For decades, Jews around the world have cherished the Jewish National Fund’s supposedly “charitable” work buying and managing land in Israel. Generations of Jewish children have been encouraged to drop pennies into its iconic blue collection boxes.
The Fund is held in similar high esteem by western governments, which typically subsidize their citizens’ donations to the JNF by treating them as tax exempt. Meanwhile, international agencies seek out its advice on environmental and sustainability issues.
But a vote last month by the JNF’s board threatens to unmask the Zionist charity, even to its most faithful supporters. For the first time, the organization has agreed to publicly allocate funds to expand Israel’s illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
$12 million set aside
The JNF has initially set aside nearly $12 million for what it describes as “land purchases” in the occupied West Bank. In reality, the JNF will be funding the confiscation and takeover of Palestinian lands by Israel’s occupation authorities.
According to reports, the JNF may ultimately funnel hundreds of millions of dollars from its reserves into the West Bank in a bid to more than double the size of the settler population there – from at least 450,000 to one million Jews.
Analysts have noted that the KKL-JNF – as the organization is known in Israel – is being rapidly reinvented as a “bank” for right-wing politicians. They want to use its enormous reserves to entrench the government’s de facto annexation policy by helping the settlers tighten their hold on the West Bank.
Collusion in war crimes
Worried about how this will look outside Israel, and the threat it could pose to the JNF’s fundraising activities overseas, five of the JNF’s 32 board members have demanded that the decision be rescinded.
They are pinning their hopes on a follow-up meeting, after Israel’s March 23 election, when the board will vote on whether the JNF changes its declared policy and operates openly inside the West Bank.
Unless the decision can be overturned, donors to the JNF – as well as foreign governments that bestow charitable status on the Fund – will be directly and visibly colluding in the development of the settlements and the further erosion of prospects for a Palestinian state.
Significantly, such collusion will be occurring immediately after the International Criminal Court in the Hague announced last month an investigation into potential Israeli war crimes that include its building and expansion of settlements.
Public money laundered
The JNF’s decision is a dramatic indication of how ultra-nationalists allied to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have co-opted Zionism’s most venerable international organization.
Till now, the JNF in Israel has been careful to veil its involvement in the settlements to avoid both alienating more liberal American Jews and endangering its overseas charitable status by openly flouting international law. Instead it has hidden its operations inside the West Bank behind a subsidiary called Himanuta.
But that approach has changed since the JNF’s new chairman, Avraham Duvdevani, took office in October. He previously headed the World Zionist Organization, whose settlement division has been the main vehicle by which Israeli governments have laundered public money to expand the settlements, often in breach of Israel’s own laws.
‘Land theft division’
An editorial in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz in 2017 labeled the WZO settlement division, then under Duvdevani, as “the land theft division”, following a series of investigations by the paper.
As well as financing settlements on territory seized by the Israeli state in violation of international law, the WZO has transferred lands to the settlers that even Israel’s occupation authorities recognize as belonging to private Palestinian landowners. On those lands, the WZO has helped to establish what are officially termed “unauthorized outposts”.
These fledgling settlements are home to the most extreme and violent settlers, who are often behind attacks on Palestinian farmers intended to drive them off their land. The Israeli state has used the WZO as a means to veil its own role channeling money into these “outposts”.
Haaretz concluded: “The [WZO] Settlement Division is acting like a publicly funded crime organization.”
Now Duvdevani appears to be encouraging the JNF to mimic the WZO in publicly funding the same lawless settlement practices.
To placate donors, the JNF is reported to be planning to greenwash its activities in the West Bank by characterizing them as involving “education, forestation and environmental protection” – echoing similar deceptions it perpetuates inside Israel.
There, the JNF has planted hundreds of forests over the lands of Palestinian refugees to prevent them from ever returning home, after they were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948, during events Palestinians call the Nakba, or Catastrophe.
Other JNF forestation programs have been weaponized against a section of Israel’s own citizens – a large minority of 1.8 million Palestinians who avoided expulsion in 1948.
In collusion with the government, the JNF has forced Palestinian villagers, like those of al-Araqib in the Naqab (Negev), off their land by planting trees in place of their homes, or the JNF has used forests to tightly box in Palestinian communities to prevent expansion, leading to overcrowding and social tensions.
In Israel’s early years, officials transferred 13 percent of Israeli territory to the JNF so the organization could enforce residential segregation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. The JNF’s charter specifically requires it to reserve all its land for Jews only.
Since its founding in 1901, the JNF has been strong-arming Palestinians off the land it controls – whether inside Israel or in the occupied territories, especially in East Jerusalem.
However until now, the JNF has successfully remained within the Zionist “consensus” by focusing public attention on its operations inside Israel. Its activities in the occupied territories have been concealed behind Himanuta.
Peace Now recently reported that, before the early 2000s, Himanuta had claimed ownership of at least 16,000 acres of West Bank land on which settlements were founded, including Itamar, Alfei Menashe, Einav, Kedumim and Givat Ze’ev.
