Bowing to pressure from a Jewish human rights organization, the Jewish National Fund office in the United States has for the first time included in its annual financial report a detailed breakdown of its investments in projects overseas. This breakdown was requested in order to determine whether the non-profit, which enjoys U.S.-tax-exempt status, contributes to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as has long been suspected – and if so, to what degree.
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The organization’s latest tax report for fiscal year 2014, submitted earlier this month, contains an itemized list of the $27.7 million in grants it awarded projects and organizations outside the United States. The sum included $532,500 to the Gush Etzion Visitors Center, which is located over the Green Line. In addition, the total included grants to several other projects and organizations thought to be linked to the settlement movement or engaged in activities in the occupied territories.
These investments outside U.S. borders come in addition to a grant of $33,000 awarded to a U.S. organization active in promoting the settlement enterprise. That organization is Friends of Ir David. (The Ir David Foundation, also known as Elad, purchases properties in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem in order to move Jewish settlers in.)
For the past few years, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights has been pressuring the JNF to provide greater transparency in its financial reports. The organization, actively engaged in fighting the occupation, has contended that the JNF exploits its American tax-exempt status to promote projects in the West Bank – in clear defiance of official U.S. foreign policy, which views the Jewish settlements as a major obstacle in the peace process.
Although they share a common mission of promoting Zionist projects, with an emphasis on afforestation, JNF-USA is a separate organization from JNF-Keren Kayement in Israel. Both pre-date the State of Israel.
In its financial reports of previous years, JNF-USA did not provide any specifics about its grants overseas. (By law, it is not required to). Commenting on the latest report, which includes the detailed list of projects, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, told Haaretz: “This is definitely a big deal.”
She noted that several items on the list, though not specifically based in the settlements, could involve contributions to organizations affiliated with the settler movement. These included a $250,000 grants to Face of Israel, a group known to be hostile to Israeli human rights organizations. It also included $293,000 to JNF-KKL for afforestation projects. “It isn’t clear to us whether any of that money for forests goes to the settlements,” said Jacobs.
She noted that JNF provided $950,000 to Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that promotes aliyah from North America, in 2014. “If you look on their website, they recommend some of the settlements as good places to live for new immigrants, but we don’t know how much, if any, part of this grant actually goes to the settlements,” said Jacobs. Another grant recipient that might engage in activities over the Green Line, she surmised, was the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage, which received $145,000 from JNF in 2014.
Altogether, Jacobs estimated that about $600,000 of the $27.2 million in grants designated for projects overseas by JNF-USA in 2014 went to the settlements.
Jacobs said the T’ruah had specifically targeted JNF because its donors tend to be unaware that their contributions may be going to fund projects in the settlements. “With most of the other organizations that throw money into the settlements, people know what they’re about and give them money because that’s what they believe in,” she said. “That’s not the case with JNF. Most people tend to associate JNF with the little blue tzeddakah boxes and with planting trees in forests – not with settlement activity.”
Jacobs said she recently met with JNF representatives and asked that they stop funding projects in the settlements. She said they had not yet replied.
Asked to comment, Adam Brill, the director of communication at JNF-USA, said: “JNF’s board of directors is comprised of donors from every religious branch, gender and political conviction. Collectively, they designate where JNF invests its time and resources, and will not be intimidated by those who claim to have a higher moral authority while dismissing and belittling the good work that U.S. Jewry performs for the land and people of Israel.
“We have repeatedly answered Rabbi Jacobs’ baseless allegations with full disclosure and transparency. However, rather than applaud the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the U.S. who have contributed to the ongoing development of our democratic Jewish State, she attacks them and us as her sole means to raise cash.”