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Yossi Katz, The Land Shall Not Be Sold in Perpetuity

Filed under: Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 28, Numbers 1–2

Yossi Katz, The Land Shall Not Be Sold in Perpetuity: The Jewish National Fund and the History of State Ownership of Land in Israel, (De Gruyter-Oldenbourg, Berlin, 2016), 237 pp.

The ownership, zoning, and future development of land have been a major issue in the Arab conflict with Zionism and have contributed to Arab rejection of the State of Israel over the years. In an essay published May 15, 2013,1 the sixty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, journalist Dalia Hatuqa of Al Jazeera remarked that “the issue of land and property, is still the defining aspect of the conflict.” In fact, in the late 1950s, Al-Ard (“The Land”) was the name of an Arab political movement in Israel and its newspaper. Both the movement and the paper were banned in 1964. Briefly, Arab propaganda claims that European Jews sought to “take over Arab land” and decided “to colonize the land of Palestine” and that Jews are a foreign power that “divided up another people’s land”.

The review article by historian Diana Muir which appeared in 2008 inadvertently reinforces this view.2 Muir notes that Israel Zangwill was the first Zionist who used the phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land,” often repeated by anti-Zionists as an example of a “perfect encapsulation of the fundamental injustice of Zionism.” However, variant versions of the slogan appear in earlier works, such as The Land of Israel, written in 1843 by Church of Scotland clergyman Alexander Keith, and in a letter by Lord Shaftesbury to Lord Palmerston of July 1853, which stated that Greater Syria was “a country without a nation” in need of “a nation without a country.” Other examples include an essay by Scottish Presbyterian Horatius Bonar written in 1858, in William Blackstone’s “Palestine for the Jews,” which appeared in 1891, and in a novel by the English writer, Winifred, in 1902, and in the lead article of the Washington Post penned by a Christian journalist on December 12, 1917. Furthermore, the Biblical verse, Leviticus 25:23, occurs in land-related issues. It stipulates that the patrimony of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), rightfully belongs to God and that “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity.” This verse became the foundational slogan of the Jewish National Fund, the organization founded by the Zionist movement, whose task was to purchase land in the historic Land of Israel on behalf of the Jewish people.

The Arab Badwil web site3 claims that the work of the Jewish National Fund and, subsequently, Israel’s legislation regarding the oversight of its activities are “attempt[s] to bypass legal oversight and to legislate against the right to equality in regards to land…the state [of Israel] will be able to ‘Judaize’ more land and discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens.” And, the late journalist, Dan Leon of Mapam, Israel’s Marxist-oriented Zionist party, wrote in 20054 that the three major problems concerning the issue of land were: 1. “‘Redeeming’ [purchasing] the land before the establishment of the State of Israel was often at the expense of Arab fellahin.” 2. “After the 1948 war, it was the holdings of Arab refugees or of ‘present absentees’ (and not land purchases from the little blue boxes) that accounted for most of the JNF’s land.” 3. “The JNF undertook projects with dubious moral overtones.” He also was upset that Himnuta, the JNF subsidiary implementing the organization’s policies, is active in areas taken by Israel in the Six-Day War in June 1967 as well.

In light of the above, the book on the workings of the Jewish National Fund by the eminent and prolific geographer and 2016 Israel Prize Laureate, Professor Yossi Katz of Bar Ilan University, is timely and important. The Land Shall Not Be Sold in Perpetuity provides much essential information about the activities of the Jewish National Fund, particularly after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This is a major shortcoming. Perhaps the author could have devoted more attention to the pre-State activities of the JNF, which served as the instrument of the World Zionist Organization for purchasing land during the late Ottoman period. Indeed, he JNF was officially established in 1901 as a “fund [that] shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole,” in accordance with the concept of the inalienability of national land mentioned in Leviticus 25:23, quoted above. In fact, Israel is the only Western country where most of the land is owned by the state and its public body. In fact, as early as page 12, Professor Katz begins his treatment of the transition period from Mandate to state from 1947-1949, and addresses the Arab claim of dispossession dealt with at length by Aryeh Avineri.5 The full details of property acquired through purchase appear only in Footnote 4 on page 34. Indeed, the book seems to be a continuation of Katz’s earlier work, published in 2005, which covers the history of pre-state land acquisition by the JNF.6 The present volume deals mainly with the details of internal deliberations, political maneuverings, and legislative procedures of the JNF. Based upon archival sources, this study is highly academic and background on the issues is recommended.

Furthermore, Yossi Katz is not simply an objective scholar (127). He served as an expert witness before Knesset committees and other bodies to lobby against government efforts to privatize state lands and even published articles supporting the position of the JNF. This should have been stated earlier in the book. The questions of proper administration, compliance with the law and the confrontation between the JNF’s ideology of the land belonging to the Jewish people and the State of Israel as opposed to private ownership is a motif throughout this study. The book traces the history of the intimate involvement of JNF staff and members of the Knesset in formulating various laws about land ownership. Katz’s analysis of the JNF and Knesset records is excellent as far as the goals, language and political manoeuvers adopted by the JNF to further its interests are concerned. The book, however, does not provide sufficient treatment of the issue of selling JNF land to non-Jews or those who are not citizens of Israel. The author refers to statements by David Ben-Gurion and includes several arguments by Herut members of the Knesset, but does not recall Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s major article, “The Jubilee Idea” (1930) which served as the ideological basis for the Herut movement’s policy regarding ownership of land. To his credit, the author notes the ideas of Zionists who were not members of the Labor movement, such as the Mizrachi (National-Religious) MK Zerach Warhaftig (110).

Katz also points out the fact that early on, there had to be legislation which defined new territory as the British Mandate had become the State of Israel. The language of this legislation, dating from in 1952, defined the new company that would replace the original JNF which was registered by Great Britain as “the State of Israel and any region that will be under the legal authority of the Government of Israel” ( 20). The rejection of a recent attempt by a Canadian Jew to have Canada boycott wines produced in Judea and Samaria echoes the above statement which defined the territory of Israel in the official Free Trade Agreement between the two countries is “the territory where its customs laws are applied.” The reason for this language was the possible loss of JNF property left in areas of the original Mandate territory outside the borders of the State of Israel. It included 16,666 dunams near E-Salt in Transjordan, 3,300 near Hebron and 1,200 near Gaza. Interestingly, Katz notes that in 1949 the Government of Israel intended to transfer abandoned Arab property to the JNF for the purpose of resettling Arab refugees (35).

The book is well written and the translation and adaptation from the original Hebrew, published in 2002, is excellent, with only several examples of awkward phrasing. On the whole, the book is an important contribution to the subject of the concept of Jewish land and the workings of the JNF in the State of Israel, and worth reading despite its somewhat narrow focus.

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2 Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2008, pp. 55-62


4 Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol 12 No. 4 & Vol 13 No. 1, 05/06

5 The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948, Transaction Publishers, 1982

6 The Battle for the Land: A History of the Jewish National Fund before the Establishment of Israel (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005).