'Mars Our Good Name': JNF Board Members Say They Weren't Told About Controversial Tree-planting in Israel's Negev

After days of violent clashes over forestation work on land used by local Bedouin farmers, six board members of the Jewish National Fund criticized the group's chairman for failing to provide 'any information' on the plans

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Israeli police face local Bedouin farmers as Jewish National Fund plant trees near the unrecognized village of Sawa, on Wednesday.
Israeli police face local Bedouin farmers as Jewish National Fund plant trees near the unrecognized village of Sawa, on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Members of the executive board of the Jewish National Fund on Thursday demanded an urgent meeting with the organization’s leader to find why they were not consulted about the forestation work in the Negev that has sparked violent protests among local Bedouin as well as a serious coalition crisis.

Six members of the executive committee, representing the center-left parties and the non-Orthodox movements, signed the letter, which was addressed to JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani. They represent approximately half the votes on the executive board.

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“In recent days, JNF finds itself at the center of the public discourse, and not necessarily in a positive context, because of the tree-planting work in the Negev,” they wrote. “This work was undertaken without any advance discussion in the executive or the board of directors, and without any information provided to us, as would have been fitting considering the gravity of the issue from a public standpoint.”

Land preparation work near the homes of Bedouin families in the unrecognized village of Sawa, on Wednesday.

The signatories asked to receive an update at the meeting so that they could “learn and address this very important issue in a more comprehensive manner.” The letter stopped short of demanding an end to the forestation activities in the Negev.

After several days of violent clashes over forestation work on land used for farming by local Bedouin, members of the government tried to calm tensions on Wednesday and said that future JNF tree-planting activities in the Negev would be negotiated among the various coalition partners. The United Arab List, which is a member of the coalition and receives a considerable share of its vote from Bedouin in the Negev, announced that it would boycott votes in the Knesset over the issue.

The tree-planting activities, which began on Monday, ended on Wednesday. Housing Minister Zeev Elkin said that in any event, they were only planned to last three days. But in a radio interview, Duvdevani contradicted him and said the work had only just begun. “We have entered the area with a very clear program of what needs to be done there,” he told Kan radio. “These are not activities that will take one days, three days, or even a month. This is a long-term assignment that requires considerable work. We are just at the beginning. We are only now preparing the land for planting with our tractors.”

Duvdevani, a representative of the Orthodox World Mizrahi movement, is the first blatantly right-wing functionary to serve as head of JNF, an organization founded in 1901 to acquire and develop land in pre-state Israel for use by Jews. He was appointed to the position in October 2020, after the most recent gathering of the World Zionist Congress. In April, he tried to push a contentious proposal through the board that would have authorized widespread land purchases in the West Bank by JNF. Following an international backlash, that proposal has since been placed on the back burner.

In their letter, representatives of the center-left parties and the non-Orthodox movements, said they had already reached out to JNF’s secretary on Wednesday requesting a meeting with Duvdevani. “We were told that the chairman does not think this is an urgent matter and will provide a report to the executive board at our next meeting,” they wrote. “This response is not adequate, to say the least.” They demanded that the meeting be convened no later than Sunday.

Emily Levy-Shochat, a deputy chair and representative of Mercaz Olami (the Conservative-Masorti movement) on the board, said she was concerned that the violent clashes of recent days could overshadow the good work JNF does. “In almost three years of sitting on the board, I’ve come to see JNF’s many wonderful contributions to Israel in the areas of education and environment,” she said. “When something like this happens, it mars our good name, and I’m concerned about what kind of impact it will have not only on how we are perceived in Israel, but also, on how we are perceived among Jews worldwide.”

Rany Trainin, a deputy chair and representative of the left-wing Meretz party on the board, said he would insist that any decision about future forestation work be made within the context of an overall solution to the controversy surrounding Bedouin lands in the Negev. “We have been ignoring this population for far too long,” he said.

A member of the board of directors, who requested anonymity, took aim at Duvdevani. “The fact that the chair is exploiting his role in order to promote an anti-government agenda and strengthen the opposition shows that he does not understand what this position entails or the mission of the organization.”

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