‘These are JNF [Jewish National Fund] trees behind us,’ Azeez explained, pointing. ‘Before, we cultivated barley and wheat, and sheep ate the grass. Now we can’t plant anything.’
Azeez is one of the few remaining Bedouin inhabitants of al-Araqib, a village in the Naqab (Arabic)/Negev (Hebrew) desert of southern Israel, which I visited a year ago. The trip had a profound impact on me, revealing firsthand the devastating consequences of Israel’s oppressive policies inside its 1948 borders.
I write this article in the seventieth year of Israel’s existence, from the perspective of a Jewish anti-Zionist activist and scholar. I remain highly critical of both Israel and the JNF, an organisation that maintains an almost unchallenged prestige and normalcy among Australian Jewry. The JNF has also received the endorsement of the Australian government, having been granted the status of an environmental, gift-deductible charity, despite overwhelming evidence that its activities contribute to Bedouin dispossession and suffering.
But first, I want to share a small piece of my own story.
Most of my life has been experienced as an outsider, even though my upbringing was a relatively ‘normal’ middle-class existence in one of the leafy suburbs in the north of Sydney. I use inverted commas here to reference my dear departed mother, a German Jew who cherished the idea of normality. My mother had migrated to Australia in 1938, voluntarily leaving her home in Switzerland, where her family had fortuitously settled five years earlier. She loved her new country, especially its Anglo heritage, which helped her forget Europe and its rampant antisemitism. She just wanted to be normal, and for me to be normal too. Unfortunately for her, my life has turned out to be anything but.
The outsiderdom I felt as a child was the product of multiple factors, some of which haunt me to this day. I was an only child of older parents, a family structure that was unusual in 1950s Australia. But the biggest source of my childhood angst was my family’s Jewish heritage, marginal though it was to my mother’s sense of self, or to our daily lives. I may have unconsciously played the part of the self-hating Jew child, a phrase I abhor because of its implied self-loathing and disloyalty. Ironically, it’s an accusation ‘people like me’ are routinely subjected to because of our strident critiques of Israel.
Back then, in my early years, I did dislike being Jewish, but for no reason other than my extreme discomfort at standing out, of being seen to be different. In that regard, I too wanted to be normal – that is, Christian – at a time when most of those around me were. And so I lied at the beginning of each year when teachers asked each of us to state our religion. I would rather have jumped into a pool of boiling oil than utter the word ‘Jewish’. It was not until my second year of university that I confessed to a friend I was Jewish.
I would be fabricating my past if I were to attribute this to an entrenched culture of antisemitism. My simple analysis is that I had internalised a profound dislike of, and shame for, appearing different. I could not embrace my minority faith and culture, nor was I encouraged to do so. I felt no pride. Yet, perhaps ironically, my life’s journey has led me away from society’s norms, despite – or perhaps because of – my childhood experiences. And, simultaneously, my life’s most significant political passion is the very subject that caused me such turmoil as a child: Judaism and the Israel/Palestine conflict. I am definitively an outsider to the Jewish community on this topic. Nevertheless, I have a strong sense that Jews are ‘my people’, a feeling that hasn’t diminished with my decades-long work fighting the injustices perpetrated by Israel on Palestinians.
The JNF is one of the most normalised and significant structural elements underpinning Zionist Israel. In decades past (and to this day), every Jewish family, even a secular, non-affiliated one like mine, would have had one of the JNF’s blue collection boxes, perhaps on a mantlepiece or hallway table. It didn’t matter if you were in suburban Australia or elsewhere in the diaspora – these blue boxes were ubiquitous in Jewish homes. My family regularly deposited money into our box, and every month a JNF representative would collect our donation. Many older Jews will also recall being given a JNF tree-planting certificate, or stamps to add to a collection, usually for a birthday or in honour of a loved one. As a child I never really thought about what happened to that money. All I knew was that it went to Israel, land of/for the Jews, and that it was collected to help Jews settle there. What I did not know was that the JNF, courtesy of Jewish diasporic funds, was planting forests all over Israel, some of which were covering up the traces of the 600 Palestinian villages destroyed during and after the war for Israeli independence in 1948.
