Friday, July 25, 2008

The History And Tribulations Of JNF--And Jewish Pride In Israel

Though facing uncertainty now--historically, JNF has been a successful part of the lives of American Jews from the very beginning, according to an article by David Feith in the Wall Street Journal:
JNF was founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in Turkish- (later British-) controlled Palestine, as a step toward the establishment of a Jewish state. Soon after incorporating in the U.S. in 1926, JNF became a brand name for Zionism and Jewish charity in America. Two of its fund-raising tools in particular became staples of American Jewish life.

First were its blue tin collection boxes -- "pushkes" in Yiddish -- which received donations of coins in Jewish homes, classrooms, synagogues and even the New York subway. The boxes were "ubiquitous," according to Prof. Beth Wenger of the University of Pennsylvania, as "the symbol of how American Jews put their stake in the building up of a Jewish homeland."

Then the fund introduced the "tree certificate," which recognized the donation of a few dollars for a tree-planting in Israel, often to mark a milestone such as a bar mitzvah. Countless 13-year-olds have since grumbled about receiving these certificates in lieu of gifts, but as a fund-raiser they were "genius," says Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, as they allowed "even the poorest Jew to feel that he or she was doing something for the building up of the state."

The fund was adept at appealing to American Jews as Americans. During George Washington's bicentennial year, 1932, it arranged a tree-planting in the Founding Father's honor. And after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, JNF planted a forest in his memory containing a stylized sculpture of the stump of a tree cut down in its prime
But times have changed and the JNF is no longer viewed by American Jews as being on the same level as motherhood and apple pie.
Today, though -- 60 years after Israel's birth and 41 years after the Six Day War gave it control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- many Americans have shifted their attitudes toward Israel. To some extent, Israel suffers from its own success. After all, a militarily formidable country that is economically prosperous is less obviously in need of charity from abroad than were rag-tag agricultural settlements aspiring to durable statehood.

Also, Israel has become a lightning rod for controversy (especially on land control and development). An "old consensus has collapsed," according to [Brandeis University historian Jonathan] Mr. Sarna, and now "some perceive that what is good for Israel must inevitably be bad for the Palestinians, a calculus that certainly didn't exist in an earlier day."

All this has made JNF's job more difficult. The group now stresses that it operates only within pre-1967 Israel -- "it's not Gaza we're talking about," one official explained -- and that its work benefits Israeli Jews, Bedouin Arabs, Jordanians and others. It is also deploying a message that may resonate with a younger generation. "We were green before green was cool," a number of JNF officials told me.

Read the whole thing.

But it's not easy being green: "the fund's efforts to develop suburban communities in Israel's Negev desert, critics say, may threaten the ecosystem and indigenous nomadic tribes."

It's a whole different world of marketing. There was a time that JNF would trumpet it's accomplishments and we shared in them. Now, JNF has to tiptoe around political correctness and sensibilities. And we are diminished as well.

The history of the JNF reflects the history of Jewish pride in Israel--it's highs and lows.

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