Is the JNF Racist?

Here is an embarrassing fact: In 1957, when the Knesset passed the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Law, one of the great leaders of Mapam (the United Workers Party), Yaakov Hazan, said: "The JNF lands, which were purchased with the money of the Jewish people, are sacred for Jewish settlement, just as the Muslim waqf [land held in religious trust] is sacred to the Muslim community." Now, Hazan's ideological successor, Haim Oron (Meretz), argues that the bill seeking to designate JNF lands for Jews only is racist. Oron explained that "only a fossilized movement doesn't change its mind over the years." Yet one cannot help but wonder how what was sacred turned into racism.

Article 3A of the JNF's articles of incorporation states that one of its goals is to purchase and lease lands on which to settle Jews. The JNF bill, which passed its preliminary reading last week, requires the state to manage JNF lands in keeping with this principle. The bill, by the way, is not intended to circumvent a High Court of Justice ruling; its goal is to preempt a ruling on a petition now before the High Court. In other words, it is a preemptive bypass of the High Court. The immediate reason for the bill was Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's opinion that the lease of JNF lands to non-Jews should be permitted. Thus for now, this is a bill to bypass Mazuz.

The Knesset presidium has the authority to bar racist laws from the floor. But the Knesset's legal adviser, Nurit Elstein, ruled that "only bills whose essentially racist nature cries out to heaven and shakes the very foundations" should be barred. Elstein felt that the JNF bill does not cry out to heaven. But is it silently racist?

Law professor Amnon Rubinstein of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center chose not to deal with this question in a letter he sent to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann. However, he did write that the bill "contradicts the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and harms the basic values of the State of Israel." In other words, it might be overturned by the High Court. He also wrote that the bill "will cause great damage to our reputation and will serve the campaign of boycotts and ostracism that is being waged against us by haters of Israel." There is certainly room to ask what reputation Rubinstein is talking about.

Haim Sandberg, a doctor of jurisprudence at the College of Management, is about to publish a book entitled "Israel's Lands, Zionism and Post-Zionism." Sandberg does not understand how it can be argued that using land purchased for Jews in order to settle Jews is racist. "There is no reason not to designate JNF land, or most of it, for Jews," he said.

The chairman of the National Union-National Religious Party, MK Uriel Ariel, said: "Generations of Jews collected their pennies to bring to fruition the Zionist enterprise of redeeming the land, in the clear and certain knowledge that the money would be used for Jews." The problem with this argument is that the state transferred to the JNF about a million dunams (approximately 247,000 acres) of land belonging to absentee owners. It could very well be that to designate JNF land for Jews only, this one million dunams would have to be restored to the state.

The chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Menachem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), is not prepared to say whether he believes the bill is racist or constitutional. He would only say that "in principle, I want to discuss it, and I am not prepared to be told at the outset that I can't."