The JNF, known as the Keren Kayeneth LeIsrael (KKL) in Hebrew, predates the founding of Israel by almost four decades. It was established in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland, with the express purpose of buying land for the yet to be established state of Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel, then called Palestine and part of the Ottoman Empire. This land was acquired to be ‘the perpetual property of the Jewish people’. Today, the JNF owns upwards of 13 per cent of public land in Israel.
In 1961, Israel officially recognised the JNF’s unique contribution by signing a covenant with the organisation, granting it special independent status. This agreement allows the organisation to acquire land separate from the state, despite it being a quasi-state agent. Significantly, because the JNF is deemed to be a non-government organisation, it’s able to acquire land on behalf of Jewish citizens only. The state, by contrast, is obliged to at least pay lip-service to providing for its non-Jewish citizens, such as the 21 per cent of Palestinians living in Israel (not counting the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem). Extraordinarily, Israel sees no contradiction in being a democratic state for ‘all’ its citizens (including Palestinians and other non-Jews) and simultaneously supporting the JNF, an organisation that unashamedly works as ‘a trustee of [Jewish] land’ in perpetuity and for ‘redemption’ of that land.
Being politically and intellectually engaged with the history and present of Israel/Palestine, and with the JNF in particular, leads one to confront a plethora of paradoxes. For me, it’s deeply troubling that the JNF has achieved worldwide recognition as an environmental charity of note, in the process receiving billions of tax-free donations each year. These donations, plus money from Israel, enable Jewish settlers to live comfortable lives in the Naqab/Negev, complete with all the conveniences of the modern world.
For Jewish Israelis to live in the Naqab/Negev as they might in Tel Aviv, the Bedouin population has had to go. Those who have resisted have had their traditional livelihoods destroyed: their lands and animals were taken away as a means of ‘encouraging’ them to move to ‘development towns’ (temporary accommodation built in the 1950s to house the influx of Jewish immigrants; today, a number of these towns are designated for Bedouins). Some places where Bedouins have lived for hundreds of years are now dismissed by the Israeli state via the official label ‘unrecognised village’. These villages’ meagre dwellings are frequently destroyed, and they receive no services, infrastructure or support from the state. No running water. No roads. No health or education services. And no electricity, even though the Naqab/Negev is now awash with, and celebrated for, its solar energy companies.
In 2018, there are thirty-five remaining ‘unrecognised villages’ in the Naqab/Negev. They are inhabited by around half of the 240,000 Bedouins living in the Naqab/Negev, about one-third of the region’s population. These Bedouins are citizens of the state of Israel – and like other Palestinians, they are not treated equally. Not even close. They are a Third World population living in a First World nation. These unrecognised villages have the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Israel.
These discriminatory practices are not a new phenomenon. In 1965, the Israeli government passed the Planning and Building Law, which essentially declared all Bedouin villages/dwellings illegal and therefore liable for demolition. Private Bedouin lands were demarcated as agricultural, no matter what documents were produced to prove ownership. Today, Bedouin houses continue to be demolished and their residents displaced.
About a year ago, I spent a day in al-Araqib. The village is only a short drive from Beersheba, the largest, most developed city in the Naqab/Negev. Al-Araqib has become infamous for the number of times it has been demolished: between 2002 and March this year, the Israeli authorities have razed its jury-rigged dwellings and seized its animals over 120 times.
Azeez, one of the village elders, likes to educate westerners like myself, hoping we will ‘spread the word’. After all, this conflict is also a propaganda war (hasbara in Hebrew).
Azeez talked with passion. He pointed to trees behind the village, explaining that they are ‘JNF trees’. This didn’t come as a shock to me: I had heard before about the JNF’s efforts to eradicate villages to free up land for its ‘Ambassadors Forest’ campaign (which honours diplomats around the world who support the project of Israel).
