Early statehood opened a new burst of energy in KKL-JNF history and the period was widely seen as the Fund's finest hour. The most urgent problem was the need for employment for the numerous immigrants arriving in the country. The Fund, approaching its 50th anniversary, created jobs that were not only a stop-gap solution, but an investment in the future; not merely a boon for the immigrants, but a gift for the land - another means of bonding with the land, setting down roots, adding more greens.
In those first years of statehood, the map was increasingly filled by a spurt of new settlements, and wherever they rose, KKL-JNF was often the first agent on the scene. It began by reclaiming and terracing rocky land, and then by laying water lines. At this point, the immigrants would start arriving. The new thrust, resumed with great vigor in 1950 and lasting until 1952, saw the establishment of immigrant moshavim based on mixed farming. The second stage, known as "From Town to Country," involved the move of urban to farming communities. The third stage, in 1955 and 1956, was the result of North African immigration. Most of these immigrants, whose small farms had not yet yielded a harvest, meanwhile worked at tree planting, greening barren, rocky expanses unsuitable for agriculture, and connecting with the land.
KKL-JNF, at the time, was the largest "employer" in the country, and remained so throughout the 1950s. The employment track may have reached its peak in that period, but it never really stopped as, from time to time, KKL-JNF still responds to government requests to provide jobs.
For most of this decade, KKL-JNF bulldozers could be seen at dozens of locations all over the country, preparing thousands of dunams of land for new rural settlements and urban neighborhoods. Afterwards, the immigrants came into view and, soon, they could be seen as Fund employees on salary. More than 10,000 immigrants worked in afforestation during this period, planting a mass of forests in the Judean Hills and Galilee. Another 5000 immigrants were hired for development work.
The Fund's mighty afforestation endeavor, its most extensive till then, greened Jerusalem Corridor and the slopes of central and northern Israel. Moshavim sprang up alongside the new forests, their older members remembering to this day that their first salaries in the country came from KKL-JNF. They were "the hoers" who dug tree wells; settlers who, like the members of "labor villages," made a living from afforestation, "public relief" works that created lasting assets.
The difficulties of immigrant absorption, especially in frontier areas, were many. But little by little, despite the hardships, the toil of rake, pitchfork, and hoe created thriving communities. Visiting one of the immigrant communities that had sprung up near forestland, the Minister of Agriculture noted 20 years later: "We would all rather have the communities with all their problems than bare hills and no problems."
One of the large woodlands planted at this time was Martyrs Forest on the road to Jerusalem, in memory of the six million Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, which had ended only a decade before. The planters included survivors who were highly conscious of the green memorial they were establishing to the dear ones they had lost. Though they found the work rough-going, especially if unaccustomed to it, many of them noted at the time that they felt as if the planting of a tree in a forest were their own personal victory over the Nazis who had felled entire communities.
The Teachers Movement for Keren Kayemeth also enlisted in the project, calling for school involvement and a special campaign – Matzevatam (Their Memorial) – to plant trees for the children slain in the Holocaust: "Sacred… memorial trees for every Jewish soul lost…," the Executive of the Teachers Movement wrote.
In the north, in response to requests from the government and the settlement organizations, KKL-JNF turned its attention to the Hula marshes. The draining of the swamps and reclamation of the sludgy soil for agriculture was KKL-JNF's large-scale undertaking in its sixth decade and the state's first. With the help of international firms and engineering equipment brought in from abroad, the Hula drainage was the state's largest development project till then. KKL-JNF published books and manuals for youth and adults, explaining the importance of the national project that was to add some 60 thousand dunams of fertile land to the young state's agricultural cycle.
Hula drainage project, 1951-57. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
The first stage of the Hula drainage project began in 1951 and lasted about two years. At this stage, "aimed at tackling the causes of the swamp," as specified in the work plan, the Jordan riverbed, which led out of it, was widened so as to allow stagnant water to drain and lower the sludge level. Work proceeded amid shooting incidents from across the nearby border with Syria.
The second stage began in the summer of 1953. Drainage canals were excavated in the valley and swampland, one to the east of the swamp, 15 kilometers long, and another to the west, along the 16 kilometers from the heart of the swamp to the town of Kiryat Shemona. A third canal connected the other two. Five years and three million tons of mud and peat later, the large marshland was gone. On November 1, 1957 a newspaper headline announced: "Huge Hula Drainage Project Completed. Hula Lake to Disappear Next Week."
