The Unfulfilled Potential of Tel Shikmona
The Return to Zion and the Beginning of Agricultural Settlement

Introduction to Mikveh Israel

Mikveh Israel came before….

Petah Tikva, founded in 1878, is considered the “mother of all Moshavot” and the year 1882 is known as the year of the First Aliyah.  But it was only in 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Basel that Theodor Herzl officially founded the Jewish State. Therefore, it is hard to pinpoint the beginnings of the State.

Over many years of exile, Jews immigrated to Eretz Yisrael individually or in small groups, and in the 19th century, these numbers grew significantly.  This immigration sparked debates on major issues:

Was it time for the Jews to return to their homeland? 

Were the physical, economical, and political circumstances, right?

How were Jews to make a living?

Many believed that the answer to this last question was Jewish agriculture, specifically, Jewish agricultural colonies.

This naturally led to the idea of the establishment of an agricultural school for Jews in Eretz Yisrael.  In 1870, Carl Netter, a founding member of Alliance Israélite Universelle, obtained permission from the Ottoman emperor to establish an agricultural school near Jaffa. Named Mikveh Israel, it was actually the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel, preceding even Petah Tikva. Though the establishment of the school involved great challenges and hardship, it eventually, played a very important role in the building of the Jewish state.

The State was established thanks to Mikveh Israel.

mikveh israel

As David Ben-Gurion said, “The State was established thanks to Mikveh Israel. If Mikveh Israel had not been established, it is doubtful whether the State of Israel would have been founded.  Everything started then, and we have only come to complete the work from a national and political point of view.”

A century and a half later, Mikvah Israel is an active educational institution. Spread over 3000 dunams, near the city of Holon, the town of Azur, and the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, it has attracted the attention of real estate investors who see the economic potential of these lands. However, because of its immense national and historical importance, this green lung, situated in the heart of a dense urban area, is protected by law.

Preserving National Sites:  Historical and Theoretical Background

After World War Two, following the massive destruction in cities and towns, international organizations were founded to promote the preservation of important national and cultural assets. International conventions were formulated based on shared knowledge and goals. The founding of UNESCO also led to the establishment of organizations such as the International Union of the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1948; the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMUS) in 1965; and the World Heritage Committee in 1972.  

In the early years of the State of Israel, many government and non-profit organizations fought to protect and preserve archaeological, historical, and heritage sites as well as nature reserves.  Many laws have been enacted to protect these sites; some laws apply to specific sites, and some are general in nature. One example of a specific law is the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School Law, passed in 1976 to protect the school’s lands from being used for housing and commercial development and to allow the school to continue to fulfill its original mission.

Mikveh Israel – UNESCO World Heritage Committee

Mikveh Israel Buildings

Mikve Israel is built on agricultural land, and it consists of various buildings such as the school, a synagogue, dormitories, and the teachers’ quarters. These are surrounded by a botanical garden, ancient trees, and agricultural fields. This type of landscape, a blend between natural and man-made, is known as a cultural landscape.

The term has been introduced into international treaties, and in 1992 the UNESCO World Heritage Committee updated its Operational Guidelines accordingly, adding cultural landscapes to the list of sites eligible to be included in the World Heritage List. The three categories of cultural landscapes are:

  • cultural landscape designed by man;
  • organically evolved landscape;
  • and associative cultural landscape, which is valued because if religious, cultural, or artistic associations.

In addition to UNESCO, many countries as well as organizations such as the American Parks Authority and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe have contributed their ideas and knowledge to this field.  

The English Heritage Trust has advocated for the preservation of whole complexes rather than just a single building and has included ‘’rural historic environment’’ within the wider definition of ‘’ historical environment,’’ signifying various rural assets such as fields, crops, buildings, and other infrastructures.  

Mikveh Israel is not on the World Heritage List, but an agricultural school campus can be included in the definition of an “educational, historical environment in the form of the agricultural landscape.”

In Israel, several national building plans reference the conservation of agricultural and rural landscapes including TAMA 31, which deals with open rural landscapes, and TAMA 35, which deals with the preservation of natural, agricultural, settlement, and heritage assets. These plans do not deal with cultural assets that are part of open landscapes. Since Israel is developing rapidly, it is hard to protect heritage assets from urbanization and other infrastructural developments.

In addition, several laws have been legislated to protect and manage the state’s cultural and historical assets. They include the Antiquities Law which relates to assets created before 1700 AD and zoological remains from before 1300 AD; the Law of National Parks, Nature Reserves, National Sites and Memorial Sites; the Planning and Construction Law; and the Museums Law.

The Mikveh Israel Agricultural School Law (1976)

Following Mikveh Israel’s 100th Anniversary in 1970, the Mikvah Israel Law was presented to the Knesset. It was the joint effort of the Education and Culture and Internal Affairs Committees, who came together following various proposals to relocate the school and transform the grounds into a public park. During the first discussion of the bill on July 8, 1975, the Minister of Interior Affairs, Yosef Burg, explained that the bill was designed to protect the school and prevent its relocation.  Many MKs added their comments in support of the bill and overall conservation goals. On June 21, 1976, the draft was brought for a second and third reading. MK Avraham Katz reiterated the sentiment that Mikveh Israel “should remain a green pearl in the surrounding sea of concrete.”

The six sections of the law define the parameters of the school’s educational activities and goals, and its legal status, and protects its assets and land. There is perhaps no other law in Israel that has received so much support from the whole political spectrum, as the Mikveh Israel Law.

Public ownership of land in Israel

In Israel, about 90% of the land is owned by the state. This is a historical decision.

In 1901, the Jewish National Fund (KKL) was established by the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel.  Financed through donations from the Jewish people around the world, KKL worked to purchase land for agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel. Since the State had not yet been established, the lands purchased by KKL were the property of the Jewish people and were not sold, based on the commandment of the Torah,

” The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine…”  (Leviticus 25:23).

In 1907, laws were approved granting KKL permanent ownership of land it acquires. Up until 1947, KKL purchased 930,000 dunams of land for agricultural Jewish settlement. At the time of the establishment of the State, there were three types of public ownership of land:

a) Land owned by KKL;

b) Land that Israel became the owner of on its succession of the British Mandatory Government;

c) Land abandoned by its owners following the War of Independence.

These three categories make up about 90% of the land in Israel. Additional lands were purchased by private individuals, such as the Baron colonies; land in Tel Aviv; neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Haifa, and more.  Consequently, about 10% of the land in Israel is privately owned.  Shortly after the establishment of the State, the government sold about one million dunams of the lands abandoned by the Arabs during the War of Independence to KKL, making KKL the second largest landowner in Israel.

As land in Israel cannot be sold, it remains the property of the State and is administered by a government agency called the Israeli Land Authority.  The rights to the land are leased for periods of 49 -99 years, and these periods may be extended. The Israel Land Authority supervises all aspects connected to the development of land in Israel.

The lands of Mikve Israel, which were originally leased to the institution by the Sultan back in 1870, are now government-owned lands and administered by the Israeli land Authority.

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