The Fourth Decade: 1931-1940

Between 1931-1932, eight new communities arose on KKL-JNF land. Following a series of law suits involving tenant farmers on Hefer Valley lands, the Fund turned its attention to draining the swamps and regulating the riverbeds.
  • Joseph Weitz, "the father of Israel’s Forests" is appointed Director of KKL-JNF's Lands and Forestry Department.
  • Land is purchased in the Hefer, Beit She’an and Jezreel Valleys, and the draining of the Hefer Valley swamps begins.
  • Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel continues despite the 1936-39 Arab disturbances, and KKL-JNF helps establish Tower-and-Stockade outposts.
  • The "Ussishkin Fortresses" - Kibbutz Dan and Kibbbutz Dafna - are established at Israel's northern border; land is purchased in Upper Galilee.
  • KKL-JNF fights the British White Paper restrictions, which forbid the sale of land to Jews in most areas of the country by acquiring land in the Negev and the Jerusalem Hills.
KKL-JNF staffers out on a land purchasing tour, April 1938. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

In 1931 and 1932, eight new communities rose on KKL-JNF land. The first three were built in the Hefer Valley (Ein HaHoresh, Givat Haim, and Avihayil), and three more in the Judean foothills (Kfar Avraham, Neta'im, and Tirat Shalom). In the Sharon, Kfar Yavetz was founded and in the Jordan Valley, Kibbutz Afikim. Following a series of law suits involving tenant farmers on Hefer Valley lands, the Fund turned its attention to draining the swamps and regulating the riverbeds and in 1933, the first settlers moved into Kfar Vitkin.

Near Kfar Vitkin, and all along the Sharon Plain, another 15 new settlements were established as part of a project known as the "Settlement of the Thousand," so called because of the Head Office hope to settle a thousand families on the land. The plan was to turn the area into one great agricultural hothouse that would supply the big cities with all their agricultural needs.

Also in 1933, numerous immigrants arrived in the country, refugees from Nazi Germany. KKL-JNF assisted the first communities established by these newcomers, as well as the new body of Youth Aliya, which absorbed Jewish youngsters and trained them for agricultural work.

Among this group were many photographers whose talents KKL-JNF utilized by sending them off to the far ends of the country to document its work and the establishment of settlements on Fund land. Photographer Yaacov Ben Dov produced the film, "Palestine Awakening," in which he followed a Jewish tourist through the revived country. Interspersed among photographs of the soil, the cultivation of new furrows, and the forests, were animated segments of coins dropping into the Blue Box.

The Eighteenth Zionist Congress, which convened in Prague in the summer of 1933, commended both the work of KKL-JNF and Menahem Ussishkin, its Chairman, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. "In appreciation of [his] unflagging work for more than 50 years on behalf of the nation, the land, and the language," Congress declared the establishment of a village in his name. Its founding, however, was deferred due to the severe land speculation in Palestine at the time. Instead, two communities in the Galilee Panhandle were to be known as the "Ussishkin Fortresses," Dan and Dafna, on the northern border.

In spite of initial obstacles placed by the British government in the way of land purchases in the Bet She'an Valley, thousands of dunams of land were purchased in that hot, parched region in 1934 and 1935. Both on these lands, and on tracts bought towards the end of the previous decade, new settlements were built and the signs of permanence, so awaited by the early residents, were not long in coming: they came in the form of warbling birds that had begun to nest in the first trees planted in the Bet She'an Valley, which, till then, had virtually been a desert. In 1937 Kibbutz Tirat Zvi was founded, one of the Tower-and-Stockade settlements, and the Valley's southernmost community then. It was followed by additional settlements, creating a continuous chain of kibbutzim and moshavim in the region.

Land redemption continued unabated during this decade, as well. But the number of landowners willing to sell was constantly decreasing, and the status of the remaining lands problematic, among other things because of legal issues. People began to show up, claiming that the land being cultivated or settled by KKL-JNF was theirs rather than the property of the parties who had sold it to the Fund. To surmount these hurdles, which threatened to slow down the work of the Fund and the progress of the Zionist enterprise, KKL-JNF employed numerous lawyers to investigate the rights of remaining sellers and ascertain that these were valid and undisputed.

The Fund also changed its methods of land purchasing at this time. Instead of leaving the sensitive work in the hands of buying companies such as Hakhsharat HaYishuv (PLDC), Joseph Weitz (who in 1932 replaced Akiva Ettinger as Director of the Lands Department) set up a special countrywide unit to purchase land for the Fund. In this way, he conducted dozens of endeavors, some in secret and far from British eyes, thereby redeeming more lands of clay and sand and loess and rock. This was followed by the symphony of the land – the sounds of implements at work, of pickaxes and hammers reclaiming soil for new fields, homes, access roads and paths.

