December 31, 2015 marks the 115th anniversary since Theodor Herzl’s gavel banged down at the Fifth Zionist Council in Basel, Switzerland, and established Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL–JNF).
Zvi Hermann Schapira, a mathematics professor at Germany’s Heidelberg University, proposed a national fund to purchase land in Palestine at the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
But as bureaucratic groups of Jewish men are wont to do, they couldn’t agree on anything about creating a national fund, including the legal guidelines of how the fund would operate or purchase land. These disagreements deferred the establishment of JNF from one Zionist Conference to the next Zionist Conference, and progress seemed to be frozen.
When the vote to establish KKL-JNF failed once again at the Fifth Conference, Herzl stormed into the hall in anger. “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!” he yelled, according to KKL-JNF archives.
A second vote — which focused on whether or not to create the fund and not how it would operate — passed at 7:40 PM, December 29, 1901, the 19th of Tevet. KKL-JNF celebrates the Hebrew date, which falls this year on December 31. The 19th of Tevet was actually already a holiday in Israel. It was on this date in 1878 that the first furrow was planted in the farming community of Petah Tikvah, and was marked each year with a First Furrow celebration.
The delegates voted Yona (Johann) Kremenetzky to be the first chair of the KKL-JNF, which had its first office in Vienna. Kremenetzky immediately embarked on a fundraising campaign, including creating Jewish stamps and the little blue boxes to collect donations that became synonymous with KKL-JNF. It took another three years of wrangling before the organization made their first land purchase, the lands of Kfar Hittim in Lower Galilee. Other initial purchases included the Ben Shemen area next to Lod and the first Jerusalem campus of the Bezalel School of Art and Design in 1905. In 1906, they purchased land for the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood, the settlement outside of Jaffa that would go on to become Tel Aviv, among other purchases.
In honor of the 115th anniversary, here are some archival photos from KKL-JNF’s work through the decades.