Beyond the recent brouhaha over the cancellation of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee as the keynote speaker for JNF-Ottawa’s Negev Dinner, there’s more we need to talk about when it comes to the JNF in Israel.
Has the JNF’s purpose come and gone?
Before JNF-Ottawa decided to rescind its invitation to Huckabee, Tyler Levitan of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) wrote on my (public) Facebook page, “I… don’t think that being the keynote speaker at a JNF event is an ‘honour’ to begin with.” There is “no honour,” he added, in “displacing Palestinians from their lands, covering over their depopulated and destroyed villages with parks and forests, evacuating Palestinians in east Jerusalem from their homes to be replaced by Jewish extremists, destroying Bedouin villages in the Negev, ‘Judaizing’ the Galilee and the Negev, and providing infrastructure for illegal settlements on the West Bank.”
The IJV has launched a campaign to revoke JNF-Canada’s tax status. Mainstream Jews hear this as a shrill attack on Israel, especially given that IJV is decidedly anti-Zionist in its outlook. But there is a kernel of legitimate criticism there, namely whether ethnic discrimination in land-lease policy befits a democracy.
Consider Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg. In his 2011 book The Unmaking of Israel, Gorenberg wrote that it’s time to rethink the JNF. Criticism from Gorenberg comes from a different place. The book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, while Jeffrey Goldberg (no slouch in Zionist circles) has called the book “indispensable.” A 2015 version of Gorenberg’s argument was published in Moment magazine.
Gorenberg writes: “The JNF’s original purpose was to buy real estate in the name of the Jewish People. Acquiring land, however, was itself only a means toward establishing a state. When Israel declared independence, the JNF’s land holdings should have been turned over to government ownership for the benefit of all Israeli citizens.” Gorenberg adds the important point: “JNF rules allowed only Jews, not Israeli Arabs, to lease that real estate.”
In 2004, the Israeli civil rights group Adalah filed a court petition challenging the JNF’s Jewish-only leasing policies. In response, as Suhad Bishara, Adalah’s director for land and planning, explained to me, Israel’s attorney general agreed to distribute JNF land to all citizens.
In cases where the leaseholder is not Jewish, the state will compensate the JNF with an equivalent amount of land. In 2010, the law began to allow actual land sales. Since then, negotiations between the JNF and the Israel government have been ongoing. The current proposal would see the JNF transfer its land to the state and its urban properties privatized. In return, the JNF would receive state land in the Negev and Galilee.
Trying to understand the JNF’s policies is an exercise in frustration and opacity.
I approached JNF Canada for clarification. Its response, via its Israeli equivalent, Keren-Kayemet L’Israel (KKL): “KKL-JNF doesn’t administer the lands that KKL-JNF owns. The State of Israel has administered the land since a few years after the state was established. KKL-JNF owns about 13 per cent of the land,” adding that this land is “administered by the state.” Asked if the Jewish-only land-lease policy is still in effect, KKL said, “The State of Israel administers the land, and, therefore, KKL-JNF does not implement any policies with regard to the land.”
One can debate whether actions such as planting over a Palestinian village with a national park should be left in the realm of fog of war. But how Israel currently treats its citizens and residents, as well as the JNF’s implication in the West Bank settlement project, should be top of mind for those concerned with Israeli democracy. And along with this goes trying to understand the policies in the first place.
In short, while the JNF and its little blue boxes evoke powerful symbolism in the minds of many Jews, no organization should be above reproach. If Israel’s courts can debate these issues, so can we.