In a prophetic statement, Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, warned in his groundbreaking book, The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat), that the Jews would continue to be persecuted and treated as second class citizens unless they reestablished their own nation. Although belonging to the secular, assimilated Jewish upper-class of Viennese society, Herzl had ample experience with anti-Semitism: both personally, as a law student in Vienna (a profession that placed barriers to Jews), and as a journalist employed by the prestigious Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, for which he got to cover anti-Semitic eruptions throughout Europe. Hence Herzl knew what he was talking about when he observed in 1896 his controversial political pamphlet, The Jewish State:
“The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilized countries — see, for instance, France—so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level” (Der Judenstaat, cited by C.D. Smith, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2001, 4th ed., p. 53).
The author was referring here to the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal that erupted in France in 1894. The spark may have started as a relatively small incident, but it erupted in (and exposed) a larger populist anti-Semitic backlash in France, which Herzl witnessed and covered firsthand as foreign correspondent in Paris for the Neue Freie Presse. The scandal began when a Jewish French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused and convicted of being a German spy. During the trial and following the conviction, frenzied anti-Semitic rallies took place in Paris. Though innocent, Dreyfus was exonerated only in 1906. From the beginning, Herzl rightly regarded this incident as a symptom of a menacing wave of anti-Semitism rising throughout Europe.
But even Herzl, attuned as he was to European anti-Semitism, could not have foreseen the extent of the human catastrophe that would happen decades later, during the Holocaust. But he saw enough to devote the rest of his short yet very busy life — he died of cardiac sclerosis on July 3, 1904, when he was only 44 years old — to militating for creating a nation for the Jewish people in Palestine. As Shimon Peres, who served as the ninth President of Israel and twice as the country’s Prime Minister, once stated, Herzl’s vision, which would eventually be realized by the state of Israel, was not only defensive. Herzl envisioned a Jewish state that would simultaneously function as a shelter for Jews against anti-Semitism and as a magnet that would attract Jews from all over the world to their homeland. In fact, The Jewish State concludes with a very hopeful message:
“The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.” (The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Jewish State, by Theodor Herzl. gutenberg.org. 2 May 2008).
Although reality in Middle Eastern politics turned out to be far more complex than Herzl optimistically envisioned, the state of Israel seems to have accomplished Herzl’s motto, famously expressed in 1902 in his later book, Old New Land (Altneuland): “If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay”. Though a sliver of a country, Israel has become a democratic leader in the Middle East and a pioneer in high tech innovation, rivaling that of Silicon Valley. Given its many achievements, it is easy to forget that Israel has a population of a little over 9 million people and a large area of desert and semidesert climate (60 % in Southern Negev and Arava), with precipitation only 50 days out of the year. These geographic conditions make agriculture, access to water, and planting vegetation extremely difficult in Israel.
Meeting these challenges and confronting the devastating past of Jewish history, the Jewish National Fund has combined the goals of planting trees and promoting Zionism. Established in 1901 by Theodor Herzl during the Fifth Zionist Congress as “Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael” (KKL-JNF), over the years the Jewish National Fund has repurchased and developed land for the Jewish people everywhere in the country that would become Israel. As Russell Robinson, the CEO of the Jewish National Fund-USA since 1997, points out in his October 22, 2020, Oped in The Times of Israel, a few years after the establishment of the state of Israel, in 1953, the Jewish National Fund-USA separated from the KKL, receiving recognition from the IRS as a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable organization. (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/were-not-the-wzc-you-should-get-to-know-us/?fbclid=IwAR1raqC808S4iO9wa51-Jw6-uLteU9kDhl9RI-sJL-K3M5eFFq9mgDawxUA)
Yet the Jewish National Fund still collaborates with KKL and retains deep roots in Israel. JNF currently owns about 13 percent of land in the country. Its mission is to grow green space even in areas, like Negev, which are inhospitable to plants and trees. The JNF has facilitated the planting of about 260 million trees (mostly pine and some olive trees), developed 1000 km of land, and created over 1000 parks in Israel. The organization is also committed to innovation, building 200 water reservoirs around Israel that provide 13% of water availability.
