The JNF is no innocent charity

Michael Sappir

 +972 Magazine  /  March 4, 2021

The Jewish National Fund presents itself in Germany as a ‘green’ organization serving all of Israel’s residents. That’s not what its leaders say in Israel.

In early February, the management of the Jewish National Fund approved a proposal to formally begin buying land for settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. The uproar over the plan, which will be up for a final decision in April, has led to important clarifications about the JNF’s mission.

In a recent television interview on Kan, JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani stressed that the new policy does not actually stray from the organization’s core principles. “Redeeming” land, he said, has always been the JNF’s role on both sides of Green Line, as stipulated in its 1954 Memorandum of Association that allows it operate “in any area within the jurisdiction of the government of Israel.”

To illustrate his point, Duvdevani proudly recounted how the JNF steps in whenever Jewish residents of the Galilee call them to warn that a neighbor might sell their land to Arabs; the JNF would then outbid the non-Jews in order to “save” the land.

Davidi Ben Zion, a JNF board member who lives in a West Bank settlement, recently contextualized the new policy succinctly: “The only change is [that] we’re done with the Israbluff.” In other words, the organization’s efforts to take Palestinian land, which were previously conducted quietly or via subsidiaries, will now happen out in the open.

None of this is especially surprising to those of us who have been following the gradual Judaization of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1967. And yet, many people would never guess that the JNF has anything to do with colonization and land grabs from how the organization presents its work abroad — including in Germany, from where I write.

The JNF Germany website presents the Fund as a “politically independent green organization” while repeatedly stressing how its forests, parks, and water infrastructure serve “all residents of Israel.” A whole section on the site is dedicated to how the JNF cooperates with — and even serves — the indigenous Bedouin population in the Naqab/Negev desert.

Scarcely a hint can be found of the JNF’s values of land “redemption” or Judaization — what Duvdevani calls the organization’s “role, in its DNA.” The JNF’s Israeli leadership may be done with its “bluffing,” but the German branch maintains a charade of its own.

‘For the Jewish people only’

 While any organization that solicits donations will always tailor its messaging to different audiences, the JNF’s German website goes beyond selective storytelling, and in fact twists its portrayal of the Fund’s work almost beyond recognition. A reality check is in order.

Far from serving all residents of Israel equally, the JNF is pivotal in Israel’s systemic discrimination against Palestinian society inside the Green Line (those holding Israeli citizenship), and in dispossessing Palestinians on both sides of that line.

The Fund was established at the fifth Zionist Congress in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland. Its original purpose was, above all, to acquire land and properties “for the purpose of settling Jews.” The JNF’s Hebrew website recalls how Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, argued passionately at the Congress for Jewish money to be used to buy land in what the original Memorandum called “Palestine, Syria, and other parts of Turkey in Asia and the Peninsula of Sinai.”

The connection between this effort and the displacement of the indigenous populations was clear to pre-state Zionist leaders. At the 20th Zionist Congress in 1937, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister a decade later, stated: “You are no doubt aware of the JNF’s activity in this respect. Now a transfer of a completely different scope will have to be carried out.”

Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF’s Lands Department from 1932 to 1972, was a prominent advocate of ethnic cleansing. In December 1940, he wrote in his diary: “There is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, and to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Arabs of] Bethlehem, Nazareth and Old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one [Bedouin] tribe. And only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brothers and the Jewish problem will cease to exist. There is no other solution.”

After the Nakba and the founding of the State of Israel, this vision was essentially completed: the land had been brought under Jewish control, a great deal of the Arab population had been displaced, and the new state had begun absorbing Jewish immigration en masse. The JNF turned into a quasi-governmental organization with its role enshrined in Israeli law since 1953.

Since 1948, Israeli governments have transferred large swaths of state land to the JNF — mostly land confiscated from Palestinians following the Nakba. Of the approximately 2.5 million dunams owned by the JNF — 13 percent of the entire area of the State of Israel — some 2 million dunams were simply handed over to it by the state between 1948 and 1953.

The JNF’s mandate, however, has not changed. To this day, its bylaws only allow the organization to lease and develop land for Jewish use only.

JNF land in theory became available to all citizens after a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, but only indirectly: because the JNF’s rules prohibit it from leasing land to non-Jews, such leases are made possible only through a land-swap arrangement in which the JNF transfers the land to state control first. In return, Israel compensates the JNF for “lost” land by awarding it unused land elsewhere.

In court, the JNF argued against applying public law to its leases, and particularly the principle of equality, stating openly that the JNF “is not and cannot be loyal to the entire Israeli public. The JNF’s loyalty is reserved for the Jewish people alone — for whom it was established and for whom it acts.”

A cruel mockery

 The JNF’s so-called “environmentalism” has always been subordinated to this nationalist mission. As a result, even its “green” efforts often go against the basic requirements of nature conservation and environmental protection. A 2013 report by Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature, for example, harshly criticized the Fund’s afforestation efforts for ruining local biomes and devastating their unique biodiversity.

After the Nakba, the JNF planted forests over the ruins of Palestinian communities, both in order to quash refugees’ dreams of returning and to cover up the evidence of their existence in the first place. To this day, the same JNF afforestation projects that destroy and supplant local flora and fauna are also the means for destroying and supplanting the indigenous society.

In particular, Bedouin communities in the Naqab — the same marginalized population that the German website claims the JNF supports and cooperates with — are still being repeatedly displaced to make room for JNF forests. One of the most prominent examples is the unrecognized village of Al-Araqib, which Israel has been relentlessly demolishing since 2010 to make way for a JNF forest. Just a few weeks ago, in the middle of a freak winter storm, Israeli forces threw Al-Araqib’s residents out for the 183rd time.

The JNF has seen waves of protest against its plans for Al-Araqib and other displacement plans over the years. Still, the “pro-Bedouin” and “green” organization stays true to its course, and remains dedicated to “redeeming” the land from non-Jewish habitation.

Despite this reality, the JNF continues to enjoy charitable status in Germany. What are the charitable purposes that JNF Germany officially pursues under the law? The “promotion of care for the elderly and young;” the “promotion of development cooperation;” and, most interestingly, the “promotion of international-mindedness, of tolerance in all areas of culture, and of the idea of understanding between nations.”

Knowing the truth behind the JNF’s actual mission, it is clear that both the green, egalitarian façade of its German website, and its official charitable purposes in Germany, are more than just a mere bluff. They are a cruel mockery.

Michael Sappir is a leftist writer and organizer from Israel, based in Leipzig, Germany. He studies philosophy and writes a regular column on Local Call