The Fifth Decade: 1941-1950

The start of the fifth decade, during which all Fund efforts focused on the Negev, saw the demise of Menahem Ussishkin, the man who had led the great land purchases of the previous two decades.
  • Menahem Ussishkin passes away after 20 years of major endeavor at the helm of KKL-JNF. Berl Katzenelson, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan and Dr. Avraham Grannott (Granovsky) are elected to head the organization.
  • Despite World War II, settlement efforts continue and KKL-JNF establishes three outposts in the Negev - Gvulot, Beit Eshel and Revivim.
  • Dr. Avraham Granott is appointed KKL-JNF Chairman.
  • KKL-JNF sets up 11 Negev settlements overnight, establishing the region as part of Jewish Palestine.
  • During the War of Independence, KKL-JNF supports remote and isolated communities and is the mainstay of the Negev settlements.
  • As immigration soars after statehood, KKL-JNF becomes the major factor in agricultural settlement, and provides tens of thousands of new immigrants with an initial income from forestry and land reclamation work.
First panting ceremony at Marrtyrs Forest. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

The start of the fifth decade, during which all Fund efforts focused on the Negev, saw the demise of Menahem Ussishkin, the man who had led the great land purchases of the previous two decades. On the thirtieth day after his passing, residents of communities established on KKL-JNF land brought clods of earth from their fields and laid them on his grave. This token of respect symbolized Ussishkin's 40 years of land redemption work, every clod representing hundreds of dunams that he helped restore to the Jewish People. The Hebrew date of his passing, the 12th of Tishrei, became known as Voice of the Land Day, when Fund workers and cultural figures would mark the importance of land redemption in the spirit of the "iron man."

For two years after Ussishkin's death in late 1941, KKL-JNF was run by a "triumvirate" composed of Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan), a founder of HaMizrahi religious Zionism; Berl Katznelson, a Labor leader and editor of its newspaper, Davar; and Avraham Granovsky (Granott), a veteran Fund worker.

In 1943 Granovsky, who had been Ussishkin's right-hand man, was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors. Granovsky led the work of the Fund for the following two decades through the war years, the struggle against the British, and the period of great immigration following the establishment of the State of Israel. With typical reserve, he steered KKL-JNF through some of its greatest moments as it labored to determine the borders of the state-in-the-making and prepare infrastructure for roads and water for new communities in early statehood. Despite all the difficulties of the war years and the British Mandate, which did not favor the Zionist idea and ignored the Balfour Declaration, the achievements were many. As if by magnet, Granovsky was drawn to the land, for its redemption and the Fund's ministering, loving touch.

Granovsky, hereafter known by his Hebraized name of Granott, was well aware that he was taking up office in a period of struggle and battle. The battle, he wrote, had its start far away, in the diaspora, with the thousands who daily toiled at "small tasks" for Keren Kayemeth – raising funds... "The 'gray work' of tens of thousands of faithful, devoted, unacknowledged lay people supplied the bricks and mortar for the edifice being erected in Erez Israel… work that proceeded even in this hour of unprecedented emergency, in every country, including the most remote, geographically and politically, and those under enemy conquest, cut off from the rest of the world. The Fund's stewards continue to work with devotion and constancy, often at a real risk to their lives."

Granott regarded the Fund's work as a vast web, its fragile fibers connecting the Jewish People in a bond unseen, but heartfelt; a bond that potently fuelled the Fund's work in Erez Israel.

From his Jerusalem office, Granott spent the Forties trying to consolidate the Fund, to purchase more and more land in every way possible. His central goal was the Negev - that loose soil hardly hospitable to trees or crops but as vital to a Jewish state as a breath of air. The Fund's achievements were many by the time Granott took up the helm, and it already owned 575 thousand dunams on which 152 communities had been built. But the tasks at hand were more numerous still. "We were not daunted by the obstacles," he wrote. "We continued to penetrate further into this region."

His efforts were rewarded. A few years later the pegs on his office map showed extensive areas in the Negev; and the more than 400 thousand dunams purchased during the war itself - in area, almost equal to the Fund's entire holdings – with 80% of the new lands being in "forbidden territory." Despite the British ban, KKL-JNF held 140 thousand dunams in the Negev in 1942. By then, 16 more settlements had been built on Fund land, 12 of these in regions prohibited by the Land Edicts. The new communities were created as new forms of settlement and known alternately as "conquest camps," "outposts," "forts" and later, also "huts," and "fences." The terminology changed, often to mislead the British, but the goal remained the same: to obtain an additional tract of land, to hold on to it and to establish solid facts on the ground. Every house built in a new community was the result of protracted, arduous labor, and it took some eye rubbing to be able to believe that the rocks cleared, the hut built, and the new row of trees were not a mirage conjured up in the East.

