Lightning strikes in a red sky. Thunder makes the air tremble. Suddenly, star Israeli actor Amos Tamam springs into the picture, walking through a gloomy forest. He casts us a somber look.
“Do you hear that? The flood is coming. This isn’t nonsense or idle chatter. Friends, we’ve crossed the border,” he says, rhyming the Hebrew words for flood and border.
This is the first clip starring Tamam in a huge advertising campaign launched by the Jewish National Fund on the climate crisis. The star of the TV series “Manayek” about a corrupt cop never draws his gaze from the camera as he strolls from the gloomy forest into a pretty one.
Tamam then sticks with the biblical metaphors: “In this story there’s no Noah and no ark to save us. The environment is our ark … so don’t say apres moi le deluge – join the JNF in the struggle against the climate crisis.”
It’s nice to see a star of Tamam’s stature, maybe the most successful actor in Israel today, alerting the public about the crisis that’s threatening humanity, even if the delivery is as superficial as an air-conditioner ad. Every Israeli environmental group would love to get Tamam as a presenter, but none have the marketing budget of the JNF, an organization already famous for knowing how to pay salaries.
The fund has dedicated an immense budget, estimated at about 40 million shekels ($11.5 million) annually, toward burnishing its image as an amiable environmental warrior, and this is the second year that Tamam is spreading some of his macho charisma in a JNF campaign. Last year he warned us not to leave trash behind at nature reserves.
The fund knew what it was doing when it cast the Mediterranean version of Adonis as the face of its campaign. The organization, which was founded to buy and develop land, is now celebrating its 120th birthday. Tamam is, after all, Israeli masculinity at its finest – tall, dark and well built, a phenomenal actor whose face is known in every Israeli home. He’s the kind of guy who boils a pot of “mud coffee” out in the fields as his hair flutters in the breeze.
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“Amos Tamam is the ultimate Israeli, so his connection with the JNF is natural and obvious,” the head of the fund’s “public diplomacy” division, Tzachi Moshe, told an Israeli newspaper.
The JNF, however, is also an organization governed by a political board of directors, its name linked to a plethora of scandals and corruption suspicions, as highlighted in a 2017 state comptroller report. It also has a history, as well as a present, of racism; for example, its efforts that work against Israel’s Bedouin community in the south.
It isn’t as if the JNF hasn’t done good things for the environment in Israel; it looks after Israel’s parks, reserves and nature sites, and has rehabilitated large forested areas in the Jerusalem Hills and the Galilee wracked by years of overgrazing.
Last year (though surely not for the past 120 years as it alleges in its campaign) the organization enlisted environment specialists whose hearts are in the right place. It has budgeted 50 million shekels to establish a center to fight the climate crisis, promote energy efficiency and renewable energy, develop local leaders, award scholarships and help with other educational activities. (For the sake of comparison, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s annual budget is 430 million shekels.)
But even if we disregard Israel’s environmental wrongs of the past – such as the drying out of Lake Hula in the north and the transformation of Mediterranean vistas all over the country into forests – it’s hard to take the JNF’s green cover story seriously.
If anything, the fund has always been less of an environmental group and more of an intimidating real estate tycoon. The JNF owns 12 percent of the country’s land and holds assets valued at 10.3 billion shekels. In 2020 alone it deposited 2.8 billion shekels from land sales – solely to Jews, of course. How can an organization with such a foot in the construction industry preach to us about green lungs?
The fund’s website contends that over 240 million trees have been planted in the JNF’s forestry project in Israel, contributing to the struggle against climate change and for quality of life and the environment. But in recent years, the JNF has been using tree-planting largely as a political tool for expelling Negev Bedouin from their agricultural land. It plants thousands of dunams of forest – in the middle of the desert, right? – “to block Bedouin from gaining control over the land,” as the fund’s chairman once said at a JNF gathering.