Azeez’s account of his people’s displacement and destruction – ‘they are killing our culture,’ he said – will be familiar to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about colonial practices (Australia being a prime example). Azeez talked about the removal of the village’s camels by the state: ‘We drink camel’s milk, speak with the camels. Before 2010 we had camels, but the government [has since] opened a camel farm. Now they are selling camel’s milk to us.’ This is especially exploitative because, as Azeez observed, ‘Jews don’t drink camel’s milk.’ The only animals remaining by my visit were a few scrawny chickens.
Azeez shared three messages he wants the world to hear. First, that the Bedouin people of the Naqab/Negev are Israeli citizens, but ‘we don’t have equal rights’. Second, that the JNF’s rhetoric about ‘collecting money from the diaspora to make the desert bloom’ is ‘a big lie’. As Azeez explained, the JNF’s afforestation efforts are accompanied by the destruction of existing Bedouin crops: ‘They uprooted our trees – 5,200 olive trees and 700 fruit trees.’ (Of course, despite its ‘independence’, the JNF works alongside, and with the approval of, the Israel Land Authority and other state instruments.) Third, and he made this point several times, that his village welcomes and needs the support of Jewish people: ‘Every morning I thank God there are Jews who support us, who are standing with us for our rights. I thank God my sons don’t hate Jews, but [instead] hate the police, the soldiers, the JNF.’ He pleaded: ‘Stop supporting the JNF … they want to delete Bedouin history in the Negev via trees.’
Through the JNF and its partner organisation, the JNF Environmental Gift Fund (established in the 1930s), Jews in Australia have been able to donate large sums to ‘making the desert bloom’. The fund’s key objective, as stated in each annual income statement to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, is to raise funds that will be ‘applied towards environmental research, educational and sustainable development projects’. Increasingly, the JNF, both here in Australia and overseas, is touting its environmental and sustainability credentials in ways that suggest it’s building a utopian future for Jewish Israelis.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, identified the Naqab/Negev as the place where ‘the creativity and pioneer vigour of Israel shall be tested’. His vision for the populating and greening of the desert remains inspirational to Zionists to this day – as illustrated in this current JNF Australia banner (opposite), from February this year, depicting Ben-Gurion digging a hole to plant a tree.
Australian Jews who contribute to the JNF, receiving tax deductions in the process, like to pretend that they aren’t contributing to colonial dispossession. To do so would cause emotional dissonance. But in the Naqab/Negev, as elsewhere in Israel/Palestine, this is the daily reality. The forests, towns and kibbutzim funded by the JNF support efforts that erase histories, memories and livelihoods.
Indeed, the southern desert is Zionism’s last frontier. The JNF’s literature and promotional videos are testament to this: time and again, interviewees speak of their ‘pioneering spirit’ and ‘pioneering values’, describing the JNF’s core values as ‘environmentalism, community development and community growth’.
JNF Australia, through its state-based offices, proudly contributes to many projects in the Naqab/Negev. Telalim Park, near Kibbutz Telalim, thirty kilometres from Beersheba, is just one of many. The JNF website states that ‘Telalim Park [will include] a natural amphitheatre and many play spaces. The Outdoor Wonderland will include magical and adventurous play areas for children to explore; colourful sun-shades, shelters and fun soft walking surfaces. Friendly and comfortable seating areas throughout the park … will contribute to making this [desert] park a beautiful, inviting and much-needed garden retreat.’
The narrative continues: ‘Your generosity will help turn a dust bowl into a beautiful parkland and ensure that the children and families of Telalim are able to enjoy the sweetness of the outdoors.’
