Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
"Assault on the Negev"–The Jerusalem Report, 2005
NOTE: This article was among the first to critique Blueprint Negev. In the three intervening years, JNF-US has made changes to respond to some of these criticisms. SavetheNegev advocates for complete transparency and a rigorous enviromental and social impact review of all Blueprint Negev plans in order to complete this process and to prevent destruction of the desert and Bedouin culture.
The bulldozers are coming! The Jewish National Fund in the United States, which has spent the last decade or so marketing itself as a premier Zionist environmental organization, is revving the engines. It has targeted the Negev—Israel's last great natural reserve—for development.
Calling the desert region "almost untouched" and "a massive land reserve waiting to be developed," JNF-US's "Blueprint Negev" calls for bringing a half million people to 25 new low-density communities in the area. JNF-US [former] president Ron Lauder likens the proposed effort to the conquest of the American West, expressing what he calls "Israel's Manifest Destiny."
In fact, the JNF-US and its president are referring to a region where the army controls 50 percent of the land for military training. The "untouched" Negev is home to mining and industry, and to sites for toxic, radioactive and solid waste disposal. It is already home to 600,000 people, including 150,000 Bedouin, some of whom are among Israel's poorest citizens.
Yet while the Negev is far more affected by human activity than the JNF-US suggests, the region still has unsurpassed value for Israelis seeking quiet and immersion in nature. It is the only part of the country where extensive landscapes without roads and power lines can be enjoyed. It is where the stars are clearly visible at night and where large mammals can be returned to nature with real hope of survival in the wild. It supports a relatively healthy and diverse desert ecosystem—and therefore, a thriving tourist industry.
But, rather than revel in the Negev like the Hebrew prophets, who repeatedly sought solitude there, the JNF-US vision resurrects David Ben-Gurion's naive and defunct view of the Negev as empty wasteland. The environmental and social cost of JNF-US's proposal would be tragic. Publicly accessible open space is among the country's most endangered resources. Endorsing new, low-density communities violates all existing long-term development guidelines. As already shown by the 1980s "Judaization of the Galilee" program, there is no greater threat to long-term preservation of open space in than ill-conceived development drives.
The JNF-US proposal essentially bypasses Keren Kayemet Leyisrael (KKL), JNF-US's counterpart in Israel. Due to the arduous work of environmental groups, KKL has environmental oversight in the form of a sustainability committee. KKL projects must comply with planning and environmental laws, and—after court cases and public demonstrations—KKL is increasingly sensitive to the need to live up to its environmental responsibilities.
The projects outlined in JNF-US's "Blueprint Negev" have not been reviewed or endorsed by the KKL directorate or sustainability committee. Rather, JNF-US is implementing the project through a third organization—Tnu'at Or. This organization is aimed solely at creating new Jewish communities in the Negev and Galilee, a goal it has pursued for the past five years. Its online literature suggests that settling the land is the solution to Israel's social and spiritual problems, and that the Bedouin will take over these areas unless Jews settle it first. By bypassing KKL, the JNF-US has effectively steamrolled environmental checks and balances. While the KKL becomes increasingly accountable to the people of Israel, the JNF-US is moving in the opposite direction.
Rather than establishing superfluous new communities, the JNF-US should redouble past efforts to support existing communities—development towns, Bedouin towns, kibbutzim. Each could benefit from new neighborhoods to supplement their population base. It is self-evident that expanding existing communities rather than establishing new ones reduces both environmental impact and capital costs.
As for accountability, JNF-US has two options. Either its leadership can realign itself and its projects with KKL, sponsoring only efforts that have gone through transparent decision-making in Israel. Or the JNF-US should open its own decision process to the same environmental oversight as KKL. This means not only giving its plans to outside reviewers for appraisal, but also having professional and public committees with the power to veto project proposals based on their environmental, social and political implications.
The Land of Israel does not need another development binge. Rather, it needs the JNF-US to break from its past glorification of concrete and develop a vision that blends the land of milk and honey with a modern nation-state. The same courage that was required in the last century to build a viable political and economic state is now needed to create an environmentally and socially sustainable country. And the stake's—health and future—are just as high.
Daniel Orenstein, PhD, is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He also spent several years on the advisory board of the JNF-US asking them to revise Blueprint Negev. Steven Hamburg is Ittleson Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology at Brown University and a faculty member of the Watson Institute.
from The Jerusalem Report, November 28, 2005 issue. The information is still current. See Save the Negev's homepage. More articles from Daniel Orenstein on Blueprint Negev: "When and Ecological Community Is Not" and
"A Contentious Landscape".
Please ask JNF-US to revise Blueprint Negev.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006