Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

The Negev - Israel's Manifest Destiny

By Ronald S. Lauder

It was with incredible gratification that I read in the letter President Bush wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, the U.S. support of Israel's plan to further develop its arid southern region known as the Negev. Here's why I think this is so important. The Negev represents 60 percent of Israel's land mass and less than 8 percent of the population lives in its barren, rocky, austere and beautiful terrain. But I believe it is Israel's final frontier and its future.

The United States had it's manifest destiny in the West. Russia looked to its frozen tundra to the East. Many countries have had vast areas of what many considered to be uninhabitable land at one time, which eventually became some of the most important parts of their developed societies. For Israel, that land is the Negev and it's already happening.

Who would have thought that fish could thrive in the desert? Yet the Jewish National Fund has already created fishponds that are currently producing fresh water fish in salty brackish water.

Who would have thought that tomatoes could thrive in the Negev? Yet the Desert Sweet tomato, which consumes brackish water, flourishes and is exported to Europe, bringing needed dollars to a nation.

Who would have thought that flowers could thrive in the Negev? Yet they grow and blossom in JNF built hothouses created to increase the export of flowers to international markets. The beauty of Israel never stops traveling the world. And who would have thought that with virtually no economic infrastructure, the Negev could support so many new communities? Yet 10 new communities opened recently and more than 20 more are planned, in a cooperative effort among JNF, and the Housing Ministry. Recent new communities include Sansanna, Shibolet, Gavut Bar, Michal (an environmental village), Eron, Har'uv, Merchav Am, Bar Hills, Faran, Be'er Milka, and Ararim.

On my last visit to Israel, I met with families who produce wine and olive oil in the desert. JNF reservoirs boost the productivity of crops and bring blue and green to a brown land. Each time I visit, I see how love of the land is working to improve the lives of its people. We work to create, not destroy.

Three kibbutzim Lotan, Yael and Keturra - are part of JNF's overall Negev development strategy for the southern Arava. Lotan will feature an Educational Eco-Park, bikeriding trails and be birdwatcher friendly. The Lotan Center for Creative Ecology Eco Fun includes activities on recycling/composting, organic gardening, and alternative/natural construction. This unique desert ecological education center received the Israel Environment Minister's award in 2000 for its outreach and programming encompassing youth groups, schools, and community centers.

JNF has also built an Information Center, for attracting new families to the Negev. For example, the Agricultural Youth Project teaches youth how to farm in the desert, using techniques developed by JNF. The OR Information Center is an information source on housing, social initiatives, volunteer identification and placement.

Israel's legendary first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had a dream that with his people's resilience and passion for life, his country's desert could be made to bloom. Today, his prescience is undeniable. Most of the residents of these nascent Negev communities include both secular and Orthodox Jews who are young, highly educated professionals with families and young children, determined to provide a future for their family in Israel and therefore make Ben Gurion's vision a reality.

Everyone knows the Jewish National Fund as the 102-year old organization whose mission is to serve as caretaker of the land of Israel. Among its many manifestations of this role, it literally has been preparing the soil to develop the Negev into a truly sustainable future for Israel's people.

In the coming years, JNF is committing $250 million toward development in the Negev. Jewish National Fund is helping realize the dream for Israel. My many thanks to President Bush for undertaking the challenge and to Prime Minster Sharon for leading our effort.

Ronald S. Lauder is President of Jewish National Fund.

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