Chicago Botanic Garden forced to rethink links with Jewish National Fund

Women protesting JNF’s role in seizing Bedouin village lands in the southern Naqab (Negev) region display a sign that says “Uprooting people, Planting trees.”

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) controls land and property belonging to Palestinians and reserves it for the exclusive use of Jews in present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank.

That pivotal role in Israel’s apartheid system notwithstanding, the JNF enjoys charitable status in more than fifty countries. The Israeli-government backed body has been active for many years in the US, holding fundraisers and presenting itself as an environmentally-friendly organization.

Palestine solidarity organizations have held many protests at JNF fundraisers over the years, but at the start of this year we noticed another way the JNF is attempting to “greenwash” its image.

One of our activists found a notice on the JNF Chicago website promoting a JNF event to be held at the Chicagoland Jewish High School on 19 January. What was startling to us was that it was co-sponsored by the US Forest Service (part of the US Department of Agriculture) and promoted by the Chicago Botanic Garden (a public-private partnership between the Chicago Horticultural Society and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County).

Official US backing?

The JNF was not only hijacking a celebration of the Jewish Tu BiShvat — also called “new year for trees” — holiday (celebrated in Israel as an ecology awareness day) but also suggesting that its work had official US backing.

In the past, our typical approach would have been to send protesters to the event, but in this case it was in a far northern suburb and was a family celebration at a private high school.

We decided, instead, to pressure the Chicago Botanic Garden, a very popular local organization with a strong reputation for openness to all, to end its participation in the event.

Key to our plan was to provide the Botanic Garden an opportunity to do the right thing first, so we wrote to it, copying our correspondence to local politicians.

We emphasized that our ad hoc group was made up of a broad range of organizations from Chicago. Some were faith-based, others represented the Palestinian diaspora and others were comprised of Palestine solidarity campaigners. If the Botanic Garden refused to withdraw its participation, we planned a call-in and email day to increase the pressure.

This day of action would also widely publicize that the Botanic Garden was taking part in an event that violated its own principles.

Ten days before the event, our group wrote a letter to Sophia Siskel, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s president and chief executive, informing her of the JNF’s history of violating Palestinian human rights.

The Botanic Garden replied the following day. “Despite the way it looks on the flyer, the event is not co-sponsored by the Garden,” the reply stated.

Nonetheless, the response confirmed that the Botanic Garden planned to set up a table, give away free memberships in a contest and loan a bus to help people get to the event. This clearly amounted to active participation; it also lent credibility to the JNF.

Vague promise

We once again responded with a request that the Botanic Garden cancel all participation and agree to meet us. We were refused with a vague promise that the institution would “carefully consider our further participation going forward.”

After this second response, we set up an email and call-in day on Facebook for people to contact Siskel. From the feedback we received from the Botanic Garden, we know that it received many calls and emails from people saying the support for the JNF violated the Garden’s own principles.

After a phone call with one of our members three days before the event, Siskel agreed to cancel the JNF use of the Garden’s bus and promised to limit her organization’s involvement to having a table of materials on display.

Even though the Botanic Garden did not pull out completely, the calls and emails clearly had a big impact. Our guess is that our pressure stopped it from very publicly using Botanic Garden resources to support the JNF event and that copying political officials on our correspondence encouraged it to take our group seriously.


We also learned that targeting the private or public sponsors of events held by pro-Israel organizations can be as effective as directly targeting the organization itself. Many of these private-public groups may not want their image tarnished by association with an organization like the JNF that supports apartheid policies and the denial of human rights in Palestine.

We would encourage other Palestine solidarity groups to look for similar sponsorships of JNF events and help make it harder for the JNF to use these organizations to greenwash its image. There will likely be many of these events around Earth Day — 22 April — this year.

Our group will be monitoring the JNF website for any future events that organizations like the Botanic Garden may be sponsoring. We will be prepared to take action again.

We are also continuing our dialogue with the US Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), questioning their twenty-year partnership with the JNF.

We have already received a response to one of our letters. Valdis E. Mezainis, director of international programs for the USDA, defended its involvement with the JNF by claiming that it was working to “serve the public.”

In our response, we countered that JNF is unlike all of the other organizations in Chicago that “serve the public.”

“So why would an important US government department co-sponsor an event held by an organization whose primary mission is to expropriate land from an indigenous people for the exclusive use by only one group?” we wrote. “This violates US values of equal rights for all citizens regardless of land of origin, religion, or race.”

We plan to continue this dialogue with the USDA, if nothing else to get it to defend and document its rationale for partnering with the JNF.

Bill Chambers is an activist with the Palestine Solidarity Group - Chicago.