The link with Europe's Jewish communities, the Fund's main source of income, was almost completely severed during the war. Yet the Blue Box, which had come to symbolize the bond between the diaspora and Erez Israel, was to be found even in the ghettos. And while there may have been nothing to fill it with, it filled the hearts of many with hope of overcoming the Final Solution and reaching the shores of Erez Israel, the land sketched on the Box which KKL-JNF would lay at their feet after the Nazi horrors.

Despite the disruption in donations from European Jewry, the Fund's coffers did not dwindle. From this period onward, most of the donations, which helped purchase the lands of the Negev, came from North America.

The defeat of General Rommel (the "Desert Fox") in Africa lifted the danger of a Nazi invasion of Palestine. David Ben Gurion, then head of the Zionist Executive, on a working tour of the United States urged KKL-JNF offices in Jerusalem to take advantage of the moment to purchase land in the south and quickly settle lands already purchased. In his assessment, "the Negev was becoming the key issue" and every spot settled would determine the borders of the future state.

Avraham Granott and Joseph Weitz, on their frequent trips to the Negev to explore every bit of land, concluded that while it was still too early to settle the Arava, it was essential to settle areas south of Beersheba. Gazing out on the vast Negev expanses, they dreamed - beyond all logic - of the magic that a settlement, a pipeline, trees, could work on the region once it was purchased and transferred to Jewish hands. Weitz secretly envisioned the forest that he would manage to create there only twenty years later. In spite of the topographical conditions and the desert climate, and even before "rolling back the desert" became a catchword, he saw a mantle of trees banishing the desert and converting the Negev's "sun-drenched land" into a region of blossoms and shade. Granott saw the sand dunes turning into the settlement points of a Jewish state.

In 1943 Kibbutz Be'erot Yitzhak and Nir Am were established in the Negev, and while the Fund's thrust was to the Negev during this period, settlement continued in almost all parts of the country. KKL-JNF certainly had its hands full: in its offices, with the fine points of purchase and redemption; in the field, with land preparation for new settlements. That same year, Kibbutz Manara was established, the first community in the hills of eastern Galilee, as well as Kfar Etzion, an additional community in the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem.

Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

In the corridors of the Head Office, 1943 was hailed as the year of Negev revival, an historical distinction arising from the establishment of three new "outposts" (mitzpim) – the jewel in the settlement crown; for not only were they additional footholds in the country, but, sited on different types of soil, they were also experimental agricultural stations. They gave the Fund an opportunity to study different types of soil, water and climate for different crops.

Weitz , who initiated the Negev outposts and named them mitzpim – as he did the Galilee "forts" of Biriya, Ramat Naftali, and Hukok – wrote in his memoirs: "Because of the inadequate knowledge of agricultural conditions in the Negev… for farm planning purposes, Keren Kayemeth proposed setting up outposts in the Negev so that its residents might familiarize themselves with the natural attributes, studying the soil, climate, plant life and water." Three groups of pioneers, comprised of six members each, were dispatched to a "geographical triangle" in the south, each angle characterized by a different type of climate. The first outpost, Gvulot, was established in the western Negev in May of 1943. Two months later, Beit Eshel was built east of Beersheba and, a month later, Revivim rose, some 30 kilometers south of Beersheba, near Bir Asluj. KKL-JNF built dirt access roads to the outposts, where agricultural research was conducted by both the settlers and experts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot.

A scroll buried in the ground beneath the cornerstone of Gvulot's first building read: "Negev, open wide the arms of your steppes, your vast expanses, to the land-thirsty, because today we come to you, to enter with you into a covenant of life and deed." The founding ceremony of every new community was accompanied by high excitement; so much so, that the Jewish thirst for even arid and unpromising land appeared to exceed the land's thirst for a loving hand. The three outposts, from the moment they were established, became departure points for populating the entire Negev.

