Facing International Outcry, Jewish National Fund Reconsidering East Jerusalem Family's Eviction

Fearing donor wrath, JNF attempts to distance itself from settler organization Elad, which in response threatens individual legal action against board members of JNF subsidiary

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Members of the Sumreen family at their home in Silwan neighborhood, January 1, 2018.
Members of the Sumreen family at their home in Silwan neighborhood, January 1, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The KKL-Jewish National Fund has asked for a rehearing concerning long-standing eviction proceedings of a Palestinian family from their home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem it won in July, following scathing criticism from the public and donors in Israel and abroad.

Haaretz Podcast: Could a Trump triumph be Netanyahu's get out of jail free card?Credit: Haaretz

The Sumreen family has lived in the house since the 1950s, but KKL-JNF was made custodian of the property according to a law on property regarded as abandoned by Israeli authorities. The request to evict them was originally filed in 1991, based on the debunked claim the owner was an "absentee," e.g. a civilian living in an enemy country. It was eventually granted, in a complex legal battle that lasted until last July. The story is intimately linked with the work of Elad, an organization that works to settle Jews in East Jerusalem and a direct partner with the KKL-JNF in efforts to remove the family through its subsidiary Himnuta, which buys land in Jerusalem and the territories.

The house is located inside the City of David complex, just outside the Old City, which Elad operates. The tourist attraction has been criticized by some for obliterating the history of Silwan as an Arab neighborhood, instead presenting the Israeli presence in the eastern part of the city solely as a journey of return. In July, the two organizations won a major victory when the Jerusalem District Court denied the appeal filed by the family and allowed them to be evicted. The judges ruled that the family had not succeeded in proving their ownership of the house. The family filed a request for permission to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The case should be heard in six months’ time.

But since the court’s ruling, the KKL-JNF has faced mounting criticism from left-wing activists, religious leaders, members of Congress, Israel prize winners and, most importantly, its own donors. Critics argue the eviction of the 18 family members would be a moral injustice.

This led Matityahu Sperber, the chairman of the Himnuta board, to write in July to Daniel Atar, the chairman of the KKL-JNF, concerning the eviction. “In recent months a broad public cry has arisen on the subject at hand, in an unprecedented way concerning the KKL-JNF’s activities,” Sperber said, adding he was worried about harming relations with the leaders of many Jewish organizations, including the Reform movement, and that the eviction could harm its ability to raise funds.

In August, Himnuta’s board, with Atar’s support, decided to suspend the eviction process. It must now discuss a proposal to freeze the legal proceedings against the Sumreen family and to replace the lawyer who has represented Himnuta until now, attorney Ze’ev Scharf. Sperber says Scharf is subject to a conflict of interest because he also represents Elad. He says the attorney refused to present him with the company’s response to the appeal filed by the family to the Supreme Court, for example.

A demonstration against the eviction of the Sumreen family from their Silwan home, in front of the Jerusalem District Court, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A board meeting was supposed to be held on Monday and the Jerusalem District Court ordered it to be delayed by a week after Elad director and founder, David Be’eri, threatened to personally take action against members of the board if it acts in opposition to Elad’s interests. In a letter sent on Sunday to Sperber, Atar and the CEO of Himnuta, Alex Hefetz, Be’eri argued that back in 1991 Himnuta transferred all its authority to handle the legal proceedings concerning the house and the expenses involved to Elad – irrevocably. The decision to suspend the eviction opened the directors to litigation personally, Be'eri said. The court ordered the KKL-JNF subsidiary to respond.

The threat of legal proceedings prompted a member of the board, Nachi Eyal, to also petition the Jerusalem District Court to cancel Monday’s meeting. Eyal, a well-known right-wing activist and the founder of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, asked to postpone the meeting until a new board is appointed, which is supposed to occur in a few weeks.

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