Golda Meir often told the old Jewish joke (though hardly thinking it funny), why did Moses shlep us for 40 years to the one place in the Middle East without oil?

Now, from Golda to black gold, an oil rush is on, with some of the top businessmen in the world betting big money on Israeli oil, and the only laugh may be the last laugh.

Howard Jonas, a major philanthropist and founder of IDT, once primarily known for its telecom business, told The Jewish Week, “We believe that under Israel is more oil than under Saudi Arabia. There may be as much as half a trillion barrels. The Saudis have 260 [billion barrels]; Israel definitely has at least 300, and might have as much as [500].”

Meanwhile, Jonas has put together an investment dream team. This week, media magnate Rupert Murdoch and Lord Jacob Rothschild, of the famous banking family, have placed their high stack of chips in front of Jonas. Earlier this year, the hedge fund legend, and another major Jewish philanthropist, Michael Steinhardt, joined as an investor and chairman of IDT’s spin-off, Israel Energy Initiatives (the Israeli wing of IDT’s Genie Energy division).

Skeptics say this group is tilting at windmills, but look long enough and those windmills are looking like oil drills.

Jonas has for several years been attempting to extract oil from shale on U.S. government land in Colorado, working a 10-year lease because that’s how long it can take. In 2008, Jonas, who has developed various projects in Israel over the years, was granted a license by the Israeli government to explore and develop a shale reservoir of 238 square kilometers under the Shfela Basin. Under Israeli law, the state would receive royalties from IEI. Aside from delays stemming from persistent challenges from environmentalists, IEI is ready to go. “We’re waiting for the final permit,” says Jonas, “so we can start heating the ground and getting the oil.”

The oil, however, is not liquid but in shale, and “oil shale has broken many hearts,” writes BusinessWeek of the Israel project. The process of turning rock-solid shale into liquid is costly, lengthy and difficult, not to mention that it might, according to critics, lead to excessive gas emissions, scenic defacement, damage to the water table, and overall leave parts of the environment messier than the mess left by the Cat in the Hat before the Cat’s eventual and impeccable cleanup.

Israel’s Union for Environmental Defense has gone to court to stop Jonas. But it is precisely Israel’s defense — Israel’s economic and military defense, and energy independence — that is motivating the Jonas team every bit as much as their business sense.

Jonas, an Orthodox Zionist, sees the project as a perfect storm of doing well by doing good. But one doesn’t have to be Orthodox or Zionist to agree. The hunger for not just Israeli but American energy independence, with its global political ramifications not to mention potential oil profits, has led MarketWatch to determine that 92 percent of market observers are now “bullish” on the Newark, N.J.-based IDT, whose stock had fizzled to just 66 cents per share before taking off like a Roman candle, as confidence in the oil project spread. IDT’s price now stands at $20.22, 20 times higher than its 52-week low.

Some of the “enthusiasm” for the Israel project is based on IDT’s handling of its “oil experiment in Western Colorado,” writes BusinessWeek. Other confidence in Israel’s energy potential has come (unrelated to IEI) from a recent natural gas find within Israel’s territorial waters in the Mediterranean, reports Bloomberg, a 30 trillion cubic-feet reservoir, double the gas reserves of the United Kingdom and enough to support exports to Europe and Asia.

Jonas said he first began thinking about the Israel oil project “about four years ago. While working with the shale in Colorado, which is the largest shale deposit, I learned that the second-biggest deposit was in Israel. And it’s something I always wanted to do.”

He’s prepared to be patient. “Commercial production,” Jonas says, “is probably 11 or 12 years away, a decade the soonest.”

It is common knowledge that the major oil companies have shied away from Israel because of pressure from the Arab boycott and the close relationships between the oil executives and Arab leaders. And yet, the French oil giant, Total, has now invested with Jonas, and joining Genie’s advisory board in September were such “mainstream” oil veterans as Harold Vinegar, former chief scientist of Royal Dutch Oil, and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who also served as CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oilfield services corporations.

Nevertheless, it is the religious Zionists, such as Jonas and Christian Zionist groups, who have been in the vanguard of Israel’s oil exploration.

Christian Zionist groups have been citing biblical verses that they say refer to vast oil reserves beneath the Promised Land, adding that Israel’s energy independence and success is a prelude to Ezekiel’s scenario for the final Redemption, among other prophecies.

John Brown, founder and chairman of Zion Oil & Gas, a primarily Christian group exploring Israel’s energy potential, told Charisma, a Christian publication, “If they [Israel] become an oil producer tomorrow… [it] will bring an economic opportunity that will be unparalleled. … Israel has a unique place in history where God is going to do a lot for the Jewish people.”

By contrast, Jonas, while often acting with a religious and spiritual imperative, professionally and personally, doesn’t speak with the apocalyptic urgency of the Christian Zionist oilmen.

Jonas nevertheless points out that some of best people working for him are Christians who have been “heroic” in their desire to help Israel, a similar phenomenon, Jonas said, to the Jews and non-Jews who brought their expertise to Israel in its fight for survival and birth in 1948. At that time, there were those such as Col. Mickey Marcus, a Jewish West Point graduate, later dramatized by Kirk Douglas in the film “Cast A Giant Shadow,” who helped organize Israel’s army before dying in Israel’s service.

Jonas gives the example of Vinegar and Scott Nguyen, both top scientists at Shell, “who moved to Israel to work on the project.” Vinegar and his wife, who are at an age and time in life when “they want to be together,” said Jonas, decided to live in Israel “where they don’t speak the language, and where they don’t have all their friends, but she feels that he’s a hero, and he should do this for the Jewish people.”

Jonas paused, adding that one of his top men, Fred Carl, recently died of a heart attack. “He was the former head of experiments of Shell’s field operations; a real gnarled Marine, a very devout Catholic guy, in his 60s, who gave up everything, including his position at Shell, to move to Israel and help the Jewish people get this oil out.

“Fred decided, while he was in Israel, that he was going to visit all the churches in Israel,” said Jonas. “He visited more than 40. We weren’t paying him big money; he just wanted to have a part of this great undertaking that was going to free the world of Arab oil. To me, he died in the service of Israel.

“These guys are all heroes,” added Jonas.

If Jonas, Steinhardt, Rothschild and the rest are able to turn Israel’s underground shale into an oil reserve the size of Saudi Arabia’s, thereby changing the geopolitical and economic balance of the Middle East, they’ll be heroes, too, giving Israel a gift beyond all their prior philanthropy combined.

And that Moses fellow, maybe he knew what he was doing.