The JNF has focused on agricultural innovation, developing solutions for Israel’s water crisis and on the sustainable development of the Negev and the Galilee. It has also been a leader in promoting Jewish education and pro-Jewish views around the world. As Robinson stated in an interview with Fern Sidman in The Jewish Voice, “Jewish National Fund trains and supports pro-Israel college students from across America to promote Israel as a country striving to make the world a better place through the pro-Israel programing.” (https://thejewishvoice.com/2018/05/not-parents-jnf-anymore-russell-robinson-ceo-jewish-national-fund-tells-part-2/) Aside from its important Zionist educational function, the Jewish National Fund spreads the knowledge of transforming an arid climate into a fertile one to the rest of the world.
In the conventional account of the progress of societies, the agricultural phase is behind the industrial phase, which in turn is behind the computer age. Yet for Israel, from the beginning, the agricultural phase had to be very innovative and advanced. In fact, it is the country’s early agricultural breakthroughs that transformed an arid, primarily desert, geography into more fertile land. Nobody encapsulates the challenges faced by the Israelis, and the importance of agricultural innovations to the country, as well as Shimon Peres in his Preface to the book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer:
“Even with little land and less water, Israel became an agricultural leader. Though many still consider agriculture the epitome of low-tech, they are mistaken; technology was 95 percent of the secret of Israel’s prodigious agricultural productivity. The hostility of the environment did not subside. Israel was attacked seven times in the first sixty-two years of its existence and subjected to comprehensive diplomatic and economic embargoes. No foreign soldiers came to its aid. The only way we could overcome our attackers’ quantitative superiority of weapons was to create an advantage built on courage and technology” (New York: Twelve Publishing, 2009, xi-xii).
The Jewish National Fund has met these challenges for well over a century by promoting the twin goals of agricultural innovation and Zionist education, which not only help Israel thrive, but also make the country a world leader. Continuing to fulfill Herzl’s vision, the Jewish National Fund-USA’s latest venture in the Negev is the most ambitious one yet: a $350 million dollar architectural design competition for the creation of a World Zionist Village in Be’er Sheva, “the Capital of the Negev” and the largest city in Southern Israel. During the past decade, the city has seen substantial expansion, attracting tech startups and benefitting from the research and development and teaching talent at Ben Gurion University. The Zionist Village’s multifaceted campus would include three interrelated and interactive institutions:
- A Zionist Education Center for adults over the age of 22 dedicated to Israel Studies and the history of Zionism
- A new campus of Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which, so far, has conducted study abroad programs for over 28,000 high school students interested in Israel and Jewish history
- A state-of-the-art Conference Center for seminars, webinars and international events focusing on Jewish and Israeli studies
Russell Robinson stated in our recent Zoom interview that the Zionist Village design competition is democratic in scope, open to everyone who has ideas about how to organize this multifaceted, large learning complex. At the same time, the competition will be judged by a panel of experts, leaders in the field of architecture and hospitality: including David Kaufman (Architectural Digest), Taal Safdie (Safdie Rabines Architects), Stephen B. Jacobs (Stephen B. Jacobs Group), Lionel Ohayon (ICRAVE), Guy Elitzur (Vertical Fields), Kenneth Stein (Institute for the Study of Modern Israel), Alon Ben-Gurion (Hospitality consultant, David Ben-Gurion’s grandson).
This combination of democratically inspired creativity and expert judging and implementation of the winning vision combines the best of both worlds. It opens the creation of this teaching complex to all creative minds to introduce fresh ideas while evaluating them and implementing them with some of the best architecture firms in the world. What will this Zionist Village look like? We can’t know in advance and would love to see what contributors envision. In this creative competition, the contributors’ imaginations will be the only limit, truly realizing Herzl’s exhortation, “If you will it, it is no dream.”