The Seventh Decade: 1961-1970

In the 1960s, during KKL-JNF's seventh decade, the Fund concentrated most of its efforts in the north, especially around border and frontier communities.
  • Jacob Tsur is elected KKL-JNF Chairman.
  • A Covenant is concluded in 1961 between the Government of Israel and KKL-JNF who becomes exclusively responsible for land development and afforestation in Israel and Zionist education abroad.
  • Land is reclaimed in frontier areas. The Settlments of Almagor at Corazim; Ein Yahav and Neot HaKikar in the Arava and Maaleh Gilboa on Mt. Gilboa in Galilee are established.
  • The John F. Kennedy Forest and Memorial are dedicated in western Jerusalem.
  • Planting of the Yatir Forest begins in the northern Negev, an area of low precipitation which the experts dismissed for afforestation. Today, Yatir has become Israel’s largest planted woodland.
  • The Galilee settlement project (Operation "Sus: Sof-Sof" i.e. At Last) begins. The Modi'im Region settlement bloc is developed.
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

In the 1960s, KKL-JNF's seventh decade, the Fund concentrated most of its efforts in the north, especially around border and frontier communities. Regional maps graced the walls of the Jerusalem Head Office and military personnel came and went at KKL-JNF headquarters as new roads were paved and opened, and land reclaimed to build new communities.

The frontiers targeted were Galilee, and border areas with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Fund bulldozers could be seen reclaiming land in the north to bolster security by establishing villages along hundreds of kilometers of borders, most of which were not natural boundaries. Joseph Weitz, one of the prime movers behind the settlement of these areas, worked closely with the Jewish Agency Settlement Department and Finance Minister Levi Eshkol; the latter, on top of his responsibility for the state economy, sought to fulfill also his previous function as Director of the Settlement Department.

Long-standing KKL-JNF staffers, who had been partners in the redemption of the valleys and later in the great land purchases in the Negev, knew that although the focus might shift to a specific region, work never stopped in the rest of the country. Now, KKL-JNF leaders had their eye on the desolate border areas while conducting forestry operations all over the country. To be defended, the border area had to be settled; and to be opened up, they required access roads. KKL-JNF again rallied to assist the state with a national task in a sphere in which it had amassed expertise and experience.

In 1961 Almagor rose in the Korazim region north of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), the first of the northern frontier outposts. It was followed a year later by Maaleh HaGilboa, the first community above the Jezreel Valley, portal to an unsettled region. To obtain the top of the hill, KKL-JNF carved out a new road. In Nahal Irron (Wadi Ara), Mei Ami and Yad Nathan were established, followed by a major thrust to reclaim and settle Upper Galilee.

This thrust became known as Operation Sus. Some attributed the name to the Hebrew acronym for sof-sof (finally), because the decision to settle the mountains facing Lebanon had finally been made after much hesitation and agonizing, and much work in other areas based on the needs of the fledgling state. Others said the name was to be taken at face value (meaning, horse), since prior to the new road only horses could make their way through the dense scrub earmarked for the Ramat Adamit communities.

Either way, it was no horse that opened the road to Galilee settlement, but bulldozers that arrived at the purple (cease-fire) line between Israel and Lebanon in the winter of 1963. The stillness of Galilee was suddenly disturbed by the din of chains and motors, and after they left, the sound of pickaxes took over, then steamrollers and cement mixers. Within a year the first homes peeked out from the boulders and scaffolding.

Paving the road to the Gilboa, 1962. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Paving the road to the Gilboa, 1962. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

All through the decade, new communities sprang up along the winding border with Lebanon: Avivim, Dovev, Setulah, Zar'it, Adamit, and Biranit. The early residents, like the immigrants of the 1950s, earned an initial livelihood from afforestation and land reclamation work provided by KKL-JNF. Later the Fund helped them plant and cultivate orchards. At the end of August 1965, with some of the communities already occupying the old-new land, a Festival Day was held for New Settlement Galilee in Galilee. On a single day, cornerstone-laying ceremonies took place for one new community after another. Each ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, KKL-JNF's Joseph Weitz and settlement leader Abraham Hartzfeld. At each location there were greetings and addresses along with an enthusiastic rendition by Hartzfeld of "Shuru, Habitu, Ure'u ("Rise, Look and See"). It was "a great day" indeed as noted by both the lyrics and those aware of how desolate the Galilee had been. The roads, most of them newly built by KKL-JNF in heretofore inaccessible areas, were filled with guests from all over the country, come for a glimpse of Galilee's new face.

Journalist Yehuda Ariel, who was on the first bus to reach the top of Mt. Meron, described the new KKL-JNF-built roads as "expanding [both] state and heart." KKL-JNF's work, he wrote in 1961, was associated mainly with land reclamation, "but there is a different sort of work that few have heard of: road-blazing through the mountains." The first roads the Fund built were aimed at providing access to areas slated for afforestation or settlement. But later it responded to government requests to open up roads for security reasons.

After the road to Ramat Adamit was finished, it was decided to extend it along the entire northern border. Other routes, known only to hunters or forest rangers around Birya, were made into proper roads to allow for vehicles. Hundreds more kilometers of roads were built amid the rocky hillsides of the Segev Bloc, at Mitzpe Yodfat, and in the Jerusalem Hills. Some 50 bulldozers were at work that year in the north and the south along with a hundred small tractors. Every day hundreds of square meters became "reclaimed land" for new settlers or vehicles. If in the past the Fund had been symbolized by a tree and water tower, now its signature was the bulldozer; its seal, the landscape for generations to come. As the modern heavy equipment swallowed up distances and carved out roads relatively quickly, many people recalled how the road from Tiberias to Tzemah had been built by sledgehammer. The tools had changed, much experience had been gained – but the joy of creation remained the same; every new road swelled hearts with pride. Every new road made it possible to take one more step on the land and sink down deeper roots.

In 1964, heralding the start of settlement in the northern Judean lowlands, KKL-JNF was among the founders of the community of Mevo Modiim.

Two years into Operation Sus, Joseph Weitz cast his glance over the southern Hebron Hills – an area of 200,000 dunams on the edge of the desert near the ruins of the biblical city of Yatir. In this dry climate, where precipitation is less than 200 millimeters a year, Weitz intended to establish a conifer forest. Inviting the epithet of "eccentric," he remained undaunted, insisting that "one of the country's largest forests would rise here." KKL-JNF set to work, beginning with a rangers station as a base of operations.

The journalists tour to the site – which took place right after the road was opened – is remembered by Theodor Hatalgi as one of the most moving of the hundreds he conducted as Director of the KKL-JNF Information Department. "The area was totally barren, a godforsaken land – and suddenly, a whole region was thrown open. It was an incredible experience."

Weitz, unfortunately, did not live to see the trees he planted at Yatir shading the desert soil some 25 years later, their crowns scaling the heights. After his death, his colleagues in the Afforestation Department remarked that people like him, of vision and action, triumphed over the experts - the forest rose and grew and vanquished the desert. Others said that the miracle derived from the great love that Weitz had poured into the earth and trees, and may not have happened elsewhere.

Preparing infrastructure for an access road to Biranit, 1963. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Preparing infrastructure for an access road to Biranit, 1963. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Be that as it may, in a dry, remote region, foresters had succeeded in raising various kinds of trees, including rare species of fruit trees, such as the European plum, which usually requires a cold, dry habitat. The desert plum and other species common to different climates were the pride to KKL-JNF. Forestry and other foreign experts came to see the marvel and could scarcely believe their eyes. For years, Yatir Forest was the Fund's "showcase." Here they showed journalists the "magic" wrought by the Afforestation Department. "You travel in the desert," said one journalist after visiting the site, "and suddenly you come upon a forest, as if it out of nowhere."

Throughout its history, with this decade no exception, KKL-JNF continued its education and information work. The very special relationship between the Jewish People and the land was, and continued to be, the lifeblood that coursed through the Fund's veins. And the People in Israel and abroad had to be kept abreast of the Fund's activities and means – particularly for their educational and community work – so that they could stay in constant touch, even in the diaspora, with the land and State of Israel.

Planting ceremonies on Tu BiShvat and First Fruits ceremonies on Shavuot became part and parcel of school curricula; there was not a child in Israel in this period who did not plant at least one tree during his or her school career. A Blue Box was to be found in virtually every classroom in the country while KKL-JNF posters adorned classroom walls and "Keren Kayemeth Corners" were devoted to Fund activity. Through the hand of KKL-JNF, the pupils felt as if they touched the soil of Israel; as if, even from a distance, they planted trees in Israel and were partners in the Fund's work.

In every country of the diaspora, every Jewish school celebrated Tu BiShvat in its own way but with the same message of love for Israel and longing for the land. In Brazil, for example, the festival of First Fruits was reminiscent of the traditional Carnival there. In England, France, and the U.S., while Israeli holidays were celebrated at school, the results of the celebrations showed up on Israel's map in the names of forests and parks honoring donor communities.

KKL-JNF booklets and other publications were distributed to every school in Israel and every community and Jewish school in the diaspora so that every Jewish child knew that thanks to his or her penny, the Fund's work never stopped and they, too, had a part to play in Israel's blooming. A constant refrain sprinkled the speeches of KKL-JNF leaders, continuing to inspire diaspora children and youth to bond with the land from afar, and Israel children to take an active part in the Fund's work, especially in planting.

Shimon Ben Shemesh, Director General of KKL-JNF for many years, reiterated the message in his own words: "Keren Kayemeth is not just another institution, but a popular movement embracing all Jewish generations in Israel and the diaspora… Through it, anyone who so desires may express his love for the land of Israel: those of few means may give less; the wealthy may give more. The Fund's uniqueness is its mission of redeeming the land for the Jewish People, redeeming it in the sense of both purchase and reclamation…" The impetus of the Fund's educational work obtained for it the financial means – and the many hands of children and youth – to plant some 20,000 dunams of forest every year.

During the period of alert preceding the June 1967 Six Day War, KKL-JNF carved out new roads on Mt. Gilboa and at numerous other sites all over Israel. When the war began, many of these enabled the IDF forces to move with speed, "facilitating its charge," as one of the contemporary newspapers put it. Chief of Staff General Yitzhak Rabin, commander of the victory, commended KKL-JNF for having built 480 kilometers of roads in the five years preceding the war, mostly along the Syrian and Jordanian borders.

"Relations between the IDF and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael," Rabin said, "are very close. The Fund's work in building frontier roads, establishing outposts, and developing the border regions have greatly contributed to bolstering our defenses in frontier areas, and it will continue to do so. I have no doubt about the ongoing need for this security work in our new circumstances." He was right.

Immediately after the Six Day War the Fund was busy developing additional settlement areas. It had its hands full with work in the Arava, Galilee, on the Golan, in the Jordan Valley, and the Etzion Bloc. It reclaimed 44,000 dunams in 1967 and helped establish new communities on these lands.

Widening the Jordan. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Widening the Jordan. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Fund bulldozers were again called upon to open roads and a few months after the war work began on the Golan. KKL-JNF reclaimed 2,000 dunams for a Nahal outpost at Banias, and opened a series of byways to develop various regions won by the IDF in the Six Day War. Apart from land reclamation and road building, the work included a good deal of drainage at the Jordan River estuary. From 1967 to the mid-1980s KKL-JNF reclaimed some 30,000 dunams of land each year. In 1968, land reclamation took on added impetus on both the Golan and around Rafiah near Gaza.

The Fund was among the founders of the Arava communities, including Ein Gedi, Mitzpe Shalem, Neot HaKikar, Hazeva, Grofit, Yotvata, and Eilot. It also came to the aid of Kibbutz Beit HaArava, a veteran kibbutz abandoned in 1948, helping it to leach the salts from the soil and prepare it for cultivation.

In 1969, KKL-JNF – the "nation's bulldozer" from north to south – built the first road on Mt. Hermon, as well as a road connecting the Etzion Bloc and the Adullam region. Also that year, development work was expanded in the Eshkol region in the northwestern Negev.

Its role far from over, KKL-JNF in the coming decades was to open up thousands of new kilometers of roads and carry out a plethora of tasks, all in the realm of land reclamation. For KKL-JNF, which works on the ground, literally only the sky is the limit. The land might be highly circumscribed, but it is multi-faceted, requiring timeless care and nurturing.