Of course, this ‘outdoor wonderland’ and nearby kibbutz have another history. According to Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh, between 1948 and 1953, ‘the Israeli military expelled about 90 per cent of the 100,000 Bedouin of the Negev to the West Bank and Gaza, and further into Jordan and Egypt.’ The massacre of Bedouins by the Israeli military during that early period brings to mind Australia’s own dreadful past (and, like Australia, this history of colonial dispossession continues to be erased and denied). When Kibbutz Telalim was first settled in 1980, it lay next to a small Bedouin settlement called Bir ’Asluj. Strategically positioned on the road from Beersheba to the Sinai Peninsula, Bir ’Asluj was the site of several battles, first between Jews and Bedouins in 1947, and then between Jewish and Egyptian forces during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Like so many other small Palestinian settlements, Bir ‘Asluj has now vanished from the earth.
Intrinsic to the JNF’s project of making the desert hospitable for Jewish settlers is the expulsion of local Bedouins. These people are either transferred out of the Naqab/Negev completely or forced into the townships farther south. The term ‘greenwashing’ has been used to critique the JNF’s efforts to use its environmental credentials to conceal its Zionist agenda and crimes against the Palestinian people. It’s an appropriate term, like its cousins ‘whitewashing’ and ‘pinkwashing’, each used to expose hypocrisy and concealment.
The JNF-as-environmental-beacon claim crumbles with the slightest scrutiny. In fact, when we look closely we find two distinct and opposing narratives. On the one hand, we have the JNF’s own account of its afforestation efforts in semi-arid regions. In May this year, the JNF presented at the thirteenth annual UN Forum on Forests, promoting its work in combatting desertification. In this narrative, we hear how the JNF has been using artificial irrigation to cultivate mono crops and fruit trees, while also developing new seed types and synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, all in the name of opening ‘the thresholds of the deserts to agricultural exploitation’. This work, they claim, has contributed significantly to the establishment, growth and ‘beautification’ of innumerable Jewish towns and kibbutzim, particularly in the fertile northern part of the Naqab/Negev.
On the other hand, there is a more complicated narrative, told convincingly by Weizman and Sheikh, that foregrounds the heavy price that comes with exploiting the desert – not just for the displaced Bedouins, but also for the environment. To state the obvious, deserts are dry places, and much of the Naqab/Negev receives less than 200 mm annual rainfall, the ‘minimum … water needed to cultivate cereal crops without artificial irrigation on a flat surface’. The desert is now ‘biting back’ against Israeli efforts to push it farther south, with both temperature and evaporation rates increasing. As Weizman and Sheikh point out, the ‘current acceleration of climate change is not only an unintentional consequence of industrialization. The climate has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continuously acted to engineer it.’
Water is a prime example. Bedouins traditionally cultivated alongside streams and tributaries, but the Israelis want to use the entire land surface for agriculture. By the 1970s, 100 million cubic metres of water was being channelled each year from the Jordan valley basin to the Naqab/Negev for human and agricultural uses. According to Weizman and Sheikh, ‘the transformation of the desert’s edge had an ecological footprint … that has contributed, since the 1960s, to a drop of about one metre a year in the level of the Dead Sea’.
In writing this essay, I want to document the ongoing reality of dispossession in the Naqab/Negev, but I also want to highlight a contradiction that the JNF and its supporters appear oblivious to: the JNF markets itself as creating a ‘hospitable environment’ for Jewish ‘pioneers’, but does this through practices that cause immeasurable harm to the environment. The JNF is simultaneously a ‘protector’ and destroyer of the Naqab/Negev. What we need to remember is that pioneers always strive to colonise a frontier, rather than harmoniously coexist alongside it.
I’ve come a long way from that child who wanted to be like everyone else, and unfortunately for my mother, I never became the ‘normal’ adult she desired me to be. There are multitudinous injustices to expose in this world, many closer to home than Palestine/Israel, but my ongoing focus on this issue stems from a profound well of anger, shame and loathing of hypocrisy. The tattoo-lined face of Miryam Abu-Mudighem, the 107-year-old woman I met and held hands with in al-Araqib, has been etched in my mind. I think of her life’s travails through a succession of occupiers: the Ottomans, the British and now the Israelis. Am I naive in dreaming that this small piece of land, lying between the river and the sea, will one day become a place of equality and justice for all its citizens?
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