionist Precursors - US Library of Congress

Political Zionism - US Library of Congress

Cultural Zionism - US Library of Congress

Labor Zionism - US Library of Congress

Revisionist Zionism - US Library of Congress

Essential Texts of Zionism

Jewish Agency Zionism pages - Links to basic information about Zionism from the Jewish Agency

Ambassador Herzog explains Zionism in the UN


Active Zionism - A Zionist advocacy site with many useful links

Realistic Religious Zionism - moderate religious Zionist Web site

Zionism On The Web Directory

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