JNF Agrees Reluctantly to Limited Transparency

Meeting minutes reveal fears that oversight a post-Zionist threat to the organization’s most sacred goals.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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A JNF tree planting center.
A JNF tree planting center.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The board of directors of the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) convened a few weeks ago to discuss an unprecedented challenge: two separate initiatives to impose outside supervision on the group, after years in which it operated with no such restrictions.

Minutes of the meeting obtained by Haaretz show that some board members considered the initiatives a threat to the organization’s most sacred goals, concocted by post-Zionists working in conjunction with the country’s worst enemies.

One of the initiatives, by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, would subject the fund to scrutiny by the state comptroller. Livni’s bill was rejected by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, but she has appealed the decision to the full cabinet. The other initiative, by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, would turn the fund into a public benefit corporation, which would require it to publish its financial statements. About a month ago, he granted the organization 60 days to try to negotiate an alternative arrangement with the Justice Ministry.

Ultimately, the Jewish National Fund's board voted to agree to both proposals — but only under certain conditions. The board said the comptroller should only be allowed to scrutinize certain types of activity, to be determined by the executive committee, and authorized the committee to negotiate with the government on how to implement both initiatives “in a way that won’t undermine KKL’s statutory status, its ability to work to achieve the goals detailed in its bylaws or its ability to raise money overseas.”

At the meeting, some board members downplayed the significance of being scrutinized by the state comptroller. Board member Nachi Eyal called the comptroller “a body that every year produces a thick book that can serve as a baby’s booster seat or a doorstop," adding, "Nobody takes it seriously.”

But Shamai Keinan, chairman of the audit committee, warned that the comptroller could paralyze the organization. And Director General Meir Spiegler added that becoming a public benefit corporation would “undermine the organization’s ability to function.”

What particularly worried the board was whether the comptroller would deal with sensitive issues like land allocations. The organization controls large swaths of the country’s land, including not only forests and open areas, but also land on which about a third of all Israeli homes are built. Yet according to its bylaws, the land is supposed to serve the Jewish people exclusively.

Thus, Vice Chairman Gael Grunewald warned that the Jewish National Fund has “very clear goals that don’t always accord with the Justice Ministry’s values ... We’re in favor of scrutiny, but out of concern for the sacred goal for which Keren Kayemeth was established, we can’t allow ourselves to be subordinate to the state comptroller.”

Another board member, Hernan Felman, wondered whether the comptroller would confine himself to scrutinizing the organization’s finances, “or could he also say in his audit that, for instance, we discriminate somewhat against certain population groups?”

The background to these concerns is international criticism of the Jewish National Fund, both for the fact that it is supposed to use its lands solely for the benefit of the Jewish people and for its involvement in building West Bank settlements. Attorney Alon Gellert, who briefed the board on the implications of Livni’s bill, warned, “Imagine a report that describes the problems and flaws and covers all our activities. Anyone who wanted to work against [the fund] would be able to base himself on it.”

Board member Arnon Giladi, who is also deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, saw the initiatives as nothing less than a post-Zionist plot. “This issue didn’t come out of nowhere,” he said. “It came from people with a very clear, post-Zionist agenda, whose goal is to undermine all the Zionist institutions of the State of Israel — both insiders, who dwell among us, and people from outside the political system.”

That was too much for his colleague Orr Karassin, who shot back, “The state comptroller is a post-Zionist?”

Several board members also argued that there was no need for external supervision, claiming the organization’s internal audits were sufficient. But others questioned that assertion, saying they had never seen or heard the results of those audits.

Yet another issue of great concern to the board was fundraising. Currently, the Jewish National Fund is defined as a nongovernmental organization. If it were redefined as a public agency subject to state comptroller oversight, that would affect the tax deductibility of the donations it receives.

But board member Alon Tal dismissed this concern, saying the comptroller also scrutinizes field schools run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, “but this hasn’t harmed its ability to raise money.”



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