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October 21, 2014 / 27 Tishri, 5775
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‘We Have A Covenant With The Jewish People’: An Interview with Jewish National Fund CEO Russell Robinson

Russell Robinson

Russell Robinson

Mention the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the image of a blue tzedakah box likely comes to mind. Starting in 1904, Jews throughout the world dropped coins into these blue boxes, helping the JNF buy and develop land in Palestine on behalf of the Jewish people.

Although the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the JNF continues to function, helping develop the country in a variety of ways. It has planted 250 million trees in its 108-year existence and still owns 13 percent of the land.

The Jewish Press recently spoke with JNF CEO Russell Robinson.

The Jewish Press: The JNF’s original purpose was to buy land in Palestine. What is its purpose today, considering that the Jewish people now possess most of Palestine?

Robinson: Well, the purpose wasn’t to buy land just for the purpose of buying land. The purpose was to develop the state of Israel for the Jewish people everywhere.

After 2,000 years, we still didn’t have our homeland. So when Theodor Herzl decided to form the Jewish National Fund, it was to make a statement: Let’s repurchase the land of Israel for the Jewish people and have a place for Jews to come home. And if we would’ve done it with a little bit more unity and a little bit faster, maybe we would’ve had a state in 1939 which Jews could have fled to.

It never was just about land. It was all about bringing people home and having a place to call home. It was about establishing the Technion, it was about establishing Tel Aviv University. All of that was part of developing the land for the Jewish people.

And today?

Today that continues because the 13 percent of the land which is owned by the Jewish National Fund is held in perpetuity for the Jewish people everywhere. So whether you’re in Israel or here, you’re still a landlord, you’re still part of that development of the land. So that connection continues.

It’s also still about creating. The Negev comprises 60 percent of Israel, yet only holds nine percent of the population today. The Galil comprises 17 percent of the land but only holds 13 percent of the population. So if you want to be a 21st century pioneer, the opportunity to create the land of Israel for the Jewish people is still in front of us.

The JNF, in other words, tries to settle Jews in the Negev and Galil?

Absolutely. That’s been our biggest thrust in the past 10 years. We have an objective: 500,000 more people in the Negev and 300,000 more in the Galil. A town like Yerucham in the Negev was established in the 1950s by immigrants that came from Arab countries. We put them in Yerucham, not because it was a great place to live, but because we needed them strategically to live there. We put them in tents and tin shacks and told them, “We’ll come back.”

Well, in 60 years, we never did, and Yerucham is still a town of less than 10,000 people. So the opportunity to bring prosperous opportunities for all the people of Israel throughout all the land of Israel is still in front of us.

How many Jews currently live in the Negev and Galil?

In the Negev, you have 215,000 Jews in Be’er Sheva, another 110,000 Jews outside of Be’er Sheva, and about 200,000 Bedouins.

And you want to bring a half million more people to the Negev?

Absolutely. When we started working in Be’er Sheva 10 years ago, it had 193,000 people and losing three percent of its population every year. Today, it has 215,000 people and is one of the fastest growing communities in Israel. Be’er Sheva should have 450,000 people.

Why is a population increase in the Negev necessary?

A place like Yerucham was established in 1950 with 10,000 people. Today, it’s a community of 9,500 that still has high unemployment. Yerucham needs to have 30,000 to 50,000 people. You can’t make it with 10,000 people.

Why not?

Because the tax base has to go up. You have to fix roads, you have to have education, you have to have schools. And if your population is small, you’ll never have enough. You’ll always be on the brink of not having. You’ll have to add 10 kids to this class and move three kids from that class. In the meantime, you don’t really have a teacher for this, so you have to drive in a teacher….

The magical number for urban development is between 30,000-50,000. With that, you’re able to have the community stand on its own and develop itself. People in Yerucham don’t deserve to be poor just because they don’t have a population.

The JNF has also been involved in trying to solve Israel’s constant water problems, correct?

Yes, we have added about 12 percent water availability to Israel. We’ve built 240 reservoirs and developed technology to use recycled and brackish water, making Israel a country that recycles almost 80 percent of its water. Spain, which recycles the most after Israel, recycles less than 20 percent. Almost 50 percent of the farming in Israel today is done without fresh water. So water is a very important component of what we do.

Why is the JNF doing all of this? Shouldn’t the Israeli government be in charge of such matters?

You can say the same thing about The Salvation Army or a soup kitchen. The fact is that philanthropy is able to make things happen because it can take risks that a government can’t.

In recent years, there’s been talk of privatizing some of Israel’s publicly-owned land, which amounts to over 90 percent of the country. Is the JNF considering privatizing some of the 13 percent it owns?

No, we have a covenant with the Jewish people who bought land in 1901, 1905, 1910, etc. They did it based upon hopes and dreams. We have a covenant that our land is to be held in perpetuity for the Jewish people everywhere.

In the past decade, the JNF has faced criticism for its policy of only leasing land to Jews. How do you address this criticism?

I have an organization called the Jewish National Fund. If I had an organization called the Catholic Church, it would be different. I think the Catholic Church should be giving services for people who are Catholic.

So I have no problem. If people want to say, “Does the Jewish National Fund help the Jewish people?” the answer is yes, and I’m proud of it.

Can you talk a bit about your background? Is it true that you’re a sixth-generation American?

Yes, my family was one of the first Jewish settlers in Virginia. They came in the late 1700s, and after all these generations I’m still a proud Zionist Jew.

Robinson, at first blush, sounds like a non-Jewish name.

It’s a French derivative. They came from Alsace Lorraine and it’s a derivative of Robinsohn. If you go to the cemetery in Petersburg, VA, our section of the cemetery is the Robinsohn section.

Does the JNF still sell blue tzedakah boxes?

Yes, we send out about 100,000 blue boxes a year. If people go on JNF.org they can order one. It’s one of the great icons of the Jewish world.

Imagine, this was before faxes and e-mails. It was about somebody from the Jewish National Fund asking people to take money off of their plate and put it into a blue box. Somebody would collect it and we would buy land. Now that is what I call the real vision and dreams of the Jewish people. Not to be cynical but to be so unbelievably visionary. And that’s why we’re in the land of Israel today.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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