In December, 1901, as delegates to the Fifth Zionist Congress, dillydallying over technical issues, considered once again pushing off a critical decision, Theodor Herzl himself intervened. Recognizing that only by launching what became Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), could the Jewish people start redeeming the Land of Israel and bring the Zionist Idea alive, Herzl told the Congress: “Yours is the power to decide whether to postpone the establishment of the fund for another two years or until the coming of the Messiah!” Shouting “No! No!” 105 delegates voted to start the KKL-JNF, with 82 objecting.
Today, 119 years later, to too many American Jews, the JNF is the romanticized blue box of yesteryear – while to too many Israeli Jews, the KKL is a bureaucratic black hole, another once-proud Zionist institution now keeping under-achieving politicos overpaid and under-employed. In fact, JNF-KKL owns 13 percent of Israel’s land, giving it tremendous potential to transform the country – or keep it in neutral. It should be a Zionist and humanist sparkplug, leading Israel’s climate mitigation efforts through renewable energy support, developing the Negev and Galil sustainably, making Israel a global leader in Africa to combat desertification, while teaching, preaching, inspiring — demonstrating the ongoing relevance of the Zionist idea to us today, in Israel and worldwide.
This gap between what KKL-JNF is and what it can be is why Benny Gantz must be be Herzlian when selecting KKL-JNF’s leader. We cannot wait for the Messiah to fix things. The 38th Zionist Congress will elect the next chair when it convenes in October. But the maneuvering has started — and is in Gantz’s hands. He must decide: will this appointment become yet another political soccer ball, kicked around by scheming politicos to score points – or will the best candidate be appointed to do the job as it needs to be done?
Alas, we know how most Israeli politicians approach these precious Zionist institutions that built Israel. They either appoint some bored retired general looking for relevance and payback – and on day one, he starts on-the-job training – or, worse, they choose some political hack who views this Zionist treasure as his buddies’ employment bureau and his personal piggy bank.
On the ground, a consensus is forming that Professor Alon Tal is the right person for this difficult KKL-JNF job at this critical moment. It’s growing into a groundswell, spearheaded by Israeli environmentalists and mainstream American Zionists, compounded by Tal’s international reputation, and his deep ties to the Reform and Conservative movements, along with Hadassah.
I confess, I’m biased. Alon and I are old friends. But note that within two hours of posting, more than fifty leading environmentalists signed a letter to Gantz – and Yair Lapid – saying one person has the “political acumen, environmental passion and intellectual depth to guide one of Israel’s most important and powerful institutions, and he would do so with the best interests of all of KKL-JNF’s multiple stakeholders” – meaning the Jewish people. These experts – now nearly 100-strong — recognize that under Tal’s “leadership, KKL-JNF would be able to take a place of honor among the leading forces to preserve and sustain the environment of the Land of Israel.”
The experts identify Tal’s four unique strengths. A “Visionary Leader and Entrpreneur,” he “founded two of Israel’s most innovative and successful environmental organizations” – Adam Teva V’din , the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) – Israel’s leading environmental advocacy lobby — and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). As an environmental scholar, with degrees in law from Hebrew University and in Public Health from Harvard, Professor Tal now heads Tel Aviv University’s Public Policy program. He has written six books and dozens of articles defining the field of Israeli environmental history and policy, deftly applying scholarly rigor in service of a wider policy aim – to preserve the Land of Israel – and the health of everyone in the region. Third, a “patriot, activist, and optimist,” he has improved Israel’s quality of life in myriad ways since making Aliyah. Finally, he’s not just theorizing about JNF-KKL’s potential. In serving on the JNF-KKL board for over a decade, his many achievements included upgrading the forestry program’s ecological integrity.
As other candidates work their political connections, Professor Alon Tal’s towering qualifications and deep connectedness to the land should speak for themselves. To have a founder of Israeli environmentalism, someone who embodies the power of Green Zionism, leading KKL-JNF would be an important statement. It would show concern for our planet, love of our land, respect for the Jewish people worldwide, and Gantz’s personal commitment to follow-through on one of the first things he said when he entered politics: “We all need a government that solves our real problems and is not preoccupied with irself.”
When Gantz launched Blue-and-White, refusing to allow an “entire generation to live here without hope,” he proclaimed: “We all deserve a leadership that gets up in the morning and thinks about us.” Alon Tal is a hope-generator, an us-thinker – who is also remarkably rooted in pragmatic political realities.
I echo Theodor Herzl’s words, challenging Benny Gantz — “yours is the power to decide” – adding, yours is the responsibility and opportunity to spark a movement for visionary, professional, qualified, humane, and Zionist leadership in the JNF-KKL. Be bold. Do it by forcing the issue and making Professor Alon Tal, not some political hack, the next chairman of this critical Green Zionist organization, this legendary Zionist institution.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .