by Nicole Levin

I have been approached many times by people who claim that they have an ancestor who bought land in Eretz Yisrael before Israel became a state. In many instances they possess documentation pertaining to the land. This documentation could be a contract, a deed of purchase or a certificate of registration. However, many people are not so lucky. They have no documentation at all and in some cases, don’t even know where this land is located.  So, they relegate this knowledge to family legend.

So, let’s start with the easy cases where people possess documentation. In those cases, the land can be located easily, and a land registry extract can be obtained. Usually, the name of their ancestor will appear in some form in the land registry. Sometimes, it is the Yiddish or Hebrew name of the person and not the name by which he or she goes by abroad and that appears on his identification papers.  In most cases the name appears without any identification number such as a passport number or other form of ID number. This person has usually passed on and his heirs need to be established.

The first step is to establish who is the person whose name appears in the land registry office and to give him some form of ID number. The way to do this is to bring affidavits from the heirs and one other person at least who knew this person and his connection with the land in question. Copies of the ID card or passport of this person need to be presented.

The way to prove the connection to the land in question is to present to the land registry office the copies of any contracts, deeds, or registration papers you may have. If you have paid taxes for the property over the years, this can be presented as proof of a connection. Even a letter from the local authorities to someone in the family asking for something is proof.

The next step is to bring this persons Will or prove in other ways who the heirs are.  If there is a will, even from a foreign country, it can be probated in Israel as well. Indeed, it must be probated in Israel as well since the Israeli Law of Inheritance applies to all land in Israel and not the law of the place where the person lived or died if this is not in Israel. Once the probate order is given by the Israeli court it is taken to the land registry office and the rights in the land are registered in the name of the heirs.

If there is no Will, then the Israeli Law of Inheritance applies. This law establishes who a person’s heirs are if there is no will.

The more difficult situation arises in the case where there are no documents. Even in this case I say “don’t give up” because history may come to your rescue.

I have written in the past about the redemption of land in Eretz Yisrael in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In that instance I wrote about the purchases of land by the Jewish National Fund (in Hebrew, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael) and other organizations, such as Hachsharat Hayishuv (a company that still exists today), A company called “Geula” (the Hebrew word for redemption) and others.

However, the above list is not all. In the late nineteenth century, there were many efforts on the part of Zionist Jews to purchase land in Eretz Yisrael in order to establish agricultural settlements. Between the years 1882 and 1903 (the years of the first Aliya), 27 agricultural settlements were established all over the country. These settlements encompassed 272,791 dunams of land (each dunam is 1000 sq. meters) and were home to 5,685 Jewish settlers. Some of these settlements were established by Baron Edmund Rothchild. Some were established by the Jewish Colonization Association which was established by Baron Morris Hirsch in 1891. Some of these settlements were established by the Zionist organization called Chovevei Zion (in English, Lovers of Zion). Some settlements were established by private associations established by groups of Jews in Eastern Europe. All these settlements or as they were called then “moshavot” still exist today and many have become major Israeli cities (Petach Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rechovot, Gadera, Zichron Ya’akov, Kfar Saba, Hadera to name a few).

In 1905 a communal company was established in Jerusalem called “Agudath Neta’im” (Neta’im means “planters” in Hebrew. Its purpose was to broaden existing moshavot (the name for agricultural settlements then) by purchasing lands adjacent to these towns and bringing in more settlers to farm these lands and to establish new settlements. The source of the funds would come from private capital. This company was to be run by people who already lived in Eretz Yisrael, who knew how to do land transactions in the country and who knew how to run an agricultural settlement. This would help private investors from abroad invest in these settlements. The idea was to purchase the land for settlements near existing settlements, divide the land into small farms and prepare the farms, plant the crops, and make everything ready for the new oleh who would come to an already established farm of his own which was a going concern and would provide income for his family.

