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Jewish National Fund: A century of land theft, belligerence and erasure

The organisation demanding financial compensation from a group representing its own victims has pursued the erasure of Palestinian geography and presence on the land for a century
Israeli authorities demolish what remains of the Khader family home in the Shuafat neighbourhood of East Jerusalem on 16 January 2023 (Reuters)

The Zionist movement’s major financial and colonial arm, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), long active in taking over Palestinian lands and evicting and expelling Palestinians, is currently suing Palestine solidarity groups in the US for daring to resist its colonial predations against the Palestinian people. 

A US federal judge had dismissed the suit in 2021 for lack of evidence. However, the JNF argued in court to appeal the decision last month

The JNF along with American Israelis brought a lawsuit in 2019 against the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights seeking financial damages over the organisation’s support for the non-violent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), alleging that its coordinating body, the BDS National Committee, is a "front for terrorist groups".

A US federal judge dismissed the suit in 2021 for lack of evidence. However, the JNF argued in court to appeal the decision last month.

Equally important is that the JNF lawsuit is seeking compensation from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights for the latter’s support of the "Stop the JNF" international campaign protesting the Fund’s activities, widely considered to be racist and colonial. The JNF case utilises the 1996 US Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which allows victims of terrorism to seek compensatory damages under an order of restitution in a federal civil court. 

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The JNF was established in 1901 as a financial arm of the Zionist Organisation (ZO), which was founded four years earlier, to plan for the colonisation of Palestine by Jews.

In 1899, the ZO created the Jewish Colonial Trust, which in turn set up a subsidiary in Palestine in 1902 named the Anglo-Palestine Bank. 

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In 1908, the JNF established its own subsidiary, the Palestine Land Development Company, which set out to drive Palestinian peasants off their land by acquiring land from the Ottoman authorities and big absentee landlords in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo. The JNF’s main task was to fundraise in Jewish communities for the purpose of taking over the land of the Palestinians - a key activity that continues today. 

Another JNF subsidiary front, called Himanuta, has been entrusted in recent years with executing legally questionable land deals in the West Bank. The racist anti-Palestinian colonial policy of the ZO and the JNF led the latter to choose the German Jewish Arthur Ruppin, already a JNF member, to head its efforts to acquire land in Palestine. 

Born in Posen, a Polish-majority province under German occupation and a German settler colony, Ruppin, fancied himself a race scientist and held racialist views of peoples, including Jews and "Jewish types". He became central to the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.

Soon after his arrival in Palestine in 1907 on a JNF-funded trip to explore Jewish colonisation, Ruppin wrote to the JNF that he saw "the work of the JNF as being similar to that of the [Prussian] Colonisation Commission working in Posen and Western Prussia. The JNF will buy land whenever it is offered by non-Jews and will offer it for resale either partly or wholly to Jews".

protest sign
A person holds up a sign that reads, "Boycott Israel a racist state" during a rally at the Trocadero in Paris on 16 May 2018 (AFP)

That same year, the JNF office was opened in Palestine headed by Ruppin.

Ruppin, who adopted antisemitic views, saw in Zionist settler-colonialism the way for Jews to cease being contemptible in his eyes: "Jews do not work gladly, and should gradually change their livelihoods to agriculture and handicrafts; anti-Semites are fully in the right when they accuse the Jews of an abnormal lust for profit". 

In his "scientific" research, Ruppin went on to photograph Jews, measure their skulls, categorise their skull shape, and collect their fingerprints in order to divide them into racial types. According to the 1908 plans Ruppin drew up for Zionist colonisation, he sought to establish a Jewish majority in certain parts of Palestine over the next 20 years through a sustained immigration of 10,000 Jews annually. 

He created the Palestine Land Development Company (PLDC) in 1908, whose work, according to its founding document, "will assume the methods used by… the Prussian Colonisation Commission …engaged in a colonisation process in the Prussian eastern provinces". 

'Racial purity'

In 1911, Ruppin began to propose the expulsion of the native Palestinians.

Peasant resistance, evident since the beginning of Zionist colonisation in the mid-1880s, resumed following the 1910 sale of vast tracts of lands by the Sursuq family, Beirut-based absentee landowners, to the JNF. This entailed the eviction of yet more Palestinian peasant communities from land they had worked for untold centuries and the dismantlement of their centuries-old villages. 

The Sursuqs had bought the land from the Ottoman state in 1872 following the 1858 Ottoman law privatising land. 

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The effects were especially pronounced for the peasants of one of the villages, al-Fula. The transaction was concluded by Ruppin in Beirut, but the peasants refused the eviction orders. Ottoman authorities forcibly expelled the peasants anyway in 1911, arresting many. The Jewish colonial-settler militia, Hashomer, killed one peasant.

