Jewish National Fund, in Historic Unveiling of Finances, Holds $2 Billion in Land

But the JNF admits it suffers from a surfeit of top managers and heavy salary costs.

Nimrod Bousso
Nimrod Bousso
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Efi Stenzler, center, of the JNF planting a tree in the Bedouin village of Hura in the Negev.
Efi Stenzler, center, of the JNF planting a tree in the Bedouin village of Hura in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Nimrod Bousso
Nimrod Bousso

The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael), a quasi-governmental organization, has revealed its finances for the first time, showing that it held land worth more than $2 billion last year, when it raised $35 million in donations and paid outsized salaries to an army of top managers.

The report comes after the traditionally secretive organization came under pressure to open its books to the public. Critics, including former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, attacked the JNF for operating without oversight and serving as a conduit for jobs and other political favors.

“The publication of the JNF financial report is a major step toward revealing the fund’s activities to the wider public and provides a final answer to the false and disingenuous claims about a lack of transparency,” the JNF said in a statement.

The report, which covers the JNF’s finances for 2014, shows it had assets of 9 billion shekels ($2.4 billion), nearly 90% in the form of land. The fund revised up the value of its holdings last year, raising the number by 1.5 billion shekels.

It also held 1.5 billion shekels of tradable securities and 270 million in cash, according to the report.

In 2014, the JNF generated revenues of 2.15 billion shekels, a big increase over the 1.73 billion in 2013. Donations accounted for 134 million shekels of revenues, of which 76.6 million came from North America, the JNF said. Overall contributions rose 6.3% from 2013, mainly due to an emergency campaign during last summer’s Gaza war.

The JNF, which gets no money from the Israeli government but enjoys tax-exempt status, paid the government’s Israel Land Authority 1.26 billion shekels to manage its lands, an amount equal to 60% of its revenues.

The JNF, founded in 1901 to buy, reforest and develop land in prestate Israel on behalf of the Jewish people, controls some 13% of the government’s land, mostly in high-demand areas in the center of the country. Under a deal reached this year, the ILA will gradually stop administering the land and will swap much of its land in central Israel for land in the outskirts.

The fund’s next biggest expense was salaries, which accounted for 40% of its surplus, or 434 million shekels, for its 950 employees. This worked out to an average compensation cost of 300,000 shekels per employee, or 25,000 shekels per month, about three times the average wage and much higher than the average for the public sector.

The bloated wage budget was due to generous collective-labor agreements and a surfeit of managers. JNF world chairman Efi Stenzler and co-chairman Eli Aflalo earn salaries equivalent to a cabinet member. The two vice chairmen each make a Knesset member’s salary, while CEO Meir Shpigler’s pay is linked to that of a ministry director general.

The JNF paid out another 120.2 million shekels in pension payments.

The fund spent 81 million shekels last year on education and 65.5 million on “community and society” links, a 10 million increase over 2013. It gave 57.5 million shekels to the World Zionist Organization and 16.5 million shekels to Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that encourages immigration to Israel. Another 20 million shekels went to other, unidentified organizations.

The JNF fired back at its critics, saying the report showed that the accusations against it were baseless. “In contrast to the self-interested witch hunt being conducted against it, [the JNF] operates in accordance with the strictest standards, in contrast to most government and public bodies in Israel,” the fund said.

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