Charity boxes like these helped collect funds to transform Israel

The Palestinian outrage over European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s comment that the Jews “made the desert bloom” has spread. Even mainstream news analysts in America and Great Britain are repeating the claim that the assertion by Ms. von der Leyen is racist, and yet they do not explain why or even mention the facts that are easily found.

There is a wealth of information written by British surveyors, Ottoman representatives, and even the journals from random travelers to the land such as Mark Twain, that show the land was “desolate and devoid of inhabitants” in the middle of the nineteenth century. And yet, here we are less than 150 years removed from some of these accounts and Israel is an agricultural powerhouse. That transformation was also clearly documented and in great detail.

According to British authorities in 1921, malaria had devastated the population and prevented the development of fertile lands, leaving much arable land lying waste. However, by 1941, the success of an anti-malaria campaign led by Zionists had converted previously uninhabitable areas into cultivatable land, where endemic malaria had previously stunted population growth for generations.

From the time that Jews began returning to the land, there was an effort to address this problem. In the early stages, attempts to drain the swamps relied on planting Eucalyptus trees which require up to 200 liters of water per day to grow. However, this alone was not enough. Even with over 400,000 Eucalyptus trees planted to drain the soil, pre-World War I efforts to eradicate malaria were generally unsuccessful, resulting in many Jewish deaths and emigrations from the land. The source of mosquitoes was not limited to swamps but also included ponds, springs, and the Sea of Galilee.

In 1922, Dr. Israel Kligler, one of the pioneers of modern medical research, specializing in Bacteriology, Parasitology, Virology, Nutrition, Epidemiology, and Public Health, pioneered the first successful national malaria-elimination campaign in the world. His systematic approach relied on educating and collaborating with entire communities in Mandatory Palestine to assist in anti-malaria efforts. Dr. Kligler, a devout Zionist, also introduced new methods, such as introducing Gambusia fish to water sources to consume mosquito larvae as soon as they hatched from the eggs.

Meanwhile, drainage channels were constructed to dry out the swamps, and pesticides were sprayed to eradicate mosquitoes. In total, Jews drained 44,000 acres of marshland in areas of the Hula Valley and the Sharon region north of Tel Aviv. Anti-malaria efforts continued after Israel declared independence, and by 1967, the World Health Organization declared malaria eliminated in Israel. The success of the Zionist anti-malaria campaign was key in transforming previously inhospitable areas into cultivatable land, allowing the land to flourish.

But the draining of the swamps and eradication of malaria was just a drop in the bucket of what the Jews had done to the land. Even Arab scholars noted that the Jews were transforming the land, which by all historical accounts dating back centuries was a barren land where few things grew.

In a statement that confirms not only that the land itself was undesirable, but that the Jews were coming to work it, Rawhi Khalidi, a Jerusalem-born Arab intellectual had famously written in his 1911 book on Zionism "I wonder why Jews leave prosperous lives to make a homeland of arid land of Palestine, deprived of civilization, cannot feed its own." His words are telling as he admits that Jews were driven by a desire to return home, leaving comfort and civility for a land that even he saw as empty and unforgiving.

Much of the proof of the Jewish impact on the land lies in the public purchase records of an organization established solely to fund this transformation. The Zionist organization, Keren Kayemet, L’Yisrael (KKL), known in English as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), spearheaded a campaign to purchase lands in Ottoman Palestine. Conceived in 1897 and incorporated in 1901, the organization was responsible for purchasing land in Judea and the lower Galilee region.

The first purchase of the organization was an area that was one-fifth of a square kilometer in size east of the coastal town of Hadera. The land was transformed into an olive grove. From 1904-1905, KKL bought land near the Sea of Galilee and in the central region of Ben Shemen and began to plant trees. Today, the popular Ben Shemen forest which lies in Israel’s center is visible when just over 100 years ago there was nothing.

The funds to make these purchases and plant the trees came from large donors and small. Every Jewish community in the diaspora and many Jewish homes had an iconic metal collection box painted blue and white from KKL, and the messaging on that box was clear as to what the charity was going towards, to rebuild and regrow the Land of Israel.

By 1921, KKL’s ownership exceeded 25,000 acres, and by 1935 KKL had owned over 89,500 acres which are 362 square kilometers of land, and on that land were 108 Jewish communities. With each purchase, forests were planted, and agricultural communities were established to meet the needs of the increasing flow of Jews into Mandatory Palestine. In fact, by that time KKL was responsible for planting over 1,700,000 trees, By the time Israel became a state in 1948, KKL had owned 936 square kilometers of the land.

With each new reclamation project KKL spearheaded, more people came to the land to find work. The creation of jobs played a significant role in immigration to the land by Arabs and Jews. As the economy transformed into an agriculturally based one, the need for laborers, processing factory workers, sales, and distribution mechanisms grew and were filled by Jews and Arabs who came to find economic stability.

But for trees and plants to grow, fresh water, which was scarce, was needed. While in the early days of the transformation, water trenches from the marchlands were dug out to allow the water to flow away from the swamps and towards crops, in the 1950s Israel was able to extend irrigation to over 325,000 acres by using previously untapped underground wells. With water comes life.

Clear evidence of how the land was transformed by the Jews lies in one famous picture from 1909 when Tel Aviv was established. The image shows the founding families standing on a sea of sand as far as the eyes can see. No trees, no shrubs, nothing but sand. In contrast to that, today, Tel Aviv is a bustling, green metropolis where oranges, lemons, figs, dates, and a wide variety of plants grow and thrive.

Driving down towards the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert the work of the Jews over the last 130 years is evident. Dispersed between the barren white sand desert are fields of trees, from date palms that produce some of the world’s best dates to orchards of citrus fruits. This scene is replicated even as you continue down towards the Red Sea city of Eilat. What was once a barren, lifeless desert, is now dotted with communities focused on agriculture. Even greenhouses are in abundance, growing things from cherry tomatoes, peppers, and fresh herbs to medical marijuana.

The work of KKL did not end once the state was formed. During the period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, KKL planted 60,000 acres of trees and turned over 50,000 acres into viable cropland. To this day KKL is still working to transform the land. To date, KKL is responsible for planting over 240 million trees in the Land of Israel and their work continues with a massive project to combat desertification which is a global crisis.

To say that it is racist against Palestinians to state that the Jews made the desert bloom is yet another attempt by Palestinians to alter history. The hard facts and historical records prove the statement is true. And, while Arabs were involved in the work, it was because the Jews had undertaken these projects that brought the migrant Arabs to the land, just as it brought more Jews to the land. These are facts that cannot be disputed by a tweet, or a talking head on a BBC program who offers no proof of anything to the contrary.

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