From the early 1920s onwards, the JNF went on a shopping spree, buying Palestinian land from Beirut and Cairo-based absentee landowners, displacing thousands of peasants, who would increasingly join uprisings and revolts against the colonists and their British sponsors. 

The struggle over land in the village of ‘Affulah in the Marj Ibn ‘Amir area - which encompassed 22 villages slated for eviction - would become a major ignition point in October 1924, as would the displacement of Palestinian Bedouins from their agricultural and grazing land (about 10,000 acres) in Wadi al-Hawarith.  

The latter’s displacement was delayed due to their resistance and refusal to leave their lands as well as pending rulings by the British Mandate’s courts. They were finally evicted by the British in 1933.  

In 1931, Ruppin determined that peaceful methods were not possible, and defeating the Palestinian natives was the only way for the Jewish settler colony to be established. He famously declared: "What we can get from the Arabs we don’t need, and what we need we can’t get."

Shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Ruppin met with Hans Gunther, one of the main disseminators of Nazi racial theory. Ruppin admired Gunther greatly and sent him copies of his own publications on race. His meeting with Gunther also aimed to facilitate negotiations between the Zionists and the Nazi regime, which led to the infamous Zionist-Nazi Transfer Agreement

As a committed racialist, Ruppin was not only influenced in his views of Jews by German Christian antisemites whose theories influenced the Nazis, but, according to Etan Bloom, Ruppin himself had influenced German race theories of the Jews, which were later adopted by the Nazis.

Ruppin insisted on Jewish "racial purity" for the Zionist project to be successful and thought Sephardi Jews were inferior. In 1934, Ruppin was aghast at a proposal from another Zionist official to recruit Ethiopian Jews for the Zionist colonial effort. He rejected it, insisting that Ethiopians were the N-word "who came to Judaism by force of the sword in the sixth century BC" and "have no blood connection to the Jews". 

Ruppin considered most, though not all, European Jews (the Ashkenazim) as belonging to "white Indo-Germanic races".

Ongoing colonisation

Whereas Ruppin’s role as the most influential Zionist official in Palestine concluded with his death in 1943, the JNF continued his colonial work with the same belligerence. 

It pursued the erasure of Palestinian geography and Palestinian presence on the land not just through colonisation but also by renaming Palestinian towns and villages, something it sought to do before 1948 through the fund’s "Place-Names Committee"

The JNF continues its efforts today armed with Israeli racist laws, including recent efforts to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem

After 1948, this was replaced by the "Israel Place-Names Committee". Both committees suggested and approved all the new names given to streets, towns, and cities built on top of the ruined Palestinian homeland.  

After the establishment of the settler colony, the Israeli government enacted the Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Status Law in November 1952. 

This law designated the ZO as the responsible party for "settlement projects in the state". It was empowered to coordinate "the activities in Israel of Jewish institutions and organisations active in…development and settlement of the country".

One of the key institutions was the JNF. 

As the Jewish Agency is included in the law along with the ZO and the JNF, all three Jewish organisations, whose bylaws commit them to Jewish colonisation, became partners in Israel’s racialised policies, which they all advance for the exclusive benefit of "persons of Jewish religion, race, or origin". 

This was followed a year later by a new law allowing the establishment of a Jewish National Fund Company in Israel, as the older JNF was incorporated in Britain in 1907. 

The new law allowed all JNF property and assets that are owned within the borders of the new state of Israel to be transferred to the Israeli company, whereas the British-based company would continue to hold onto all the property it owned in "Arab" areas outside the borders of Israel, meaning in the rest of Palestine and Jordan. 

Three more laws passed in 1960, "Basic Law: Israel lands", "Israel Lands Law", and the "Israel Lands Administration Law", ensured that the Israeli land administration would manage all Israeli state lands and JNF lands in line with the restrictive JNF criteria. 

Bedouins protest
Palestinians gather to protest in the Bedouin village of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar, which Israel plans to demolish, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on 23 January 2023 (Reuters)

According to the new rules, all such lands, acquired by confiscating the property of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian people through the Law of Absentee Property (1950) and the Law of the State’s Property (1951) - "over 90 percent of the total area of the state" - became legally reserved only for Jews, meaning Jews anywhere in the world, and not only Jewish citizens, "forever". 

In reality, 92.6 percent of the total area of the state of Israel became reserved for the exclusive use of Jews, to lease, live on, or work on. These racist stipulations also apply to Jewish privately owned land inside the state. 

The JNF continues its efforts today armed with these Israeli racist laws, including its more recent efforts to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem and replace them with Jewish colonists.

The irony that this organisation, which has caused (and still causes) so much pain and suffering for the Palestinian people over the last 120 years, is demanding financial compensation from its own victims and their supporters for resisting its theft of their lands and their eviction from their homes can only be described as an unrepentant sociopathic sadism.

It is also nothing less than racist colonial chutzpah.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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