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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

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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