In October 1934 KKL-JNF purchased additional land on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. This time the funds came from the American Women's Zionist Organization, Hadassah, for the establishment of a university hospital. Menahem Ussishkin's address at the cornerstone-laying ceremony made history when, for the first time in the annals of Erez Israel, it was transmitted live over radio to Hadassah donors in Washington, DC. So powerful was his address on land redemption that it seemed to have been borne by the wind across the miles.

At the end of 1935, the conclusion of "the conquest of the valleys" - the era of great land purchases - KKL-JNF owned 358 thousand dunams or 41% of all Jewish-owned land in Palestine. On this land, there now stood 108 communities, the most recent being the three Krayot neighborhoods in the Zebulon Valley: Kiryat Motzkin, a middle-class neighborhood named after Russian Zionist leader Dr. Ariyeh-Leon Motzkin; Kiryat Bialik, after the poet, another middle class community whose residents hailed from Germany, and Kiryat Shmuel, named after Shmuel-Haim Landau, one of the founders of Poel HaMizrahi religious Zionism. That same year the Fund could also take pride in the 7,000 dunams of forest that now glistened from afar thanks to a woodland mantle: green plumage, 1.7 million trees, that had begun to cover bald hillsides. People familiar with the landscapes of 10, 20 or 30 years back suddenly realized that blocks of shade were no pipe dream. Another source of pride was the peak income recorded by KKL-JNF at the time.

The next period, which opened with the Arab Disturbances of 1936-39 and lasted until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, was defined by Joseph Weitz as the period of "storm and struggle." In those years KKL-JNF not only weathered the storm, but spearheaded the struggle. Precisely then, he wrote in retrospect six decades later, "Keren Kayemeth had a great awakening, doubling its efforts to withstand the struggle and thwart the ill will of both the Mufti and the Mandate. Henceforth, we were to witness an encouraging phenomenon of penetrating beyond the legal wall into forbidden territory, of redeeming important, extensive areas and settling them in various ways."

The storm of which Joseph Weitz spoke erupted on April 19, 1936. The Arabs of Jaffa took to rioting, bloodletting and acts of murder, which spread throughout the country and turned into an all-out attack on the pre-State Jewish community, especially on agricultural settlements. The Fund's work was now very dangerous. On a tour of the Bet She'an Valley to scout out land for purchase, Haim Sturman, a member of HaShomer guards, was murdered. Nevertheless, this did not stop Mussa Goldberg of Kibbutz Bet Alfa from risking his life to buy up thousands of dunams in the Jordan Valley. In fact, rather than grinding to a halt, the Fund's work actually expanded despite the numerous difficulties.

In the early 1930s the "land rush" hit a new frenzy with speculators reaching as far as the Negev. People with money were eager to buy lands in the south, and a large tract of land was purchased at Asluj (later, Revivim, south of Beersheba). Upon the outbreak of rioting in 1936, tenant farmers and trespassers occupied the land, and Moshe Smilansky, whose good relations with the Arabs and Beduins had earned him the respectful appellation of "Hawaja Mussa," suggested to KKL-JNF that it purchase the lands before they were lost. The Head Office agreed; stakes were set down and fences went up, marking another Jewish foothold in the south.

Weitz's "awakening and struggle" were also reflected in 60 new defense points that soon covered the land and were known as Tower-and-Stockade settlements. The establishment of facts on the ground, by throwing up a settlement (tower) and surrounding it with a wall (stockade), was merely the culmination of an accelerated process begun in the corridors and offices of KKL-JNF.

The telegrams dispatched from the Head Office to its people all over the country attest to the burst of energy and the importance accorded each additional piece of land. It was not soil quality or type that preoccupied the policy-makers at the National Institutions in Jerusalem, but political and security considerations, for every piece of land purchased and settled strengthened the Jewish community – improving its "political cards" in anticipation of the discussions on the future of Palestine and the realization of the Balfour Declaration.

In the summer of 1936, with attacks on isolated communities and outlying neighborhoods a daily occurrence, Ussishkin harangued the representatives of the Zionist Movement: "… you may beat your breasts for the sin… committed [against]… Erez Israel in neglecting to redeem [its] land till now."

A year later Ussishkin urged members of the Zionist Executive to buy up every possible bit of land. "We must make every effort today to acquire areas far from population centers in order to secure our country's borders to the extent feasible," he said; "it is not agriculture that guides us, but primarily the desire to ensure for the nation a country of broader borders."

