Avraham Duvdevani: Bringing winds of change to KKL-JNF

‘Renew our days as of old,’ to bring KKL-JNF back to the original purpose for which it was founded 120 years ago.

(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
 I met with Avraham Duvdevani in KKL-JNF’s headquarters in Modi’in, several months after his appointment as world chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. My first impression was that “Duvdev” (as nicknamed by friends) is comfortable in his own skin and does not hold back when answering questions. He pounded on his desk to emphasize points, looked at me directly in the eye, and peppered his replies with tales and anecdotes from his professional life, which spans more than 50 years in high-level positions with the Jewish Agency, World Bnei Akiva, Orot Israel College, and the World Zionist Organization.
“I served as chairman of the World Zionist Organization for 10 years,” says Duvdevani. “At my age, I could go home and retire. But I felt a sense of calling, urging me to stay on for one more task, to be the head of Keren Kayemeth.” 
Why would Duvdevani, at age 75, with his list of impressive accomplishments, take on the role at KKL-JNF? 
He answers, “Keren Kayemeth has a specific mandate with very clear limitations. Over the years, changes were made there. The vision of my predecessors went beyond those boundaries. It’s not that there was anything innately wrong with their plans, but I sensed that taking the organization back to its roots would better prepare it for the challenges ahead. I said that I would accept the position as chairman of KKL-JNF to return it to what it once was, and what it is supposed to be.”
Duvdevani recalls his first board meeting as KKL-JNF chief. 
“They were all interested in my vision for the organization, and so I said: ‘Renew our days as of old,’ to bring KKL-JNF back to the original purpose for which it was founded 120 years ago.” As he looks back from his chair, Duvdevani points at the organization’s flag standing near his desk and proceeds to give a historical and geographical lesson. 
“The KKL-JNF flag,” he says, “has three main colors: brown, green and blue. Herzl himself established KKL-JNF in 1901 to buy land, develop the land, and settle it. The brown symbolizes the soil of the land of Israel.” Duvdevani says that there is a great deal that still needs to be done with redeeming, developing and settling the land. “There were those who said that this idea is passé, and that we need a new vision,” he notes. “I say that it is not passé. We can develop our vision with those things for another 40 years.”
Avraham Duvdevani participating in Tu Bishvat tree-planting ceremony. (Photo credit: Haim Versano)Avraham Duvdevani participating in Tu Bishvat tree-planting ceremony. (Photo credit: Haim Versano)
Next, Duvdevani speaks of the color green, which he says represents the greenery and forestry of the modern State of Israel. KKL-JNF has planted more than 250 million trees in Israel since its founding and, says Duvdevani, “The world comes to us to learn how we made a forest in the desert.” Green, he adds, also represents KKL-JNF’s emphasis on the environment and nature and connecting people to nature. “During corona, the forests saved Israel because there was no place else to go.” Duvdevani reports that hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to Israel’s green spaces every weekend.
Finally, Duvdevani speaks of blue, the third color on the KKL-JNF flag. Blue, of course, symbolizes water, and he speaks proudly of the 230 reservoirs that KKL-JNF has built and the numerous streams that the organization has cleaned and turned into parks and nature trails. Duvdevani says KKL-JNF workers in the field are delighted to see that the organization is returning to its roots, both literally and figuratively.
He says KKL-JNF will use its expertise in land development, the environment, and water management to help solve the climate crisis and is establishing a large center to deal with the issue. “That is part of our mandate.” 
IN RECENT WEEKS, Duvdevani and KKL-JNF made headlines in the wake of the organization’s managerial committee’s preliminary decision to allocate funds for the potential purchase of land over the Green Line in Judea and Samaria. Asked for his comments on the subject, Duvdevani responded clearly and forcefully: “Not one shekel or dollar that comes from donations is used for KKL-JNF activities over the Green Line. That’s always been the organization’s policy, and forever will be.”
Duvdevani says that the announcement of the recent KKL-JNF decision was misunderstood and misinterpreted. The purchase of land in Judea and Samaria – which is made through the organization’s own funds – has been KKL-JNF policy for many years, he points out, long before he took office. As a matter of fact, Duvdevani took it upon himself to turn the already existing policy in Judea and Samaria into an official one. 
“Just for reference, the previous administration allocated more for land in Judea and Samaria than we are projecting to allocate now, a modest total of NIS 38 million.” Duvdevani notes that during the previous management’s tenure, a commission was appointed to examine the different aspects of the organization’s land-purchasing in the West Bank, and the decision was approved by the former head of the Beersheba District Court, Judge Joseph (“Sefi”) Alon. To buttress his point, Duvdevani also quotes from a letter written in 1968 by then-prime minister Levi Eshkol to Yaakov Tsur, the KKL-JNF head at the time, in which he affirmed the organization’s right to purchase land throughout the country.
There is far more to Avraham Duvdevani than the recent publicity that has accompanied him. Duvdevani served as a paratrooper in the IDF, was involved in the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, and fought in the Yom Kippur War at the Suez Canal six years later. It was during his extended tour of duty at the front during the Yom Kippur War that he decided to make education his life’s work. 
“The paratroopers were with me for four-and-a-half months,” he recalls. “They began to ask all types of ideological questions. I decided then and there that I was not going to pursue a PhD in education. Instead, I decided to go into the field to strengthen Jewish education.” Duvdevani is of the old school, and this is best illustrated by the small spiral notebook he keeps in the left front shirt pocket to jot down notes and important thoughts. “It takes 20 seconds for me to write in my notebook, but it takes me three minutes with my cellphone. It’s faster and more efficient,” he says with a smile on his face.
Duvdevani’s term as head of KKL-JNF is for two-and-a-half years, with an option for an additional two-and-a-half years. He has a collection of 3,500 Passover Haggadot in his home, and he dreams of organizing them and writing his own, Zionist-oriented Haggadah when he retires. He credits his success in life to his wife, Dina, and he attributes the path he chose of helping the Jewish people throughout the world to that of his late father, Baruch Duvdevani, who headed the Aliyah Department for the Jewish Agency and brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Israel.
Despite the long, late hours and the stress that comes with heading KKL-JNF, Avraham Duvdevani is enjoying himself. 
“I am working very hard these days,” says Duvdevani, “but it is easy for me because I love every minute of my work.”
This article was written in cooperation with KKL-JNF.