Tuesday, December 6, 2011

JNF losing the battle for its reputation

Investigative journalist Uri Blau specializes in obtaining documents that are not intended for publication. He is currently waiting for the State Prosecutor's office with regard to the classified military documents he published with regard to "liquidations" and executions without trial whose publication considerably embarrassed the High Command of the Israeli Defense Forces. Former soldier Anat Kam already begun serving a four and a half years' term for having leaked these documents  to this reporter. Is the journalist also to be prosecuted for having fulfilled what he considers his professional and moral duty? A complicated issue, with which the government's legal branch has not yet completed grappling. Meanwhile, Blau does not sit idle.

In the Ha'aretz weekend supplement last Friday, Blau published minutes from the organization known as the Jewish National Fund, internal documents which include quite a few interesting items.


The included quotes hereafter are my own translation from the Hebrew original, written before Blau's article appeared in Ha'aretz English.

"A Jew bought an apartment in Carmiel [in the Galilee], on JNF land. He had no problem. Twenty years have passed and Muhammad, who lives in Deir al-Assad [near Karmiel] came in search of an apartment to buy. The Jew sold him the apartment, and got a proper payment. Then he goes to the Israel Lands Administration and says: 'Hello, I am Muhammad, I would like to register the apartment in my name in the Land Registry. They say, "Wait a minute, you're an Arab, aren't you? Then it is impossible. The rules are that JNF land may not be sold or leased to Arabs'."

Nowadays, this doesn't really sound good. Effi Stenzler, Israeli Labor Party member, Head of the Jewish National Fund and former Mayor of Givatayim, certainly did not mean these honesty spoken words, duly noted down in the minutes, to get such a public scrutiny in Israel and abroad. True, the Jewish National Fund had known  better days, easier times, when there had been no need to hide its goals or be ashamed of them. When the JNF was established through the resolutions of the 1901 Zionist Congress, and still for many years afterwards, there had been no special problem in openly proclaiming that its raison d'etre was to acquire land for the use of Jews, and of Jews only. Throughout the Twentieth Century, it was common for the current British Prime Minister to hold the title of Honorary Patron of the JNF (the current habitant of 10 Downing Street decided to decline this honor).

Under Ottoman and British Mandatory rule, the Jewish National Fund purchased another acre after acre, through the donations of various  millionaires as well as the dimes and pennies which Jewish children all over the world placed in the JNF 's blue donation boxes set up at their schools. (In Woody Allen's film "Radio Days" taking place in New York in the 1940's a Jewish boy broke open one of these boxes and dropped the money into his own pocket - which turned out to be a biographical detail.)

Until 1948, the JNF managed to gain control of about four percent of Mandatory ​​Palestine. In 1949 the government of Israel gave it another nine percent of the land, which was at the time classified as "abandoned land" whose previous owners ended up in refugee camps on the other side of the border. For this bounty of real estate the Jewish National Fund was not required to pay anything, not even a single one of these pennies donated by children to these  famous blue boxes. And all of these thirteen percent of ​​the State of Israel's territory which became JNF lands were - and still are – subject to the JNF bylaws stating that the land shall never be sold or leased or given away to a non-Jew. (According to these bylaws, even working as an employee on JNF land is prohibited to non-Jews, although this stipulation the JNF has long ceased trying to enforce – otherwise, Israel's agriculture might have collapsed...)

And that is still the situation up to the present. By the law enacted by the Knesset, management of the JNF lands was transferred to the Israel Lands Authority, which is obliged by law to administer it according to the abovementioned JNF bylaws. But in recent years, this routine is starting to creak, and there were repeated appeals to the Supreme Court, making the judges stick their noses into JNF affairs and take considerable interest in them and strangely enough rule that the discrimination of Arab citizens is illegal in a democratic country. In the previous Knesset, legislation has been initiated by right wing MKs to define this as legal, but it got stuck (maybe now it will be back ...). And now in some of the world's democratic countries – in Britain and Australia and even in the United States – there is an increasing number of people and groups asking why should the Jewish National Fund go on being registered in their countries as a tax-exempt charitable organization.

And then the Jewish National Fund was faced with a worldwide deluge of unflattering reports about the Negev Bedouin village of Al-Arakib, the village whose existence is strongly opposed by the Government of Israel , which applies its might to destroy it again and again (only to have it erected again and again by the residents). There were widely-disseminated photos of JNF bulldozers flattening the ground, in preparation for the planting of a Jewish National Fund forest on the site of the village, so as to create there an irreversible fact.

