Egregious irregularities were found in the administration of the Jewish National Fund between 2014 and 2017, the Justice Ministry said in a report issued Wednesday.
According to the review conducted by the ministry, the veteran land management agency distributed funds to political organizations that did not advance its goals. Moreover, the money was given without set guidelines or criteria and permitted the hiring of employees with a political affiliation without a competitive process. The Labor Party’s Danny Atar was JNF chair during the period the report describes.
The findings were so serious that “during the period of review, they were liable to be the basis for dismantling the JNF,” the report stated. “The JNF manages billions of shekels in public funds, and its public activity is of utmost importance for the Israeli public.”
The report noted that no such action was taken because “the JNF expressed readiness to fix the fundamental flaws.” It stated, “Some problems were already fixed during this period, in part through preliminary talks with the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations and Charitable Foundations.” The registrar, part of the Justice Ministry, decided to appoint someone to supervise the corrections.
“It seems the system for electing the board members and officeholders is politicized, introducing problematic norms that have taken root,” the report stated. “It has led to the behavior that forms the basis of the report’s findings.” The report details how senior board members are appointed based on a coalition agreement between political groups represented within it, and officeholders are essentially appointed by groups affiliated with political parties.
One of the serious findings in the report involves a deal the JNF signed, which tripled the funds allocated to the World Zionist Organization and Zionist organizations to over 500 million shekels ($155 million). The review found that the board and JNF conference approved the amount only after the deal was concluded. The JNF was not a party to the decisions made in the coalition agreement, the report stated, while then-chair Danny Atar “told the board they had to agree to this deal,” the report stated. “In fact, board members were not allowed to exercise independent judgement regarding the WZO budget.”
The auditors also found that the JNF hired both directly and through personnel agencies employees who were politically connected, personally or through the party, to Atar for other positions. JNF funds went to groups associated with the Labor Party or with members connected to the party. “The election of Atar as JNF chair was effectively carried out by the Labor Party committee,” it stated.
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The report specified that the JNF signed an exceptional sponsorship agreement in September 2016 with the Yedioth Ahronoth group for nearly 1.2 million shekels, which exceeds the norm for sponsorship agreements and does not advance the organization’s goals. The JNF contracts committee approved the deal in February 2017, after it had already gone into effect, with Atar ordering the contract to go through, the report stated.
The report further states that the JNF paid 37,000 shekels to the Sihat Hashabbat newspaper, which is distributed in synagogues, for foreign purposes. The money was requested by an unnamed Labor Party operative for the Berl Katznelson Foundation. The review also found that 4 million shekels were hastily given by the JNF to the Ghetto Fighters’ House for a Holocaust Remembrance Day event. The funds are unrelated to the JNF’s goals, according to the report, while some officeholders at the organization receiving the JNF funds are Labor Party operatives. It also stated that in similar fashion the JNF gave inappropriately large sums to events and organizations including the Hebrew Music Festival in Arad, the Israel Storytelling Festival in Holon and the Ze’ev Jabotinsky Marine Heritage Center.
In a written response, Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations and Charitable Foundations Karen Schwartz, said the review’s findings must be addressed, adding that her agency will work with the JNF and provide guidance from relevant officials to fully remedy the problems and improve company management for the public benefit. “We also commend the JNF for conducting an ongoing, fruitful dialogue that had led to repairing certain deficiencies,” Schwartz said.
In its response, the JNF said the report covers the period prior to the organization’s current board of directors and that it has been addressing the issues that were found in order to repair them. The JNF will study the report in depth and draw the necessary lessons, as it had begun to do in accordance with previous drafts of the report. “We are happy that the report was in-depth, that it saw the seriousness with which the JNF handled issues that arose and reached the right conclusions.”
Attorney Gadi Perl, a member of the JNF board on behalf of the Masorti Movement for Conservative Judaism in Israel, told Haaretz that the report only reinforces the actions of the current board, which demands transparency, clear guidelines and compliance with the JNF charter. The report, he said, “is proof of what happens when things are done in the dark, without oversight.