Also Abraham Hartzfeld, one of the fathers of settlement, said at the time that "purchases beyond the boundary must hereafter be considered more urgent than ever before. Don't imagine that because a site is beyond the boundary, we have no interest in purchasing land there. This boundary," he added, "will not be the final border." Indeed, some years later many of the Zionist Movement leaders acknowledged that it was KKL-JNF which, to a large extent, had determined the state's borders – firstly, by purchasing and redeeming lands, and then by immediately settling them, erecting towers and stockades, paving roads, and building water towers.

From 1936 to 1939, the period of the Disturbances, when normal life was disrupted by ambushes on the roads and the murder of hundreds of Jews, the country was in fact covered by a record number of new settlements: by more than a third of the number of settlements built in the 54 years between the First Aliya and the outbreak of the Disturbances.

The new settlements sprang up on KKL-JNF land like mushrooms after the rain. Unlike other communities, where infrastructure work had taken more than a year, here the work was done with lightning speed; within hours, huts were knocked together, tents put up, a stockade erected and a tower raised. The tower and stockade were not only a new element in the bare landscape at dozens of locations throughout the country, but also the term used for this new form of settlement.

The towers were pre-fabricated and transported to the new sites on truck or wagon, and great was the excitement that gripped the settlers when they were raised into the air, instantly establishing facts visible in the distance: in Upper Galilee, in the southern Bet She'an Valley, on the Syrian border, in the Menashe Hills, and in the Negev. KKL-JNF provided not only the land for the new settlements, but also work and a livelihood for the new settlers, from the moment they arrived.

After their first night in the field, the Fund helped the new residents prepare the soil for cultivation - soil that only a day before had been untouched by human hands – and it paid them for their labor. Every Jewish child in Palestine and the diaspora at the time knew that KKL-JNF was behind all the settlements that had arisen on the country's map, so much so that they momentarily forgot the behind-the-scenes pains it took for land redemption. For a moment, it seemed as if the Fund's main work was building roads, planting trees, and laying water pipes.

KKL-JNF workers, whether involved in land purchase or in reclamation, traveled up and down the country, risking their lives in the prevailing security situation. In 1938, five members of the BaMaaleh settlement group, working for KKL-JNF on a new road for their community and that of the Mercaz Vitkin group from Poland, were killed near Kiryat Anavim. The deaths of the five, Moshe Baumgarten, Aharon Olishevsky, Itzhak Migdal, Aryeh Mordechovitz, and Yehoshua Pochovsky, stunned the Jewish community, and was immortalized in the song , "Five," by Mordecai Ze'ira and S. Shalom: Five set out a homeland to build, five… Their hammers hacked hill, hacked hill. Five men a team, pavers of dreams, of roads and rails and all. Shots rent the morning still. Hammer in hand, soul sound. Five bodies fell… stood tall!"

That same year, Kibbutz Maaleh HaHamisha was established and named for the five. Eulogizing them, Moshe Sharett, Director of the Jewish Agency's Political Department, said that their blood had been spilled on "an unfinished road," but that the "road would not remain unfinished… It will be paved to the end. The forest will be planted and it will flourish thanks to your blood and the sap of your lives."

The Twentieth Zionist Congress convening in Zurich in 1937 praised the work of KKL-JNF during the period of struggle, noting that it "is called upon to redeem new tracts of land quickly and energetically for a solid foundation in the establishment of the Hebrew homeland." By the end of the three-year period of unrest, KKL-JNF owned another 140 thousand dunams; in this brief period, its purchases nearly doubled all its holdings since its first acquisition in 1904.

In the face of the imminent arrival of the Peel Commission to investigate the causes of the Disturbances, Ussishkin summed up the situation. "Today, with the arrival of the Royal Commission, we are faced with a political campaign. This campaign may be the hardest of all. At the heart of the issues up for discussion and resolution are two matters: aliya [immigration] and land. These are the support pillars… of the entire edifice."

In July 1937, the Peel Commission published its recommendations, which were designed to bring about an end to the violence in Palestine by dividing the country into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Partition Plan made plain to the members of the Zionist Organization and KKL-JNF that the political map would be determined by facts on the ground. It was clear that the areas of the country that had been purchased and settled would fall within the boundaries of the Jewish State; that it would be difficult to take away from Zionism the sites it had settled - and the conclusion was equally clear: more of the Bet She'an Valley, Upper Galilee and, then, the Negev, had to be settled as quickly as possible so that they, too, would be included in the future Jewish State.

