Challenging the Jewish National Fund

20 July 2010

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Activists in Jerusalem protest in solidarity with Bedouin families whose land was confiscated as a result of the JNF’s discriminatory policies. (Meged Gozani/ActiveStills)


For anyone taking a road trip along the highways of the part of Palestine that became Israel in 1948, one is bound to spot a blue and green structure in the shape of a bird marked with the Hebrew letters KKL, which stands for Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael, the Hebrew name of the Israeli branch of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). All around the bird one will see expanses of forests planted sometime in the past few decades. A walk through one of these forests will take the visitor past fruit trees, cactus plants, terraced hillsides and the ruins of buildings. In some cases, these ruins are explained in a JNF brochure pointing to their ancient history; in other cases, one is left to the devices of one’s imagination. In all cases, these sites are what remains of some of the more than 500 villages depopulated and destroyed through the course of Israel’s establishment, the homes of millions of Palestinian refugees struggling to return to them for more than 60 years. By walking through a JNF park or forest, one inhales the fresh smell of the greenwashing of Palestine’s Nakba.

The history of the JNF is well documented, the seminal text still being the late Walter Lehn’s 1988 book The Jewish National Fund written in association with Uri Davis. After heated discussions at the first four Zionist congresses, the JNF was established at the Fifth Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1901, and incorporated in England in 1907. Its Memorandum of Association defines the primary objective of the JNF as “to purchase, take on lease or in exchange or otherwise acquire any lands, forests, rights of possession and other rights in the prescribed region [Palestine and surrounding areas] … for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands” (Lehn). The JNF was expressly prohibited from selling any land to ensure that it would hold on to these lands in the name of the Jewish people in perpetuity (Lehn p. 31-32).

The organization began its fundraising activities and began to seek out willing sellers, the most significant of whom were absentee landlords living in what would become Lebanon and Syria. The JNF’s “blue box,” a small box for collection of donations, became both a fixture in Jewish communities outside of Palestine, as well as an important tool of mobilizing Jewish community support behind the colonization of the country. By the 1920s, Palestinians were sufficiently knowledgeable of the Zionist project to colonize their country that they refused to sell their land to the Fund. In response, the JNF reverted to more insidious means to acquire land, including proactive recruitment of Palestinians who would acquire land on their behalf. The Diaries of Yosef Nachmani is a film that goes into some of the details of these methods based on the diaries of the JNF’s main agent in the Tiberias region. To serve this process, the JNF systematically kept files on each Palestinian locality that included the names of Palestinians involved in resisting the British and Zionist colonization. These “village files” were later used as a central source of military intelligence for the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and many of those activists named in the JNF’s files were executed by Zionist forces (see Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: One World Press, 2006, pp.17-22).

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the JNF seemed to have achieved its purpose. The land controlled by the JNF and other Zionist agencies, which amounted to no more than seven percent of the land in British Mandate Palestine, had jumped to almost 90 percent as Palestinian land appropriated by force was transferred to state and JNF ownership under Israeli military orders and laws passed for this purpose. The JNF had to be repackaged and its role reassessed.

The statement of Israeli author Amos Elon that “[f]ew things are as evocatively symbolic of the Zionist dream and rationale as a Jewish National Fund Forest” encapsulates the most notorious role of the JNF since 1948 (Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt: The 1936-1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, p.55). For many Jews abroad, the act of donating to plant a tree in Israel, sponsor a park bench, or bankroll a section of forest became an important avenue to support the maintenance and growth of the Zionist movement. The JNF’s charitable status in most countries, usually based on the JNF’s new packaging as an ecological organization that plants trees and develops “green” technology, has facilitated this process by creating a governmental subsidy in each country in the form of tax returns to the donors.

For the indigenous Palestinians and people concerned about basic human rights, the JNF forest is a concrete manifestation of Zionism’s attempt to erase not only the presence of Palestinians in their homeland, but also any visible sign that they ever existed here. Israeli novelist Abraham Yehoshua’s well-known 1970 short story “Facing the Forest” 1970 attests to Israeli cultural attempts to bring the truths of the Nakba repressed within the Israeli psyche back to the surface. The story is of a Jewish-Israeli student who, together with a Palestinian who has lost his ability to speak, works as watchman at a JNF forest. The story culminates in the Palestinian burning down the forest to reveal the previously obscured remains of a destroyed Palestinian village.