On the path toward dispossessing Israel’s weakest population group as it bypasses planning procedures, the organization is actually harming nature. When it plants trees not indigenous to the landscape, it does immense damage to the desert ecology system, experts and environmental groups say.
In fact, the JNF’s claim that planting trees is the most important action for mitigating climate change is itself controversial among experts. In Haaretz’s Hebrew edition a year ago, Alon Rothschild of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel wrote that afforestation requires a great deal of land and precipitation, neither abundantly available in Israel. Afforestation also harms natural habitats and the unique varieties of species.
Rothschild says the forest achieves a refrigerator effect only once the trees reach maturity – and trees planted in Israel don’t usually reach this stage, mainly because they’re uprooted for construction and due to forest fires, or they suffer diseases or are unsuited to the natural environment.
The climate crisis in our region, characterized by heat waves and a longer dry season, is also aggravating the situation as the planted forests display a worrying tendency to go up in flames. According to a report this month, nearly 10 percent of JNF forests have burned down in the past six years, a trend the researchers say is worsening.
The JNF is also an enthusiastic partner in the settlement enterprise – the largest suburbanization enterprise in the history of Zionism. It destroys the landscape in the name of Jewish sovereignty.
To understand this, it’s not even necessary to explore the organization’s dismal history (though for this, see the documentary “Blue Box,” especially the role of JNF official Yosef Weitz in uprooting Palestinians from their land). It’s enough to consider the JNF board’s most recent decisions, or the times it has collaborated with extremist organizations to throw Palestinians out of their homes.
Last year the board approved a resolution that officially changes the organization’s policy, expanding land acquisitions for settling Jews in the West Bank and “land redemption.” (Amid international pressure, the decision has been suspended, rocking the fund regarding land-purchase policies in the West Bank.)
Even before the resolution – which sparked strong criticism from the Biden administration – the JNF operated in the West Bank, mainly through a subsidiary believed to have acquired West Bank land valued at around 100 million shekels, which was diverted from the budget for buying land in “Jerusalem and the periphery.” Plus, these purchases were not reported to JNF institutions. A Haaretz investigation a year ago exposed details of these highly problematic transactions, a finding that was also reached in an internal JNF report.
Only two weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard the appeal by a family in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood, which the JNF, as a proxy for the right-wing group Elad, has been trying to evict for over 30 years. And last year the JNF joined with settlers in declaring Jewish ownership of the land under the tiny Palestinian village of Khirbet Zakaria in the Gush Etzion bloc near Bethlehem.
What Amos Tamam fails to mention in the commercial is that the climate crisis is also a social, political and democratic crisis. The weakest demographic groups in society need to be strengthened to survive the challenges along the way. Anyone truly interested in sustainability realizes that social justice and climatic justice go hand in hand.
Therefore, an organization that operates in the name of Jewish supremacy – and that discriminates, dispossesses and banishes anyone not Jewish – isn’t worthy of being called green.
Tamam should thus contribute his time and talent to legitimate green organizations, those that consider the whole picture and offer deep solutions for the crisis. After all, this is a serious and complex business linked to so many realms of life and industry – energy, transportation, urban planning, food, consumption and the preservation of ecological systems. Planting trees isn’t the most important thing.
For its part, the JNF said: “The attempts to describe the JNF as a real estate company are fundamentally unfounded. The JNF is a corporation acting for the benefit of the public; it faithfully manages land belonging to the Jewish people and operates as the State of Israel’s afforestation authority.
“The lands earmarked for afforestation in Israel cover around one and a half million dunams, most of which are not owned by the JNF, and the lands that it does own are managed separately by the Israel Land Authority, in accordance with the Israel Lands Law. The JNF represents the State of Israel’s forested areas at public institutions without any connection to land ownership.
“Regarding tree-planting in the Negev, the JNF operates as a contractor for the Israel Land Authority, which determines [the trees’] location and scope, including supervision to ensure that they do not harm the environment. The JNF does not engage in politics and is active on issues containing a political aspect in accordance with the decisions of Israel’s governments.”