Beit Keshet Forest.
Beit Keshet Forest. Photo courtesy of the Jewish National Fund.
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Yerucham Reservoir. Photo courtesy of the Jewish National Fund.
Yerucham Reservoir. Photo courtesy of the Jewish National Fund.

Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht has directed the registrar of companies to register the Jewish National Fund as a company for the public benefit rather than a private corporation, as it has been up to now. The change will impose greater government oversight over the organization’s operations.

In a legal opinion issued Sunday, Licht stated that JNF – which is also known by its Hebrew name Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – meets all of the legal requirements of a public benefit company, and should not remain a private corporation as the organization is insisting. “It’s an entity with a huge budget based on public funding, whether directly through contributions or through money that has come and continues to come from the transfer of the rights to land owned by JNF,” Licht argued. “There is currently almost no outside oversight of the management of JNF, and that’s also as a result of the absence of transparency in the organization’s reports.”

Although Licht made it clear that registration of JNF as a public benefit company should not be construed as casting aspersions on the organization’s operations or as criticism of its management, he did not hide the fact that heightened supervision of JNF – which fulfills a number of public and semi-governmental functions – is the main motive in changing JNF’s status.

Based on the legal opinion, once the change in registration is complete, JNF will be required to submit annual reports, both financial and otherwise, on its operations.

Founded in 1901 to purchase land on behalf of the Jewish people in what was then Ottoman-controlled Palestine, JNF ultimately came to amass large land holdings around the country, many of which have been used to develop forests and other recreation areas – and more recently to address environmental needs. Currently, it not only fulfills a number of public functions, it has also been given a number of governmental powers in the field of afforestation.

JNF representatives also sit on the Israel Land Council, which sets policy for the Israel Lands Administration, the government agency that administers huge holdings of state-owned land.

The Jewish National Fund also has an agreement with the state through which the Israel Lands Administration oversees land holdings for JNF. The ILA has been transferring about a billion shekels (about $288 million at the current exchange rate) to the organization for JNF land that the ILA has sold for various purposes.

Despite these public functions, Licht claimed the organization’s operations are subject to little outside oversight and the public does not have access to its financial reports. The organization is also subject to political influence including appointments at JNF, Licht said.

It should be added, however, that JNF fund-raising affiliates in various countries, including the United States, are separate, locally incorporated nonprofit organizations that are subject to government oversight in accordance with the laws of each country in which JNF operates.