U.S. Reform Group Condemns Jewish National Fund Plan to Expand Israeli Settlements

Union for Reform Judaism says JNF plan would 'endanger the possibility of a two-state solution,' adding they will work to mobilize the Jewish community against the proposal, which they claim could harm Israel-U.S. ties

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Aerial view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Efrat in the Gush Etzion settlement block, with the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the background, in 2020
Aerial view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Efrat in the Gush Etzion settlement block, with the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the background, in 2020Credit: Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

A major U.S. Reform Jewish group said Friday it strongly opposes a plan by the Jewish National Fund to purchase land in the West Bank for the potential expansion of Israeli settlements in the disputed territory.

"We have long opposed the proliferation of settlements because they endanger the possibility of a two-state solution," Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement. "We love and support the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, which is why we will continue to strongly oppose policies that undermine the safety, security and moral character of our Jewish homeland."

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According to a proposal set to be discussed by Jewish National Fund’s directorate on Sunday, it would acquire private land, with priority given to land within settlements, land where construction is expected to face few obstacles, and land adjacent to existing settlements that can be used for their expansion.

The JNF, founded in 1901 to acquire and develop land in pre-state Israel for Jewish use, has operated unofficially in the West Bank for years, but has done so using a subsidiary.

According to the Union for Reform Judaism, "In the fall of 2019, we blew the whistle and strongly criticized KKL-JNF when we discovered that they were secretly purchasing land in the West Bank. With Sunday’s planned executive committee vote this longstanding Zionist institution plans to make those purchases openly as part of the agenda of the organization’s new right-wing leadership."

Jacobs added in a convesation with Haaretz that the Reform movement publicly opposed a proposal for land purchases by the JNF's subsidiary two years ago and as a result, a JNF representative was not invited to the movement's biennial conference.

He added the movement intends to mobilize the Jewish community to fight JNF’s plan through political and legal channels, arguing the most American Jews oppose the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Americans for Peace Now also strongly opposed the plan, which it said could "significantly bolster the Israeli settlement enterprise. "We will not stand silently by as the Jewish National Fund, an agency that was created to build the State of Israel, serves as a tool to destroy the prospects of building a Palestinian state, thus denying Palestinian self-determination and undermining Israel's future as a democracy," APN President and CEO Hadar Susskind said.

Until last year, JNF was headed by the Labor Party's Danny Atar, but the latest election for Zionist institutions shifted power from the left-wing to the right, and former Likud official Avraham Duvdevani was made chairman of the organization.

The Union for Reform Judaism, however, has no intentions of cutting ties with the JNF, and Jacobs said there is now a greater need for opposition from within.

“Politicizing support for cherished Zionist institutions ill serves the cause of Zionism and the unity of the Jewish people," the group's statement read. "Especially at this moment when Israel is looking to forge a strong relationship with the Biden administration this unilateral move could be inflammatory and harmful."

T'ruah, a human rights group of more than 2,000 rabbis, also condemned the proposal. The group's executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, said: "Any transfer of money used to expand West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, blatantly disregards the basic rights of Palestinians living under occupation and undermines the prospects for peace."

"JNF leaders, now made up of right-wing pro-settlement extremists, knew that this policy proposal would not be welcomed by the American Jewish public, which is why they tried to keep it a secret," she added.

The organization's proposal gives priority to land in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, the Jordan Valley, areas around Jerusalem, the Binyamin region north of Jerusalem, the South Hebron Hills, and areas adjacent to the pre-1967 border. The proposal indicates that no land would be purchased in the Nablus or Jenin areas.

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