Eager to maintain a noncontroversial image abroad, the JNF has avoided visible engagement in Israel’s post-1967 colonial enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territory. It has rather done so in disguise: through its subsidiary — Himanuta — the JNF works to continue Zionist colonization in the 1967 occupied territory through acquisition of land earmarked for Jewish settlement construction and expansion (see Lehn, p. 67). Furthermore, in the Latrun salient, a pre-1967 demilitarized zone claimed by Israel, the rubble of the villages of Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba sits under the trees of the JNF’s Canada Park, awaiting the return of the Palestinian villagers.

While “greenwashing” is what the JNF is most notorious for, its role as a pillar of Israel’s colonial apartheid regime has been much less understood. As an institution that has incorporated the Zionist concept of an extraterritorial “Jewish race/nationality” in its statutes, the JNF was granted special status in Israel and charged with “the mission of gathering in the exiles and helping build Israel as the state of the “Jewish people” under the Israeli laws of the early 1950s that incorporated the JNF and defined its status.

At the same time, the JNF registered branches in numerous countries as local charitable organizations. The charitable nongovernmental status of the JNF’s branches abroad has allowed the agency to support Zionism practically and financially, whereas the State of Israel is precluded, as any foreign state, from interfering in the status of citizens in any country outside its sovereign jurisdiction. A look at the honorary members of JNF boards in many countries reveals a roster of political and economic elites, including past, present and future heads of state, who facilitate the work of Israel lobbies as well as JNF fundraising.

In Israel, the JNF joined the Israel Lands Authority, the arm of the Israeli government responsible for the management of “Israel Lands” based on its legal status as a para-state institution. As owner of 13 percent of land in Israel, and the organization that appoints the largest number of people to the Israel Lands Authority board of directors (6 out of 13), the JNF is the central pillar of Israel’s regime over land. As a Zionist “national” agency unburdened by restrictions on whether or not it treats citizens equally, the state has systematically subcontracted the JNF for the implementation of demographically engineering the land in the country in favor of the Jewish community, or what Israeli officials have called “Judaization.” This process of outsourcing apartheid has been most meticulously described by Uri Davis in Apartheid Israel, a seminal text for those wishing to understand the workings of Israel’s apartheid regime over land within the Green Line boundary.

The JNF’s role in Israel’s colonial apartheid regime over the Palestinian people has not gone unchallenged, however. Activists in various cities around the world have organized protests to JNF fundraising dinners and other elite functions, while others have called on their government agencies to strip the JNF of its charitable status. In the late 1960s, a successful legal challenge against the JNF’s charitable status in the United States forced Zionist organizations in that country to reshuffle their official names and statuses in order to protect the inflow of donation money. More recently, information gathered and exposed by activists, scholars and lawyers has forced the JNF to weave a tighter corporate veil over the relationship between worldwide JNF branches and its headquarters (JNF-KKL) in Israel, including new logos and websites, in order to avoid “brand risks” and possible liability for violations of international law and human rights abuses. In 2007, the JNF-USA suffered a defeat in the United Nations, when the UN’s Committee on NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) rejected an application of the JNF-USA for consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). While the JNF-USA told the Committee that it was independent and involved in water, environmental and development projects in the Middle East, state representatives stated that they were unable to distinguish between the activities of the JNF-USA and JNF-KKL and argued that the JNF’s work violated the principles of the UN Charter, which emphasizes respect for human rights and equality.

In November 2008, civil society actors from all around the world gathered in Bilbao to discuss strategies to develop the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. A concerted campaign to challenge the JNF was one of four main priorities adopted as part of the Bilbao Initiative. As follow-up to this step, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Housing and Land Rights Network and the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network brought legal experts, academics and civil society organizations together in early May 2010. The organizing meeting launched a coordinated campaign under the title “Stop the JNF: Stop Greenwashing Apartheid” (http://stopthejnf.bdsmovement.net/).

Hazem Jamjoum is the Communications Officer of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (Bethlehem, Palestine). This essay was originally published as the editorial of al-Majdal, Badil’s English-language quarterly. The winter/spring 2010 issue of al-Majdal looks at the Jewish National Fund from various vantage-points (click here to download the entire publication).

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