In 1945, KKL-JNF celebrated 25 years of forestry in Erez Israel. The first forests had been planted in Ben Shemen and Hulda in 1908, but since most of the trees had failed to take root or were uprooted during WWI, it was decided to date the new forestry from 1920. KKL-JNF's forestry books showed 3,620,700 trees in forests extending over the length and breadth of the country and covering 15,700 dunams of land. They closely dovetailed land redemption and the Fund's September 1945 issue of Karneinu noted that "Keren Kayemeth forests revive desolate land, dress arid rock, create soil amid stone… Afforestation activities are firmly grounded in land reclamation and settlement. Forests create a receptive home for thousands of immigrants, providing employment in tree planting during their initial absorption. Without forests, settlement of the hills would not be possible at all." Thus, often regarded as a private obsession impossible to realize in a hard, dry land, forests became both a reality and an instrument of guarding the land, of settlement and of employment. Moreover, contrary to the saying that habitation repels forests, forests were a lodestone for habitation, communities springing up alongside them in the hills of Menashe, Ephra'im, Galilee and Jerusalem.

The end of WWII brought to light the scale of horrors perpetrated against the Jewish People and the loss of six million. The British, meanwhile, continued their restrictive White Paper policies, denying entry to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who were now knocking at the gates of Palestine. The pre-State military organizations of Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi sharpened their resistance against the British.

In 1946, a radio broadcast on the Voice of Jerusalem, the British Mandate radio station in Palestine, announced the Morrison Plan (named for the leader of the British Labor Movement). Morrison suggested that Palestine be divided into new political regions, the Negev cut off from the previous areas allotted the Jewish state. To KKL-JNF leaders, the broadcast was a signal to move into action. "At that moment," wrote Weitz in his journal, "the idea was born to strengthen our hold over areas under threat of severance from us, to establish positions with the speed of lightning; positions that would turn into firm settlement points as quickly as possible."

The program was kept secret. Even the prospective settlers did not know where they were to be taken by the trucks rounded up at southern communities just before Yom Kippur of 1946. KKL-JNF was in on the plan, helping to plan and erect the new settlements on land it had been purchasing throughout the decade. On October 6, 1946, in the dead of night after the close of Yom Kippur, a thousand people from six communities set out for 11 points. Two hundred vehicles laden with building materials made up convoys of transport trucks, water tankers, vans used by Jewish guards in British service, and old armored cars from the Tower-and-Stockade days.

The convoys reached their destinations at first light and, within hours, there were 11 new Jewish settlements. The British High Commissioner wrote to London that the Jews had flagrantly carried out a political, rather than a settlement, act in order to claim territories that they could not conceivably hope to obtain in the Partition Plan. The official British statement said that the 11 settlement points were a political demonstration and a new record in the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine.

That evening, with the settlements already a fact on Negev ground, an assembly was held for Voice of the Land Day, which now was to become also "Negev Day." The guests who came to mark Ussishkin's memorial day on Mt. Scopus heard of the marvel that had taken place at dawn in the far south. A few days later, the 22nd Zionist Congress, the first since the Holocaust, convened in Basel. Granott spoke of the Fund's many achievements during the war, especially the penetration of the Negev and the thunderclap settlement operation of October 1946. But he also noted the restrictive conditions under which the Fund operated in Palestine and called for greater resources for the heavy national tasks at hand. The Congress delegates, impressed by the numbers of dunams KKL-JNF held, knew that the work was far from over and that every square kilometer registered to KKL-JNF strengthened the Jewish community in Palestine and had to be bolstered with more hills and plains.

Rushing to visit the new settlements, poet Nathan Alterman wrote "A Hut in the Negev," describing a young girl in the loess Negev plains and the light in her room which changed the map of the east. "Reading… aproned," she was the "the very front lines / Where a nation's soul hung in balance."

Four months after the 11 settlements rose, three more went up in the Negev and KKL-JNF began working on two pipelines to bring water to the new communities from wells discovered near Gvar Am and Nir Am. The tubes, purchased in London by Simha Blass, the Director of the Fund's Hydrology Department, had been used as fire hoses during the London Blitz in 1940. Alterman wrote about "water traveling south": "The sage and dupe rarely agree / On the agent of sway, of history / One maintains: 'the Government'/ Another: 'Senators!' or 'Funds!'/ A fourth, 'Officialdom!', 'the President!' / Too true, but all may yet assert -/ That the plumber was what shaped events / By aiming pipe and tap at the desert."/

In 1947 KKL-JNF expanded its afforestation work and by the end of that year there were almost five million trees in 67 forests, among them some new ones: Martyrs Forest in memory of Polish Jewry, Remembrance Forest, also in memory of Holocaust victims, Basle Forest, in honor of the city that had hosted the First and other Zionist Congresses, and Red Army Forest.

Israel's Chief Rabbi Herzog goes to the first planting at Martyrs Forest. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Israel's Chief Rabbi Herzog goes to the first planting at Martyrs Forest. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

In 1947 the UN committee investigating the situation in Palestine published its decision to partition the country into Jewish and Arab states, now including most of the Negev within the boundaries of the former. Many were the sighs of relief at KKL-JNF's Head Office.