Erecting the first house at Maaleh HaHamisha, 1938. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Erecting the first house at Maaleh HaHamisha, 1938. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Ussishkin was resolved to continue acquiring lands beyond the territory that the Peel Commission had slated for a Jewish state. He often said that he preferred "the scorching fire of all of Erez Israel to the gilded glitter" that the Peel Commission had proposed. In the wake of the Land Edicts imposed by the British limiting land sales to Jews, Ussishkin issued a manifesto referring Zionists to Jeremiah 32:44: "Fields shall be purchased." In other words, he stressed the urgent need to continue the land redemption work. This manifesto resulted in the HaGalila project, in which 22 thousand more dunams of land were purchased in Upper Galilee.

Against the background of the bloody events in Palestine, the functions of the various Zionist institutions were not always clearly demarcated, and overstepped their original brief. Thus, KKL-JNF was called upon to do more than its part, not only in increased land purchases designed to create "defensive areas on the borders," but also in allocations to establish settlements. The Fund alloted considerable amounts of money to establish new communities, build roads, level rocky terrain and sand dunes, and construct security-related facilities.

In May 1939, after the publication of the British White Paper limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine, 12 new settlements were founded; seven of these (Mahanayim, Neveh Yam, Kfar Glickson, Tel Zur, Shadmot Devora, HaZorim, and Shorashim) in a single day, on May 23, when the British Parliament began its deliberations on the restrictions to be imposed on the Jewish community in Palestine. While they talked, the community in Palestine acted, and with lightning speed, in order to establishes facts on the ground. These hard years, which exacted such a sanguinary toll from the Jewish community, seemed be the soil's finest. The land was renewed by the blood of the fallen, in the words of the eulogies for victims of the violence.

In early summer 1939, on the day that Kibbutz Dafna, the first Ussishkin Fortress, was established in the northern Hula Valley by the United Kibbutz Movement, Joseph Weitz wrote in his journal: "The beacon of Tel Amal lit up the Bet She'an Valley for Jewish settlement. The insertion of the first stake at Ein HaShofet provided a foothold in the hills of Ephraim. The tents of Hanita heralded the revival of western Upper Galilee. Now the fertile, well-watered valley, from the foot of Mt. Hermon to the swamps of the southern Hula, have opened up before the Jewish settler."

Attending the founding ceremony of one of the Ussishkin Fortresses as guest and observer, poet Saul Tchernichowsky not only skillfully put his shoulder to the grindstone, but also his pen to paper, jotting down his impressions:

"A site sprung up in mid-field, out of nowhere / Unsaid, it was our heart beating out there/ By the time we drew near all was hustel and bustle / Wells hollowed, stakes downed, barbed wire fences / Dug in earnest and joy, labored breath, beaded toil/ Huts knocked together, boards driven, converging / Mallet and axe, roofs measured … base emerging."

The second Ussishkin Fortress was to become Kibbutz Dan, a Shomer HaTza'ir settlement and part of the Kibbutz Artzi Movement.

The last of the Tower-and-Stockade settlements, Kibbutz Negba, was founded on July 12, 1939 in the Negev, then the southernmost point of Jewish settlement. A convoy of 50 trucks carrying 300 people, equipment and supplies set out from Be'er Tuvia in the dead of night to put up the first Negev kibbutz some 12 kilometers southeast of their starting point. The surprise was complete.

Afforestation was one of the development works in which KKL-JNF employed Tower-and-Stockade settlers. There was new planting to be done as well as the rehabilitation of older forests that had been burnt or cut down during the Disturbances of 1936-39. In 1938 the Voice of Jerusalem radio station (begun in 1936) transmitted its first live broadcast from outside the studio: radio reporter Mordechai Zlotnik (later known as Avida) described the planting at Mishmar HaEmek and the procession of planters approaching the planting site.

At the Twenty-First Zionist Congress that convened in Geneva in the summer of 1939 (the last Congress before the outbreak of WWII), delegates acclaimed the achievements of KKL-JNF for having succeeded during the period of the Disturbances in redeeming more than 100 thousand dunams of land, making new settlement possible. The Congress also noted that, more so than at any other time, land redemption was now of the highest political importance and had to be the top priority of the entire movement.

Menahem Ussishkin expressed the hope that even during the impending war, the Jewish People would focus on the land and establish a free homeland. He also voiced apprehension at the fate of the world, the Jewish People and the Congress delegates, who would be returning home to a Europe darkened by the winds of war. KKL-JNF was well aware of the need for struggle, and that there was only one way to manage it: by continuing to buy up land in complete defiance of the British ban so as to establish more facts on the ground and build new settlements at sites where there was no Jewish presence.

