Opinion |

The Jewish National Fund's 120th Birthday Is an Excellent Opportunity to Say ‘Enough’

Pulled by conflicting interests, the JNF can’t see the forest for the trees. Its tree plantings in Bedouin areas of the Negev prove that it must end its role as a so­-called protector of national interests

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir plants a tree in Sa'wa, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert in southern Israel, this month.
Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir plants a tree in Sa'wa, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert in southern Israel, this month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund is celebrating its 120th birthday. This vast organization is involved in many conflicting areas of our lives. It’s responsible for forestation in Israel, but it also views itself as a protector of national and security interests.

Its 120th birthday is an excellent time to stop and say “no more.” JNF can remain part of the state apparatus as a preserver of our forests, but it must end its job as a protector of national interests.

In the former field, even if it has made mistakes, it has a great deal of knowhow. In the latter, the harm it has caused far outweighs the benefits.

Its recent tree plantings in Bedouin areas of the Negev – Segev Shalom and Sawa – infuriated the Bedouin. But “making the desert bloom” by planting trees in the Negev isn’t an environmental enterprise. Rather, it’s a cynical political move meant to keep the Bedouin from working land near their homes.

The JNF is behaving like an independent political power, without anyone having granted it this authority. Ostensibly, it’s protecting us against invaders from the desert.

Anyone who studies nature and the environment in Israel knows there is an enormous contradiction between the JNF’s various activities. On one hand, it’s a professional agency that has done wonderful things to nurture nature, tourism and the environment in Israel. On the other hand, it has caused damage. It’s an important green organization, but also a quasi-military political agency that blocks Bedouin settlement in the Negev with its plantings.

On one hand, it’s an environmental organization that can easily be suspected of structural racism, since it doesn’t sell land to Arabs. On the other hand, it preserves major forests and cultivates places where we can enjoy ourselves in nature.

The JNF dried up the Hula Valley swamp, and then created Hula’s lake. It runs the Hula Nature Reserve as a viable tourism business, collecting entry fees and earning profits.

The JNF has the most extensive and important knowledge of forestry in Israel, but it’s currently insisting on political plantings of forests south of Be’er Sheva, a place where historically forests have never existed. Its sole purpose is to prevent an “invasion” by Israeli citizens belonging to the country’s weakest community.

The JNF runs beautiful sites like the Ilanot Forest in Emek Hefer, and in recent years, it has built several magnificent promenades along streams like the Tzippori. But this same organization has insisted for many years on covering the remnants of Arab villages destroyed in 1948 with forests. The time has come for it to decide what it wants to be – a professional forestry organization or a political force.

The JNF’s Hebrew-language website says its forestry policy is intended to serve “all Israelis, now and in the future.” I doubt many Israelis – Bedouins, non-Bedouin Arabs and others – could read that sentence without scoffing.

It also says its forestry policy is “based on the principles of sustainable development. In line with these principles, the JNF’s forestry administration has implemented an ecological approach that will work with natural ecosystems rather than against them.” Even its own foresters know that in this case, the organization is violating its own guidelines.

The website further says the organization’s job is to “physically, legally and administratively” preserve forests and open areas from development “so that they will exist for future generations.” The question is how this very proper goal fits with Anshel Pfeffer’s description of the JNF’s activity this month in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition: “A half dozen saplings, barely twigs, stood in a row of holes dug across from Sawa… They will not grow in the desert grazing soil, and anyway no trees are needed there. The silent stars of the meshilut [governance and sovereignty] farce will not grow into mature tamarisks.”

Alon Rothschild, of the Society for Protection of Nature, wrote of the presentation of the JNF’s plantings as a fight against climate warming, that “the JNF’s attempt to brand itself as a savior of the earth stems from the fact that the discourse about more meaningful issues at the heart of its relationship with the state, which has to do with the management of its real estate resource, is less publicly convenient. This discourse has to do with vast amounts of money and with monitoring and oversight of the JNF.”

We could continue to enumerate a long list of actions for the environment, and actions against anyone who isn’t Jewish. Over 120 years the JNF has committed ecological mistakes as well. It has admitted some of them. These are professional errors. The political whims of the organization’s leaders, including aspirations for growing involvement in the purchase of West Bank land, consistently reported in these pages by Hagar Shezaf, cannot be forgiven, much less ignored.

An excellent and fascinating film recently produced independently by activists Yaara Benger Alaluf, Si Berrebi and Noa Bassel, succinctly describes the JNF’s activity in the past 120 years. The short film deals with three topics – historical purchase of land by the JNF, environmental and nature protection and the organization’s political involvement. In each of these fields, the creators prove convincingly that the common assumptions regarding the JNF are erroneous, and that in fact its activity harms rather than helps the environment in Israel. They conclude their film with a fitting blessing for the JNF, one we should all join in as the organization marks its birthday – “Until 120.”

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