Also on this Stenzler had interesting things to say, quoted in the minutes now published by Blau: "We learned from experience that where a tree is planted, almost no one can take over the land... This is an area of which we take possession so that nobody else can take it over, neither Jews nor non-Jews, neither Bedouins nor anyone else". JNF Board member Yitzchak Krivitzky had an idea how to deal with the problem. "We play with courts and democracy. Go to Sinai and see how the Egyptians take care of the Bedouins. There is no democracy there."

But other members of the JNF board did raise concerns about the revelations in the world. Director Alon Tal said the affair was "a very grave JNF public relations fiasco... The photos of JNF forestry workers and bulldozers destroying buildings get into the focus of attention, and the Jewish National Fund looks like an accomplice. Our overseas representatives were unable to  give a convincing answer to the charges. They lost the battle for our reputation in Australia, the United States, and so on ".

Even more emphatic was Director Ora Kresin. "I will say what I think, even if it sounds quixotic" she said. "I feel uneasy about these photos placing trees against people. Having trees become a weapon of war against an Israeli population, citizens of Israel, is extremely difficult. It is very difficult to see these photos and listen to these voices. "

Chairman Stenzler expressed his satisfaction with the fact that at least the adverse publicity occurred mainly abroad. "I want to thank communications and public relations people, who worked diligently to prevent this issue from popping up in the media... In the Israeli media this issue hardly struck a chord. God forbid that it would." Well, now it begins to get attention also in the Israeli media.

The response made to Blau by the JNF stated that "the article is based on a collection of misquotes and half-truths" and that "the Israeli media acts responsibly, seeing and knowing that not a single tree had been planted in that area." Indeed, so far the JNF had not implemented its declared purpose of planting trees in Arakib and establishing facts on the ground against the Bedouin population. And perhaps, because of the media coverage, it never would ...

And a bit different, yet similar, issue: Since 1967, the JNF has made an effort to take control of Palestinian lands and properties, and was not very scrupulous about the means used in achieving this purpose. For example, the JNF had been conducting a years-long struggle to evict the Sutrin Family from their home in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. The state authorities declared the family house to be "absentee property" and therefore transferred ownership to the "Custodian of Absentee Property", who transferred ownership to the Jewish National Fund, which intended to remove the Palestinians from the house and hand it over to the settler association Elad,  which had already taken over in similar ways many Palestinian buildings and lands in Silwan. Last week, the twelve members of the Sutrin Family were going be thrown out of their home by a court order issued at the request of the Jewish National Fund.

Had the story not burst out in the Israeli and international media, by now the settlers would have already been in possession of the house. But the publicity  caused the JNF a  lot of confusion and headache - especially when the Rabbis for Human Rights organized a campaign of letters of protest to both the JNF directors in Israel and their fellows in the United States, who could be expected to be more open to the arguments. The JNF people tried to assert that it was not them demanding expulsion of the Palestinian family, but only the settlers who asked the court for the eviction order. But it turned out that the request to the court to issue the eviction order was lodged by the lawyers  in the name of the JNF (though, indeed, the same lawyers also happen to represent settlers). In the end, JNF announced that (at least for the time being)  the eviction order would not be carried out ...

On the well-designed website of the Jewish National Fund, all this is not mentioned. There's no word of Arakib nor of Silwan.  In fact, no mention of Arabs at all. There are a few general words about JNF "working on behalf of the Jewish people, as the trustee of their properties in the Land of Israel". But mainly the website is devoted to explaining that the Jewish National Fund is a model ecological and environmental organization, thoroughly Green :


"JNF is responsible for 1.5 million acres of planted and natural forest in Israel. In this land the JNF has planted over 240 million trees across approximately 200,000 acres. At a time of global warming, planting trees fixes the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and therefore contributes to reducing global warming. JNF is developing community forests and bio-spheric parks which  combine and balance between use by the community which lives around the woods and open spaces and the preservation of nature and environment. JNF staff are ready at any moment to prevent forest fires and use advanced firefighting equipment and fire observation towers. The JNF performs advanced research in the process of rehabilitating burned areas. The JNF is working to de-pollute and rehabilitate the springs and rivers of Israel, and develop the potential for using nature and landscape as a public resource. The JNF prevents soil erosion and desertification processes, embarking on drainage flood damage rehabilitation projects. The JNF partners with international agencies in an attempt to find a solution for global forestry issues, drainage basin management, lowering levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the management of semi-arid regions. The JNF conducts and supports research and development enterprises with international implications, and shares the knowledge with other countries."

The above is a sample of the extensive environmental activities for which the JNF proudly takes credit.
Indeed, a welcome and praiseworthy activity. It is highly desirable that somebody in Israel be in charge of promoting it. But why, in fact, should it be a specifically Jewish organization, excluding everybody else? Is preserving the environment not in the interest of all Israeli citizens, irrespective of religion, race or ethnicity?