JNF initiatives continue to cement Jewish connection to Israel

This recent KKL-JNF proposal will encourage Jewish settlement in the region and ultimately serve to strengthen Jewish ties to Israel.

YOUNG JEWS from across the world attend the main annual Taglit Birthright event at the Jerusalem International Conference Center in 2017. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
YOUNG JEWS from across the world attend the main annual Taglit Birthright event at the Jerusalem International Conference Center in 2017.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Last month, the executive committee of the Israel-based Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) (a separate organization from JNF-USA) approved specific land purchases in the West Bank in order to encourage Jewish settlement in the region and allow existing settlements to expand. Reactions to this decision, however, have only highlighted the rift between liberal and religious groups in Israel. 
On the one hand, left-wing groups vehemently oppose the purchases, arguing that KKL-JNF funds – which are funded by donations from the Israeli government as well as the Diaspora – should only be directed toward initiatives which have consensus-backing from the Jewish people both in Israel and around the globe. On the other hand, right-wing and religious groups support the proposal, arguing that it will help strengthen the Jewish settlement movement in Israel and that it is a democratic decision based on the narrow majority of the right-wing in national institutions.
For context, the JNF is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1901 to buy and develop land under the British Mandate for Palestine for Jewish settlement. Since its founding, the JNF has dedicated itself to projects involving the reclamation of land for the Jewish people, including afforestation, water conservation and land development efforts. This recent KKL-JNF proposal will encourage Jewish settlement in the region and ultimately serve to strengthen Jewish ties to Israel. In fact, it is just one of many initiatives that have been put forth by various organizations that have aimed to benefit Jewish individuals of all different ages and backgrounds by connecting them to their heritage in the Land of Israel. Other such initiatives include Birthright trips and the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program.
One of the most well-known ways that Jewish youths have had the opportunity to connect with their roots is through Birthright trips. Taglit-Birthright is an educational organization that sponsors free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for young Jewish adults between the ages of 18-32. These tours include visits to major cultural and religious sites, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Since Birthright trips began in the winter of 1999, more than 750,000 young adults from 68 countries have participated in the program. There is even a component of the trip called “mifgash” (Hebrew word for “encounter”), whereby Israeli soldiers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces join the tour in order to interact with their Diaspora peers and for those in each group to understand each other’s worldviews and Jewish identities.
THESE FULLY funded Birthright trips have helped achieve a common goal of solidifying a connection between Jewish youths (both in and out of the Diaspora) and Israel as young Jews, including myself, have learned a lot about our heritage and history in the land, and overall feel more deeply rooted in Israel because of the experience. This reaction is supported by Birthright’s website, as it states that “80% of participants consider Birthright Israel a life-changing experience.” Additionally, Birthright tours have reportedly contributed $1.5 billion to the Israeli economy, demonstrating how the program has also benefited Israel domestically in addition to promoting Zionist interests abroad.
Another program that strives to further Jewish ties to Israel is the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, also commonly known as “AMHSI.” Having actually merged with JNF-USA back in 2013, AMHSI is a study-abroad program that is designed to engage overseas high school students (mostly from the United States and Australia, among other countries) with more than 4,000 years of Jewish and Israeli history. AMHSI achieves this through a series of visits to historical sites and in-depth analyses of written history, in a chronological order, from the biblical period to modern-day Israel.
One example of a field trip, or tiyul, for students is a four-day, sea-to-sea hike from the Mediterranean to the Galilee that is meant to resemble Abraham wandering the Land of Canaan in order to inherit the land for his posterity. As it is stated on the program website, “with AMHSI-JNF’s experiential approach to teaching/learning, Israel becomes a living classroom.” Like Birthright, AMHSI focuses on exposing Jewish Diaspora youths to Israeli history, culture, politics and agriculture. However, AMHSI certainly goes more in-depth in terms of the educational aspect, as it offers longer-term sessions of six weeks, eight weeks, and even an entire 18-week semester, as compared to Birthright’s typical 10-day tour.
Programs such as Birthright and AMHSI are not only intended to introduce Jewish teens and young adults to their heritage in Israel, but they do so in hopes that this future generation will somehow contribute to Israel later on, whether it be advocating for Israel on college campuses, joining the Israeli Army, or even making aliyah, immigrating. Either way, these programs provide a great insight into the plethora of opportunities that are available to young Jews, both in Israel and around the world. As a result, it is evident that KKL-JNF’s recently approved land purchases in the West Bank conform to these existing endeavors as only being the utmost beneficial for Jewish individuals who picture themselves living in Israel and want to settle in the region.
The writer is a political economy student at the University of California, Berkeley, with a concentration on the political economy of the Middle East. She is an alumna of both Birthright Israel and of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.