The question for them was whether to hide what they were doing from the Turks who did not support Jewish settlement in the Holy Land or act in an above-board manner. In order to be able to sell shares in the company to private investors outside of Eretz Yisrael they needed to form a company in a foreign country. To that end they attempted to register a company in London. When this was unsuccessful, they attempted to register the company in Russia. In the end the company was registered in Turkey, and all was done in an above-board fashion. Since it was an Ottoman company, they were able to purchase land in Eretz Yisrael in the name of the company. This is important since private individuals who were not Ottoman citizens could not do this.

Although this company was not part of the established Zionist movement, they cooperated with other companies who had bought and needed someone to farm it. In this manner they were able to establish planting centers for different crops next to existing settlements, using olim from the second Aliya to work these lands, while learning agriculture in the process. Some of the centers set up by this company were, Heftzibah (north of Hadera), Birchat Atta (south of Hadera), in an area adjacent to Rechovot, Sedjera (in the north, which later became a learning farm) and in Zeta (east of Hadera).

Perhaps you ancestor was a shareholder of such a company.

Another form of private investment was the “Achuzot” companies.  The word “Achuza” in Hebrew means “estate”. The purpose of these companies was to purchase lands and set up a new settlement for the shareholders of the company. Each company would set up its own settlement. The shareholders would be able to pay for their shares in installments over a long period of time. These companies were set up all over the world, including Canada, the U.S.A, England, in Western and Easter Europe. Again, representatives of these companies would purchase land and someone in Eretz Yisrael would decide what to plant, take care of the planting, set up the farms so that the shareholder could make aliya to a ready-made farm of his own.

Twenty-three Ahuza companies dealt with this type of land purchase. Ten of them managed to buy land. In this manner the lands of Poriah (near lake Galilee), Sharona (not to be confused with Sarona, the German Templar settlement now part of Tel Aviv), Kfar Uriah (near Ramle), Matula (on the norther border of Israel), Merchavia and Karkur, to name a few, were purchased. These companies were from St. Louis, U.S.A, Chicago, Moscow, Bialystok, London and other places in the world. In this way Tel Aviv was established by the “Achuzat Bayit” company.

Perhaps your ancestor was a shareholder of one of these companies.

Another company was which used foreign private financing to purchase land and establish a settlement was the “Teveria” (Tiberius) Company which purchased the lands of Migdal. A small town near Lake Galilee.

All this activity came to a halt when World War l broke out. It wasn’t until after the war, that wealthy investors such as Norman Schiffer and Max Adelman from Canada, Meir Rosoff from South Africa, Felix de Menache from Egypt, Asher Pierce from Canada, Max Shoolman from New York, and Alfred Mond from England (later known as Lord Melchet) established large citrus plantations along the coastal plain of Israel. Their produce was exported all over the world and put Eretz Yisrael on the map as a major player in this field. These enterprises unfortunately did not survive the Arab uprising in Eretz Yisrael of the years 1936-1939. However, they played an important role in the development of agriculture in the future country of Israel.

To make a long story short, perhaps your ancestor, who told you with a proud dreamy look in his eyes of land he owns in Eretz Yisrael, was an investor or shareholder in one of those companies and from this stems his rights to a plot of land in Israel. A little historical research, a look through old archives of these companies or the Zionist archives can help locate these lands and bring about their restoration to the heirs of these people, who had a dream of redeeming and settling land in Eretz Yisrael but were prevented from fulfilling their dreams by local and world events.

These lands are considered abandoned by the State of Israel. The question remains what to do with them? The law requires the State to seek out these owners and their heirs and see if they can be registered in the land registry as the owners. When they are unsuccessful in these attempts, they take hold of the lands and sell them to the highest bidder. This can be an Israeli (Jewish or non-Jewish) or a foreign Jew. So, if you get an email from the office of the Administrator General and Official Receiver of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, please do not assume it is spam and erase. Check in to it. Perhaps you can prove your ancestors’ rights in land purchased by him over 100 years ago as part of his Zionist dream.

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