Pressured by human rights activists and a Palestinian refugee, the Canada Revenue Agency has begun an investigation into the Jewish National Fund of Canada over its use of charitable donations to build projects for the Israeli military and illegal settlements.
Uses of charitable donations to fund foreign militaries contravenes Canadian law.
JNF Canada’s parent organization, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), predates the establishment of Israel and uses tree-planting as a cover to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land.
After Israel’s establishment in 1948, the JNF took control of most of the land which had been confiscated from Palestinian refugees. In the 1950s, the JNF became a quasi-state organization, with a policy to lease land only to Jews on an openly discriminatory basis.
JNF Canada recently told public broadcaster CBC that it stopped funneling money to the Israeli military in 2016.
However, acting as a conduit for its parent organization, funds continue to flow into projects connected to the Israeli military.
And the JNF remains involved in decades-old activities of land theft and expulsion of Palestinians, actions which also violate international law.
In addition to the formal complaint, activists have initiated a petition through parliament calling for JNF Canada’s charitable status to be revoked.
It will be presented to parliament and the government will have to respond.
History of expulsion
The audit was launched following an October 2017 complaint filed by four human rights defenders with help from Independent Jewish Voices Canada, an activist group that has mobilized against the JNF Canada for years.
Amongst the complainants is Ismail Zayid, a retired physician now in his eighties who was expelled from his village, Beit Nuba, by Israeli forces during the 1967 War.
During the war, Israel demolished Zayid’s village along with the nearby villages of Imwas and Yalu, and seized the land.
JNF Canada then turned the land into a recreational area, Canada Park, with an adjacent settlement for Jews only.
Canada Park is inside the occupied West Bank, a fact recognized by the Canadian government.
Like millions of exiled Palestinians, Zayid and his family are barred from returning to their land simply because they are not Jewish.
Zayid began filing complaints with the Canadian government in the 1970s to demand action against the JNF for its role in the systematic expulsion, destruction and demolition of the villages, but told The Electronic Intifada that Canada has failed to hold the charity accountable for any of its illegal actions.
Charging JNF Canada with complicity in Israel’s land-theft policies dating back decades, the complaint explains that when the Israeli military demolishes Palestinian homes and agricultural land, the JNF – as it did with Canada Park – will “then come in and plant rows of trees to stake a claim on that land.”
The JNF plants trees “further and further past where the internationally recognized boundaries are,” the complaint adds.
“To me, it’s extremely painful to see that the country that I came to with hope – Canada, as a liberal society that supports international law and human rights – would act differently on this issue,” Zayid told The Electronic Intifada from his home in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“It’s not only the material loss of my home and my village and my property, but it’s the excruciating pain of the loss of my hope and my dreams,” he added.
Israeli military projects continue
JNF Canada has boasted of its missions to help with settlements and infrastructure for the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank.
It “contributed directly to the construction of at least one hilltop settler outpost that was declared illegal” by Israel itself, according to the CBC.
In 2014, JNF Canada’s Young Leadership Solidarity Mission helped build a house for the security guard at the Givat Oz VeGaon outpost, a colony led by extremist right-wing settlers who work for Jewish colonization and applying Israeli “sovereignty” over the occupied West Bank.
That outpost “received and ignored at least 18 demolition orders” from the Israeli government, CBC adds.
In 2011, JNF Canada helped plant trees along the Gaza boundary to “not only block the vision of terrorists firing into Israel but [also to] provide pleasant scenery and shade.”
A video promoting the project calls the tree-planting “similar to a military operation in every way.”
JNF Canada says that after being informed of the revenue agency’s rules regarding charitable donations, it stopped funding projects for the Israeli army after 2016.
“To be clear, we no longer fund projects located on IDF land and JNF Canada operates in accordance with [Canada Revenue Agency] regulations governing its status as a charitable organization,” JNF Canada CEO Lance Davis wrote in an email to the CBC.
But its parent organization solicits financial donations from abroad, including from Canada, to broadly fund its projects.
The JNF “appears to be carrying out the projects, which it views as its own projects, rather than the projects of independent branches of the organization abroad,” the complaint explains.
For example, in 2017, JNF Canada helped its parent organization build a “perimeter security road” in Netiv HaAsara, a Jewish town near Israel’s boundary with the Gaza Strip, to be used by Israeli patrol units.
The town is a popular destination for war tourists to gawk at the besieged Gaza Strip from the comfort of tour buses.
JNF Canada also raises money for Brothers For Life, which aids wounded Israeli soldiers and sends former military personnel to lead guided propaganda tours in Israel to promote the army and Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, to tourists.
Furthermore, complainants argue that there is no transparency about where donations collected by JNF Canada are ultimately funneled, even though JNF Canada is only authorized to initiate and fund its own projects.
The JNF, the complaint says, “should be helping JNF Canada in carrying out its own projects, rather than viewing Canadian donors as ‘friends of JNF in Canada’ … who merely send money abroad” to support JNF projects.
Activists in the US have sued the Treasury Department over the JNF’s charitable status.
In 2013, South Africa’s former ambassador in Tel Aviv publicly rejected a gift from the Israeli government of 18 trees planted in his name by the JNF on land violently expropriated from Palestinian owners.
“Feel good” ethnic cleansing
By using tree-planting and environmental initiatives to help Israel push Palestinians off their land and lease it to Jews only, JNF’s actions over the last century have been emblematic of Israel’s efforts at “greenwashing” its settler-colonial policies.
The JNF admits that it plants forests in semi-arid regions across Palestine where it is “especially difficult for a forest to grow” – including over the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages.
Promoting an event with the hashtag #FeelGoodFriday, JNF Canada tweeted over the summer that its parent organization was collaborating with Bedouin communities in the Naqab (Negev) “to protect the environment.”
Yet this “collaboration” belies the JNF’s role in the ongoing displacement and demolition of Palestinian Bedouin communities in the Naqab region in order to make way for Jews.
In October 2012, JNF representatives accompanied Israeli police forces and interior ministry officials in a raid on the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj and handed out demolition orders.
Sheikh Sayeh Abu Madiam, the patriarch of the village, was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison for trespassing on his own land.
Canada protects JNF crimes
This is not the first time that the Canada Revenue Agency has nominally investigated the JNF Canada at the urging of activists.
But the Canadian government, in violation of its own laws, has protected the organization and has consistently ignored – or embraced – JNF Canada’s role in Israel’s violent and discriminatory practices.
“The formal political mechanisms are so dominated by the advocates of the JNF,” Rabbi David Mivasair of Independent Jewish Voices Canada told The Electronic Intifada.
Mivasair joins Zayid in the complaint to the Canada Revenue Agency.
He said that filing the complaint and the petition is part of a strategy to push JNF Canada supporters to question the organization’s policies.
Mivasair hopes that some people “who give to the JNF without thinking about it” will recognize that supporting JNF Canada is just as harmful “as supporting the whaling industry, the tobacco industry, or the oil industry.”
“I’m hoping that this illegal and inhuman act of allowing our tax dollars to support a charity that is racist and applies discriminatory laws against even its own citizens ends,” Zayid said.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.