U.S. Jewish Groups Ready to Fight JNF's 'Rogue' Settlement Agenda

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The Kochav Hashahar settlement in the West Bank, last winter.
The Kochav Hashahar settlement in the West Bank, last winter.Credit: Moti Milrod

An intensive lobbying campaign is underway in the United States to convince board members of the Jewish National Fund in Israel to block the authorization of land purchases in the West Bank.

A vote by the organization’s Israel-based board of directors, scheduled for Thursday, April 22, will determine if the organization will make a historic pivot by beginning to purchase West Bank land for the purpose of expanding and developing existing Israeli settlements.

JNF, an organization founded in 1901 to acquire and develop land in pre-state Israel for use by Jews, is known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael. KKL-JNF operates separately from JNF-USA, its American counterpart, which has broken away from the historic Israeli group over the past quarter century. 

If the proposal to change its policy passes, “it will be seen as a clear break from a long-standing policy that this institution, owned by the Jewish people, is no longer operating along a consensus and has gone with a rogue extremist agenda,” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America – the Reform movement’s Zionist arm and the group at the forefront of the lobbying effort. “Whether I agree with building over the Green Line or not, this should not be the approach of JNF, which will divide the Jewish people even further,” he said, referring to the demarcation line that separates Israel and the West Bank.

The campaign to defeat the measure, spearheaded by the Reform and Conservative movements, is aimed at five fellow groups – Hadassah, Na’amat, WIZO, Maccabi USA (part of the Maccabi World Union) and B’nai Brith – who also hold board seats. These groups sit on JNF’s board as representatives of the Diaspora from the National Institutions, a collection of Israel’s founding bodies that also includes the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod.

The KKL-JNF’s board of directors, like those of the other National Institutions, is comprised of both representatives of Israeli political parties and international Jewish organizations, in proportions that reflects the results of World Zionist Congress elections.

All of the organizations being lobbied approved a February vote to allocate funds for West Bank land purchases, with the exception of Hadassah, which abstained. That measure, allocating 38 million shekels ($11.6 million) to buy land in the West Bank, passed by a single vote – had Hadassah voted against the move, there would have been a tie.

Like her mother and grandmother, Rabbi Maura Linzer of Temple Beth El in Northern Westchester, New York, is a lifetime Hadassah member. Her daughter was given her membership as a gift at her baby-naming ceremony. Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Linzer said that she has reached out to the group’s leadership asking that they “not just abstain but vote against” the measure.

A boy rides his bicycle on a small promenade built by KKL-JNF near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, two months ago.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

“I told them that as the third generation member of a four-generation Hadassah family of women, I am hoping that they will vote in a way that represents its mission and vision. Hadassah is at the forefront of modeling shared society in Israel. The work they do is incredible and they are an example to the rest of the world,” Linzer said. “They live out my Jewish values and I am hoping this continues in the way they appear to the world on Thursday. … Hadassah has always represented the consensus on Jewish Zionist views. This resolution does not represent those values.”

Toward political polarization

Originally, KKL-JNF leadership intended for the policy change to be passed in tandem with the allocation at the February vote, but dissenting board members successfully led an effort to postpone the decision until after Israel’s March 23 election

In the meantime, board members representing Israeli political parties Yesh Atid and Meretz, along with other center-left members, have fought the changes vigorously on multiple fronts: They have appealed the allocation decision on procedural grounds, charged that West Bank purchases violate the KKL-JNF constitution, and have demanded greater transparency regarding past land purchases.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, president of Mercaz Olami, the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, stressed that the message being sent to U.S. Jews and others in the Diaspora affiliated with the organizations on the board had nothing to do with left-wing vs. right-wing politics. The crux of the battle, he said, was resisting the transformation of consensus Zionist institutions into political tools.

“The Israeli citizens that elect a Knesset should be the ones determining land policy and deciding what is suitable for land purchase, not the National Institutions,” he said.

A set of talking points created by Yizhar Hess, former CEO of the Conservative movement in Israel, and emailed to rabbis worldwide asked them to speak to congregants who are members or leaders affiliated with the groups on the KKL board for “help in defeating what we consider to be a partisan act which violates long standing principles related to KKL and the National Institutions.”

Hess’ email charged that the KKL-JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani is taking advantage of his narrow right-wing majority on the organization’s directorate to “usurp” the authority of the Knesset, which asserts that “all changes in Israeli land purchase policy must be the sole jurisdiction of the government of the State of Israel.”

Adopting the resolution authorizing West Bank land acquisition, Hess wrote, would destroy “global Zionist consensus” and “undermine the neutrality and centrality of the National Institutions which will harm the Jewish people in future generations as well as harm the mission we share of maintaining a unified Jewish people.” 

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, said it was personally disturbing to him to see institutions that reflect world Jewry move away from inclusivity and toward political polarization. 

“The National Institutions are an important way for Jews in America to maintain a connection to Israel. It has been important for them not to be politicized. Their purpose has been to help the State of Israel and help develop communities in the Diaspora. For decades, throughout various governments in the State of Israel, the National Institutions have remained relatively politically neutral and worked in close partnership with all of Diaspora Jewry,” Blumenthal said.

He added that it was “a particularly terrible time to have such a fundamental decision taken” while the Israeli government is in turmoil as it struggles to form a ruling coalition. 

None of the organizations that are the targets of the campaign responded when approached for comment by Haaretz, with the exception of B’nai Brith. A B’nai Brith spokesperson refused to discuss the land purchase debate, saying that “as a matter of policy, we never disclose our votes,” but added that “we think that this should be decided after a government is formed in Israel.” 

Asked to respond to the lobbying effort, the spokesperson said, “we welcome input from all sides and carefully guard our independence in weighing the issues.”

The Zionist groups on the board are in an uncomfortable position, said a source close to the effort. “It’s a strange situation. They have this one person sitting on the board of Keren Kayemet and that person might be ideologically oriented in a certain direction. And that person is meant to represent a huge organization with chapters all over the world.” 

Some have called into question, for example, whether the decision by Barbara Goldstein, Hadassah’s representative on the KKL JNF board, to abstain from the previous vote on allocation – allowing its passage – was reflective of the views of the organization’s U.S. leadership and membership. Hadassah faced angry reaction among graduates of its youth movement, Young Judea, following the vote.  

When the vote was taken in February, the source said, representatives on the board for the various organizations may have been disconnected from the sentiments of their members and leadership overseas. But after the ongoing firestorm in the months since then, “I would be surprised if the input from the United States is not making its way into conversations. Still, the real pressures on those people sitting on the board are inside Israel. That is where they live.” 

That is why those involved in the pressure campaign say they must send their message ahead of Thursday’s vote as loudly and clearly as possible.

Any Diaspora Jewish organization that supports the proposal, Weinberg said, “must understand that if they vote in favor of this, or don’t act to prevent it, their legacy will be stained with having driven Israel even further from negotiations, or any final status agreement. They cannot be neutral in this, and must act to be on the just and moral side of history.”

While Linzer says she regrets seeing her beloved Hadassah mired in politics, as she sees it, the organization must now take a stand its members can be proud of. 

“Regrettably, this is the new direction in which KKL-JNF is moving – becoming directly involved in political matters. It is definitely not the direction that many of these legacy institutions want to be involved in, but unfortunately they find themselves in this position. They don’t have a choice in the matter,” she said. “I am hoping they vote in a way that will send a message to the Jewish community that will reflect how they feel about this direction.” 

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