All that was left of the swamp was the Hula Nature Reserve – a 4000-dunam lake to preserve the local flora and fauna. The rest became fertile farmland, expanding the sources of income and livelihood for thousands of residents of kibbutzim and moshavim in the Hula Valley and Upper Galilee.
In 1954 KKL-JNF drained "Little Hula," the Wadi Falik Swamp south of Netanya. The area, which had been overrun with reeds and bullrushes, enriched the Sharon Plain with high-quality arable land.
In 1956, again in response to a request from the settlement bodies, KKL-JNF began to reclaim the Jezreel Valley's Taanach region, which was slated to absorb immigrants straight off the boat - sparing them the discomforts of temporary immigrant camps (usually the Shaar HaAliya Camp near Haifa) or shanty towns (maaborot). The new Taanach communities, KKL-JNF decided, would be named for biblical or historical episodes or figures related to the region, such as Deborah and Barak.
Fund bulldozers also revamped the Adullam region, a narrow 100 thousand-dunam strip of land east of the Zechariya-Beit Govrin Road, where new immigrants began to settle in 1957. Weitz embarked on afforestation and land reclamation here as well, the first settlers drawing their livelihood from KKL-JNF. The Adullam villages were built in blocs of five centered on a hub that supplied all public services, similar to the settlement format devised some years earlier for the Lachish region.
That same year, 1957, the Fund received a sizable gift from the Rothschilds. Baron James announced the transfer to KKL-JNF of all the family lands in the country (held by PICA, the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, which had been founded by his father, Edmund). The gift increased the KKL-JNF's assets by 130 thousand dunams, merging the two land-purchasing funds that had occasionally found themselves at loggerheads. The Rothschild concern, which dated back to 1883, dissolved. At a festive ceremony, KKL-JNF took over all the holdings purchased, first, during the Rothschild administration, then, under ICA (the Jewish Colonization Association, from 1900) and, finally, under PICA – a total of 45 communities plus additional unsettled land. KKL-JNF now held 79% of the land redeemed in Israel (it owned about four-fifths of all the areas redeemed since the inception of the Zionist Movement; but out of Israel's entire territory at the time, which included a good deal of privately-owned land, the percentage of its holdings was lower). In dunams, the transfer of the Baron's lands to the Fund brought its holdings to some two and a half million.
As the decade drew to a close it was clear that land purchase, the Fund's main role in its first 50 years, had shrunk considerably, and KKL-JNF was in fact mostly preoccupied with tasks that had once been secondary to it: Settling new and frontier areas, absorbing immigrants in land work, reclaiming land, afforestation and development projects. Both the government and KKL-JNF found themselves holding state lands and it became necessary to define functions and delineate relations between them.
Actually, David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, had sought to alter and amend the Fund's functions soon after the state was established. Dreaming of blooming the wilderness, he provided a personal example by moving to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker in 1953. He envisioned KKL-JNF as instrumental to rolling back the desert and reclaiming for settlement areas that might never have been inhabited or cultivated.
During the state's early period of austerity "blooming the wilderness - ameliorating soil, planting gardens and forests and laying irrigation pipes was beyond the state's sole capability. Everything was now on a larger scale," he said, "the pace had quickened, the possibilities multiplied, the needs were greater and more urgent. Time is of the essence… and this formidable task requires an all-out, concerted effort by the entire People… and the People's most trustworthy, effective agent in blooming the wilderness is Keren Kayemeth.
The work to be done by KKL-JNF has been wonderfully defined by the Psalmist: 'You take care of the earth and irrigate it; You enrich it greatly…You provide grain…saturate its furrows…you bless its growth… the meadowlands are clothed with flocks and the valleys mantled with grain'."
Well aware of the enormous experience KKL-JNF had gained in these spheres, Ben Gurion asked the Fund to help the state do what it had always done best. Bound to the land, he knew that turning a desert into a paradise required professional know-how, and that no one could match KKL-JNF's expertise when it came to performing agricultural and botanical miracles on the ground.
In the late 1950s a committee was formed to explore the change sought by Ben Gurion, a course that would enlist KKL-JNF in land development. The committee recommended that all pubic (including Fund) land in Israel be transferred to a new management body, the Israel Lands Administration (ILA). Each of the partners, however – including KKL-JNF, which sits on the governing council and represents the Jewish People - would retain the lands in its possession.
In July 1960 the Knesset passed a law formalizing the status of lands in the country and the relationship between KKL-JNF and the State of Israel. A year later, in November 1961, a Covenant was signed between the State of Israel and KKL-JNF establishing the new Israel Lands Administration. Upon its establishment and with Weitz ensconced at the helm, the State of Israel adopted the Fund's guiding principle "that the land shall not be sold forever" (Leviticus 25:23). According to this principle, which the Fund had ratified 60 years earlier at its founding, all land – not merely KKL-JNF land – was to be nationally owned, and transferable only by leasehold, not sale.
Prime Minister Eshkol signing the Covenant. KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Thus, there was now a single body (the ILA) to deal with land management and development. In composition, half of its members minus one were to be appointed by KKL-JNF. The Fund was to continue redeeming land; now, however, redemption meant not from other hands, but from the wilderness.
KKL-JNF's vast experience was injected with new energy into old tasks: land reclamation - drainage, channeling, rock-clearing, infrastructure and afforestation; it was the Land Development Authority. The Covenant, signed by Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, Agriculture Minister Moshe Dayan, and the new Fund Chairman, Jacob Tsur, stipulated KKL-JNF's continued autonomy as part of the World Zionist Organization. And to help finance the development work, it was also retain its educational, information and fundraising functions in Israel and the diaspora.
The Covenant was the Fund's seal of approval to forge ahead and apply its skills, transforming desolate land into green meadows of fruit and harvest. It was a major turning point in KKL-JNF's history, and is remembered as such by Theodor HaTalgi, who headed the Fund's Information Department for many years. "From its inception to the establishment of the State of Israel, its mission had been to redeem the land. Redemption – afforestation, road building, etc. - now came to mean reclamation. The signing of the Covenant put an end to the uncertainty over the place of land redemption in the post-statehood era."
On innumerable field trips and press conferences HaTalgi was repeatedly asked whether there was still a need for KKL-JNF now that there was a state. Again and again he explained that the land continued to be redeemed, but now by carving out roads to reclaim land for settlements – and this was its true redemption. Asked why KKL-JNF had to perform tasks that government ministries should be carrying out, he responded: "A state has, and always will have, more urgent tasks than planting trees and reclaiming land."
As regards education, the Covenant enabled KKL-JNF to pursue the work it had assumed almost from its very beginning, cultivating Jewish hearts for the homeland. Often, on his trips abroad, Hatalgi was struck by the "place of honor accorded a tree-planting certificate, on the eastern wall of a home." Planting, he believed, was an indescribably potent instrument of the sentimental bond between diaspora Jewry and the land of Israel.
As the sixth decade grew to a close, KKL-JNF could once more look back in pride and, on the eve of its 60th anniversary, issued statistics on its work since statehood. It had reclaimed more than 375 thousand dunams at 250 communities to make more land available to veteran communities, help young communities prosper, and create new settlements. It had added millions of trees over the past decade, chalking up to its credit the planting of 57 million trees. Its bulldozers and tractors had blazed out 1,080 kilometers of roads all over the country, many of which made possible afforestation, development and, in their wake, new settlements in frontier areas till then inaccessible.
But "it was not only its actions that made KKL-JNF worthy of emulation," Ben Gurion noted at the 60th anniversary celebrations, which opened with a reading from Aharon Ashman's play "HaAdama HaZot (This Earth)." "Its spirit and ways are also a model for this generation, the last of bondage and first of redemption. And the way is not to rest on one's laurels but to cleave to a vision of transformation: transforming a desolate land into one settled and populated…"
With reference to KKL-JNF's redefined roles and the establishment of the Israel Lands Administration, Ben Gurion noted that the change had raised voices urging that the Fund change its name as well. "Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael does not need to change its name," he said. "The name given it 60 years ago suits it better now than then. It is not the fund of a party or a bloc of parties, nor is it a partial fund but, as its name suggests, an everlasting Jewish fund for the entire Jewish People. It lives and lasts not because of work well done in the past, but because of essential work in the present and, even more importantly, because of the great, important tasks still awaiting it in the future."
The next decades were to testify to the momentous tasks shouldered by KKL-JNF, and its many accomplishments were to bear out the need for its continued existence even in an independent state and - everlastingly.