They're at it again! In one corner, a powerhouse philanthropic agency of the Zionist world - the Jewish National Fund of the United States (JNF-USA). In the opposite corner - the owner of more than 10 percent of Israel's land and one of its primary land-management agencies, the Keren Kayemeth L'Israel (KKL). The latest disagreement, according to a recent article in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, is over who has the rights to the name "Jewish National Fund" in English and to the iconic blue box. JNF-USA is reportedly taking legal steps to make both name and box its own registered trademarks. The larger issue is the future of millions of dollars in donations collected by JNF-USA.
JNF-USA's recent steps are being taken against a backdrop of the two organizations' ongoing disagreement about how funds collected in America are distributed in Israel. The traditional state of affairs, which is the modus operandi for 20 other JNF-KKL affiliates around the world, is that KKL is the sole recipient of its affiliate's donations. Of late, however, JNF-USA has been sending increasing amounts of its collections to other organizations.
Some historical perspective: Back in 1901, Theodor Herzl adopted the idea of establishing a fund to collect donations from Jews around the world, to be used to purchase land for Jewish settlement in Palestine. The idea proved to be ingenious and effective. Not only did it raise the necessary funds to buy lands that would become the nucleus of the Jewish state, it made every Jew around the world a potential partner in the state's establishment. While only a few Jews would actually take on the challenge of settling in Palestine, they could do so knowing they had supporters around the world behind them - ideologically and financially.
If KKL's original priorities were to secure and prepare land for Jewish settlement, over the years the organization matured into a manager of Israel's public lands. It did less and less development of new communities, and more environmentally focused work. From forestry to cleaning up streams to providing much-needed recreational sites for a growing population, the KKL has become a quasi-national forest and recreation service. In recent years, it has started to become a key player in creating an environmentally sustainable Israel. It has revised its former ecologically questionable forestry practices and is working today to create a policy to combat climate change.
But the change wasn't entirely welcomed by JNF-USA. Over the past decade, leaders of the U.S. affiliate decided they did not want to be limited by KKL's new environmental agenda and that they were unhappy with the way KKL was managed. They started pairing up with new partners in Israel. For example, the Or Movement, which has a self-defined mission to establish new communities in the Negev and Galilee. It also has a disposition for circumventing official planning procedures, and has been criticized for the negative environmental impact of its projects. JNF-USA and JNF-UK share the Or Movement's penchant for new, low-density residential communities, at a time when Israeli planners and professionals are encouraging high-density, spatially contiguous development to preserve open spaces. When it comes to land-use planning in Israel, KKL thinks about the next century, JNF-USA is thinking 1950s.
According to its most recent tax statement, in 2007 JNF-USA raised $44 million. Of that, $22 million went to Israel-related projects and the other half to funding U.S. projects and overhead. Of the Israel funding, only $13 million went to KKL. The rest went to the Or Movement (the third-largest recipient, with $2 million) and 44 other organizations, including American Friends of the Likud ($10,000, the only overt political contribution), as well as many bona fide environmental and educational causes.
Clearly JNF-USA considers its mandate far broader than KKL's, and the pair are drifting apart. They are in need of a marriage counselor to show them the three options on the table: a civilized divorce, a bitter divorce or reconciliation.
Divorce need not be a dirty word. Both organizations can continue to flourish. KKL can continue its path toward improving Israel's environment, and managing the land owned by the Jewish people in a way it believes best serves Israel's citizens. It can either forgo donations from the U.S., or if it chooses, it can set up a parallel philanthropic agency there.
Divorce would also free JNF-USA to do exactly what it has been doing anyway - raising money for whatever it and its donors want in Israel, without being limited by KKL priorities.
As in any divorce, the equitable division of the organization's assets and responsibilities may be tricky, but should be manageable. It is here that the difference between a civilized or nasty divorce will be determined. KKL would continue to manage land in Israel. Custody over other responsibilities can be shared where it would be productive - educational programs in Israel, public relations and Zionist education in the Diaspora. Even the blue box and fundraising efforts can be shared.
Of course reconciliation is also possible. Aside from the U.S. (and Britain), the other 20 national JNF affiliates are continuing a healthy relationship with the KKL, while awarding the full amount of the money they raise to KKL's ecological work and other projects. JNF-USA could return to its historical roots and obligations. That way, everyone could spend less on lawyers and more on improving Israel's environment.
Daniel Orenstein, a former trustee of JNF-USA, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Technion Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning and a visiting fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.