Himanuta’s work has concentrated in particular on occupied East Jerusalem, where it has allied with an extremist settler organization, Elad. The pair are behind efforts to evict an extended Palestinian family, the Sumarins, from their home in Silwan, an area that has been aggressively targeted for takeover by armed settlers backed by the Israeli state.
After a long lull of activity, the JNF quietly revived its operations in the West Bank through Himanuta back in 2018.
Duvdevani’s predecessor, Daniel Atar, a Labor party appointee, set up a secret war chest, in the name of Himanuta, amounting to some $70 million. The money was disguised as funds for use in Jerusalem.
But it was actually used to “purchase” Palestinian land and properties – including through the use of forged documents – in the Jordan Valley, Jericho, Hebron and the Etzion bloc south of Bethlehem.
When the fund was exposed, Atar justified the move by citing the opinion of a retired senior judge that the JNF’s bylaws sanctioned it working in the occupied West Bank. That opinion referred to a memorandum of association from 1953 – long before Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – that permitted the Fund’s operations “in any area subject to the jurisdiction of the Government of Israel”.
Atar thereby paved the way to Duvdevani’s current moves to change the JNF’s public policy towards the settlements.
The real significance of the JNF’s latest decision is that it strips away the pretense that the Fund makes a distinction between land in Israel and the occupied territories.
It underlines the argument made in a report in January by Israel’s most prominent human rights group, B’Tselem, that Israel operates a single apartheid system inside Israel and the occupied territories.
The JNF is a linchpin of that system, helping to enforce superior rights for Jews over Palestinians across the entire region.
The decision is therefore likely to expose further the self-delusions of many Jews outside Israel. They have long claimed that Israel’s state ideology, Zionism, is an uncontroversial matter relating only to a supposed right by the Jewish people to self-determination on the lands of Palestinians. Further, they have claimed that anyone questioning this right must be antisemitic.
Now it will be difficult for self-identified Zionists to deny that their movement is complicit in violations of international law and that its key institutions, including the JNF, are carrying out war crimes.
End to ‘bluffing’
It is telling that many of the JNF’s leaders have been quick to note that the decision to establish a fund to confiscate Palestinian land for Jewish-only settlement will not depart from the Fund’s historic role. Duvdevani himself has argued that the JNF is simply continuing its traditional task of “redeeming” land.
Davidi Ben Zion, a settler who serves on the JNF’s board, similarly observed: “The JNF acted over the years to buy lands for the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. Even those who objected knew it was going on. The only difference is that we’ve finished with the bluffing.”
In other words, the JNF intends to stop pretending to Jews abroad that it is only engaged in non-controversial forestation and desert-reclamation projects. Rather, it is ready to go public with aggressive Judaization projects designed to dispossess Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Another board member, Yishai Merling, a 31-year-old activist from Netanyahu’s Likud party who lives in the settlement of Efrat, said after the vote: “We’re the new generation, we don’t work under the table.”
Those opposed to the move, from the so-called Zionist center and left, have objected less on principle than on the basis that the decision risks damaging the JNF’s image abroad and curtailing its ability to fundraise.
Mercaz Olami, the political arm of Conservative Judaism, warned last month in the run-up to the vote that a public change of policy could put the JNF “in a situation which potentially violates international law”.
It could also, “harm” Jewish communities in the 55 countries that have JNF fundraising branches, the group noted. “An irresponsible decision could severely damage [the JNF] KKL ability to continue operating in these countries.”
That already appears to be the case.
In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, Russell Robinson, head of the JNF-USA, was keen to underscore that his donors’ money was no longer filling the coffers of the KKL-JNF, the JNF parent organization in Israel. Nonetheless, Haaretz reported, some of the JNF-USA’s own donations were also directly assisting the settlements.
JNF-Canada, meanwhile, is under investigation by Canadian tax authorities for funneling “charitable” donations to the Israeli military and the settlements.
In a letter on its website after last month’s vote, JNF-Canada sought to distance itself from the KKL-JNF. That included by rebranding its logo. A new agreement between the two would ensure JNF-Canada funds were not “co-mingled with KKL’s general accounts”, the letter said.
In the UK, a similar pressure group, Stop the JNF UK, has been ramping up the pressure on the UK government’s Charity Commission to act against the JNF-UK over its involvement in dispossessing Palestinians.
Immune to pressure
A predictable statement from the U.S. State Department reiterated the importance of avoiding “unilateral steps” and undercutting “efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.”
But the JNF, like the Israeli government, is long past worrying about international pressure to support negotiations or peacemaking. It is apparently no longer concerned either about the need to deceive its donors and foreign governments over its support for war crimes in the occupied territories.
The question now is whether the penny finally drops for Jews in the US, Canada and Europe – and whether, as a result, they refuse to continue dropping their figurative pennies into the JNF’s blue boxes.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net. This originally appeared at Mondoweiss.