Israel's Public Debate Over Privatized Land
by Lily Hoffman Simon
This week, Jews around the world celebrated Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for trees. Among many Jews, the most popular way to celebrate this holiday is to plant a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This symbolic act goes further than celebrating trees and agriculture in Israel; the practice of planting trees on public land in Israel was fundamental to establishing a Jewish presence in Palestine and mobilizing American Jewish support for the seed of the State of Israel. In today’s world, though, conceptions of public and private land have changed, as evidenced by a 2009 bill that would privatize Israeli land, challenging the foundation of the JNF and of Zionism in general.
The vast majority of land in Israel (around 93%) is owned by the JNF or the State of Israel—that is, not privately owned. This land is typically leased to private parties on 49-year leases by the State, in accordance with the Jewish Yovel (Jubilee) agricultural tradition. This system was largely introduced in order to establish a state along legitimate borders in 1948—borders that were easier to determine with centralized land ownership. In addition, public land ownership was intended to encourage Jewish stabilized and distributed populations in the newly established Israel. Fundamental to this project was also the Zionist dream that the state of Israel was to belong collectively to the entire Jewish people (achieved through the administration of land by the JNF as well, which is largely a Diaspora-run organization).
In 2009, however, the Knesset voted to pass a bill that enabled the private purchase of Israeli land. The motivation behind this bill was to free land which has been left undeveloped because of bureaucratic processes, opening up more opportunities for economic and structural development. This would reportedly drop housing prices, as more houses could be built on the newly opened land. The bill reflects the greater shift towards free-market capitalist principles in the Israeli economy, countering the socialist values on which the State was founded.
The privatization of Israeli land has been criticized by people of all political affiliations and ethnicities. The bill is seen by many as undermining the essence of Zionism, which for many is the collective ownership and investment in the state by the Jewish people as a whole. More right-leaning critics claim that enabling private ownership may allow wealthy individuals or groups who are not favorable to the existence of a Jewish state (including forces such as Hamas) to buy significant amounts of land. Some also believe privatization to contradict Biblical and spiritual connections to the land itself, citing Leviticus 25:23: “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity.”
Criticism of the bill has also hailed from pro-Palestinian communities, which claim that the selling of land is a neo-Zionist attempt to appropriate Palestinian lands. This criticism is two-fold. First, if Israeli land is publically owned, the issue of a Palestinian right of return for those whose families became refugees in 1948 can be discussed with Israel. Second, the selling of land involves the drawing of more concrete borders in order to establish land to be sold. Many claim that this will not only conceal vast amounts of land that was taken by Palestinians earlier in history, but will also provide new opportunities to take more land. This is especially true when considering that the land proposed to be privatized includes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, which were annexed by Israel in 1981. Some are going as far as to call the bill “a privatized naqkba,” using the Arabic word for the day of Israel’s independence that translates as “the catastrophe.”
Environmentalists are also criticizing this bill, arguing that privatization favors urban growth at the expense of environmental sustainability and agricultural development.
Amidst all these criticisms, the government faces a conflict between appealing to public interests and continuing to move Israel into the developed, free-market driven world. This Tu B’Shvat, buying a tree might not be the best way to celebrate.