Granott said at the time that "It is enough to glance at the proposed borders of the Jewish state to see that the changes made in the UN Partition Plan vis-a-vis the British Royal Commission program of 1937 are in large measure the result of the land-acquisition and settlement policy we have pursued over the past 10 years." The gain was clear: the purchase of land and settlement of the Negev had determined the borders of the future State of Israel. The partition boundaries stipulated at Lake Success drove home the fact that all the sites where KKL-JNF had bought land and prepared it for cultivation and settlement were included within the state boundaries. An American radio commentator explaining to his listeners the significance of the UN decision of November 29, 1947 noted that KKL-JNF, as the emissary of the Jewish People, had drawn the borders of the Jewish state. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it had first created the frame and then had filled it with water, access roads, communities, and groves. Looking back at that moment, many of the Board members recalled the raging debates over whether or not to buy land in the face of empty coffers. Ussishkin had been right, they now acknowledged, in pressing for land purchase against all agrarian or economic sense.

By the time the State of Israel was founded, more settlements had risen under the nose of the British, all on KKL-JNF land. Top priority was accorded what was then known as "the Negev Action." Kedma was established in the southern lowlands, between Kfar Menahem and Be'er Tuvia. Kibbutz Gal-On emerged on the southern slopes of the Judean Hills, then Shuval (southeast of Kibbutz Ruhama), Tekuma, and Be'eri (south of Kibbutz Be'erot Yitzhak). Later, Kibbutz Mishmar HaNegev was founded, as well as Moshav Nevatim and the kibbutzim of Hazerim, Nirim, and Urim. In 1947, on the coastal Sharon Plain between Herzliya and Netanya, the moshavim of Bnei Zion and Herev LeEt were built, as well as Kibbutz HaOgen. In the Judean Hills two more communities, Ein Zurim and Revadim, joined the Ezion Bloc, and Kibbutz Neveh Ilan was founded. Most of the sites of these communities, which represented the entire gamut of ideological settlement, were chosen not for soil quality, but with the primary intent of expanding Jewish-held territory.

Leading up to the close of the British Mandate, KKL-JNF continued its afforestation and land reclamation work and the preparation of infrastructure for new residential quarters adjacent to veteran communities and the big cities.

The day after the UN vote on partition on November 29, 1947, the War of Independence broke out. In consultation with David Ben Gurion, it was decided that the Fund establish a Negev Commission to be responsible for the southern settlements. The commission helped fortify the peripheral communities and keep the supply lines open. KKL-JNF land workers were now "soldiers" drafted for logistical tasks. The Fund quarters at Beit Dagan (known as Beit Dajan) became a vanguard position between Mikve Yisrael and Kiryat Anavim, defending the road from the foothills up to Jerusalem.

KKL-JNF not only paved the road to statehood – along with roads connecting other parts of the country – but had the honor of housing the Provisional Council's decisive session on declaring independence. The Council discussed the proposal to proclaim statehood on May 12, 1948 in the conference room of KKL-JNF's Tel Aviv offices. Two days later, Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel.

That same day, the 5th Iyar 5708, May 14, 1948, Ben Gurion, as head of the Provisional Government, also revoked the 1940 regulations on land transfer retroactive to the 20th of Iyar, 5699, May 18, 1939." KKL-JNF's offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were inundated with telegrams of congratulations, including from contributors.

Two days after the establishment of the State, the Head Office also received a letter from Aharon Chisling, Minister of Agriculture in the Provisional Government. This, his first letter as the first Minister of Agriculture, Chisling proudly addressed to the Fund as "the Jewish People's most cherished institution, which had laid the land base and the social and security foundation for the building of the State. KKL-JNF dashed off a reply to the Minister from besieged Jerusalem: "Keren Kayemeth, which since its inception has toiled to strengthen the entity of Hebrew agriculture in Erez Israel, will remain true to the principles of land redemption also in the future … within the framework of an autonomous Hebrew regime, free of the hostile restrictions and narrow-mindedness of the White Paper regime – Keren Kayemeth will strive to create areas of national land for immigrant and settler." So it said, and so it did.

By statehood, KKL-JNF's assets had reached a million dunams, more than a third of this in the valleys it had redeemed. Ten per cent was in the Negev, ostensibly a small portion, thought it comprised most of the lands populated by Jews in the entire Negev. New acquisitions, which rounded off the total amount to one million, included land bought from Arabs and acquired from the Mandate government, such as part of the old German Templer colony of Sharona, where Tel Aviv's administrative Kirya was built, temporarily housing the offices of the Provisional Government.