Aliyat HaNoar youngsters after arriving in Eretz Yisrael; KKL-JNF helps absorb them. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Aliyat HaNoar youngsters after arriving in Eretz Yisrael; KKL-JNF helps absorb them. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Writing on land policy, Avraham Granovsky noted that work must proceed quickly to conclude all possible transactions, even if not all the land could be settled. There were still no few opportunities for purchases, he said, despite the British Land Edicts. What's more, the experience of 40 years of Keren Kayemeth work, of 20 years of a deliberate land policy, and of the years of indecision since the promulgation of the Land Edicts, had pointed the way: to move forward no matter what… to broaden the base of the settlement endeavor.

At the close of Yom Kippur in 1939, poet Saul Tchernichowsky described KKL-JNF's accomplishments "Just with a Hoe," in those days of passion and pace when it determined the country's future. "Just with a hoe we dug in our heels / Stuck down a fence for a new kibbutz / Rock sparked and spewed as we answered the peal / Just with a hoe, we laid out in the sun / Furrows a distant future to yield / Paths without end, unwithered each one / Our seed to rise up in an unruly field / Grooves paved in vigor into the future/ Awakening now – / Just with a hoe!"

At the beginning of 1940, when the British Land Edicts prohibited purchase in more than 90% of the country's territory, there were irreversible facts on the ground, bearing out the Fund's race against time throughout the 1930s, and especially during the Disturbances. At the end of this stormy period, Ussishkin's words during the debate over the Jezreel Valley purchase, seemed relevant once more: "…had we missed the opportunity for purchase, you would have been entitled to regard us as criminals." Meanwhile, Europe was sunk in war, and in Palestine, the British shackled the Jewish community. David Ben Gurion, then head of the Zionist Executive, declared, "We will fight the Germans as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war."

As part of its struggle against the Land Edicts, KKL-JNF decided to change direction, in more than one sense. After more than 20 years of concentrating on purchases in the north, the Fund now set its sights on the Negev. Bounded by the southernmost Jewish settlement of Kibbutz Negba, its neighbors of Ruhama and Beer Tuvia, and Beersheba there were many tracts of land targeted by the Jewish leadership in Erez Israel. The goal was clear: land, land, and more land, regardless of its quality.

As it later turned out, even the lands of the arid Negev could give forth fruit and vegetables, and shifting sands could support permanent communities. But, at the time, the heads of the Fund regarded the new drift towards the Negev not only as a geographical change but a new political course of action. The purchase of lands in the Negev, said Avraham Granovsky, "is not always consistent with the economics of settlement, since not all the lands purchased for political reasons are suitable for agriculture." On the contrary, lands purchased for political motives can hamper settlement because they lead to an increase in land prices and undue expenditure. Nevertheless, Keren Kayemeth must purchase them."

Menahem Ussishkin shared the view that quantity was more important than quality. "Territory is of Number One importance today," he said, and "if we mean to prepare for the future, the extensive areas we hold will be the primary basis." As if he saw before his eyes the partition map that the United Nations was to approve in November 1947, he noted that the ownership and settlement of agricultural lands was power to the Jewish People. "Even the most complete Jewish city," he said, "does not have the same political significance as rural villages."

It was clear that the Land Edicts were to be fought by land purchases. Ben Gurion, too, supported any measures aimed at bolstering what he termed "our real strength in Erez Israel." At a KKL-JNF conference in Tel Aviv at the start of WWII, he said, "only the sure positions firmly we hold can be decisive. Our strength lies in people and assets – the land. To purchase land today is not merely to increase national holdings, but to build a new foundation on which our fate hangs."

Once again, lawyers were recruited to ferret out any possible legal loopholes, and land registries were checked to locate any possible plot. New maps and old were unfurled, and more and more tracts earmarked as important. Once again surveyors went out into the field. During this period KKL-JNF also bought private lands already in Jewish hands, taking possession not only of the lands, but also of the options held by the sellers. In order to conceal the transactions from the British, lands purchased from Beduin were registered in Beduin rather than British land records.

Most of the lands in the "prohibited" Negev, were bought during this decade, though they were to be settled only in KKL-JNF's fifth decade. Among the driving forces behind Negev land purchases was Moshe Smilansky, farmer, fruit-grower, writer and KKL-JNF Board member.

By the end of the decade it was clear to Jews everywhere that the Fund toiled in the spirit of the vision of its founding fathers 40 years earlier. Moreover, KKL-JNF was the Zionist Movement's most important vehicle, not only in land redemption and agricultural settlement, but also in buttressing and securing the Jewish community and furthering its political aims. As one of the newspapers of the time wrote: "Keren Kayemeth does not merely exist (kayemeth), but is the vanguard of deeds of glory whose story will still be told."