The War of Independence and the State's establishment changed the land situation. Thousands of dunams of abandoned property were now added to the land already held by Jews (the Fund or others). As heir to the Mandate government, the government of Israel took over some 400 thousand dunams, mostly rock lands, including large areas in the Negev. The cultivation of these was now urgent both for security reasons and population-dispersal policy. The country's gates had opened to the great immigration wave, and KKL-JNF enlisted in the task.

The Fund did not own enough land to meet development needs and settle the many immigrants flocking to the country, and it purchased an additional million dunams from the State. It paid for the lands in foreign currency raised from contributions of diaspora Jewish communities. Fund bulldozers rapidly prepared the new lands for settlement and afforestation, while the young State took earned the hard currency it needed to purchase military equipment abroad.

On both old and new lands, 27 new communities were founded in 1948 alone. Some of these took the form of military outposts on roads embroiled in combat. A KKL-JNF map printed a few days after Independence shows 305 settlements, 233 of these on KKL-JNF land. As in the past, now, too, KKL-JNF was involved in urban development. To the joy of the Fund's monetary managers, 1948 was a record year in terms of contributions, totaling ₤10.5 million. As a result, KKL-JNF could invest large sums in the Jerusalem Development Corporation and the Nahariya Development Corporation and help develop these cities for immigrant absorption. It transferred thousands of dunams to the various housing bodies for new neighborhoods around Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Haifa. Thirty-six thousand housing units were erected on these tracts during the first two years of statehood while the Fund built new connecting roads, levelled ground and supplied water.

It was also busy with settlement activity per se on the road between Hulda and Jerusalem, which became known in those days as the Jerusalem Corridor. Here, moshavim were founded for new immigrants, a narrow corridor populated by a mosaic of communities.

In 1949 a total of 102 new agricultural communities were established, many of them in Upper Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem, settled by new immigrants and newly demobilized soldiers. KKL-JNF laid the water lines.

It was clear to Jerusalem's Head Office that KKL-JNF was at a crossroads and that, as in the past, it had to prepare for new tasks and adapt to changing needs. The National Institutions saw KKL-JNF as vital to three key realms: land reclamation; afforestation, to transform the country into a blossoming garden and provide income for thousands of new immigrants; and education, to reinforce the bond of the young to the land and the State.

In the face of the shrinking need to acquire additional lands and the growing need to prepare infrastructure for urban and agricultural settlement, the Board of Directors appointed a committee to re-examine KKL-JNF's work in the light of statehood. Bearing in mind the important goals and challenges that faced the State, the committee decided on a series of old-new guidelines in the winter of 1950. Chief among these was the development of land to settle the masses of new immigrants in both town and country. To this end, the Board decided, the Fund would continue to reclaim and prepare land, seek out new water sources and afforest the country. The Board, in fact, decided to continue its time-honored work, but now it was "full steam ahead" and not only for immigrants - but by immigrants.

Thousands of immigrants were employed in land development and afforestation at the time, "relief work" that made it possible to prepare land for settlement and provide newcomers with an initial livelihood. It was the belief of the Head Office that such work would bond new immigrants to the land, training them in farming for the establishment of rural communities.

Weitz, who had hit upon this response to the twin challenges of immigrant employment and making the land bloom, dubbed the period "the blossoming of the wilderness," and promoted the establishment of "labor villages" which subsequently became moshavim. During these years, he said, KKL-JNF "underwent a metamorphosis – from the redemption of land from the hands of others to the redemption of land from the chains of wilderness." He attributed more importance to this second incarnation because, he said, in the past the land had been redeemed with money, whereas now, the new tasks demanded manual labor, which was of enormous educational value.

In 1950, he, the "Father of the Forests," could look with pride at both the eight million new trees planted (two million in a single year) and the 25 new settlements established at his suggestion in Galilee, the Judean Hills and the Jerusalem Corridor.

If, at the end of this decade, it was said that KKL-JNF's work had come to an end with the establishment of the State of Israel, the Fund demonstrated that all its functions – apart from land purchase – continued to be still essential. The fledgling state was then fighting for its life against seven invading armies, and there were enormous challenges to be met in the absorption of mass immigration. Echoing KKL-JNF's stance on the question, a contemporary newspaper noted that the Fund's work prior to statehood had been only the start of a greater drive and energy, and that its strength and necessity would continue to be felt for many years to come.