Hill of Trouble

How a long-standing Jewish National Fund forest memorializing Givati soldiers who fell in the War of Independence was upgraded thanks to a corporate donation - and then renamed.

It was supposed to be a festive day. On January 17 of this year, a motley group gathered at Hill 69, about a kilometer east of Kibbutz Nitzanim - Jewish National Fund staff, representatives from the Migdal insurance company and relatives of 20 Givati Brigade soldiers who were killed in the battle over this hill. On June 10, 1948, at the height of the War of Independence, those defending it retreated under a combined attack by Egyptian infantry, artillery and armored forces. On this January day, a ceremony was held to celebrate the fact that the site had been fixed up, thanks to a donation.

Forty years ago, JNF pledged that the forest planted on the site would be called the "Hill 69 Forest," after family members of the fallen soldiers made contributions to JNF for this purpose. But when the bereaved families arrived to dedicate the site about a year ago, they were stunned to discover that Hill 69 had been given a new name: "Migdal Forest and Campground" read the marble plaque installed at the site, with the JNF and Migal Insurance logos at the top. "Dedicated with a donation from Migdal for the well-being of the Israeli public." And so as not to leave any doubt as to the source of the contribution, the company's advertising slogan also appeared on the plaque: "It's good to have Migdal behind you."

Migdal forest

The JNF website, which covered the event under the heading, "Dedication of Migdal Forest at Hill 69," reported later that it had been raining the day before the ceremony, "but the insurance folks weren't scared off by the mud."

The Migdal administration came up with the idea for the donation right after the Carmel fire. "We wanted to do something good to help rehabilitate the [country's] forests," Doron Sapir, the Migdal deputy CEO explained recently.

JNF told the insurance company's management that trees could not be planted immediately after the fire, and suggested another idea: making a donation to refurbish the Hill 69 site, where there were three Mandate-era water towers (migdal is Hebrew for "tower" ) that once supplied water to the army bases in the area.

The company was very keen on the suggestion. "We were searching for an idea that would sort of symbolize the company, and then this idea about the forest came up, because of the towers there," Sapir said, adding that Migdal pledged to make a donation of NIS 1 million to JNF, in payments spread over three years.

"Planting trees is the environmental insurance for the future," JNF chairman Effi Stenzler wrote in congratulatory remarks that were read at the ceremony. "It is the job of an insurance company to take a sober look at the future, and this is where Migdal and JNF meet."

Esther Bersky-Kraus, whose brother Issar was one of the fallen soldiers, was invited to speak at the ceremony, and wrote a letter to Haaretz a few weeks ago about how she felt upon coming to the site: "When I arrived there, I saw signs that showed the name of the forest had been changed to Migdal Forest. Of course I was shocked. Two of the organizers of the ceremony came over to me and asked me to speak at the ceremony and not to make a fuss, even though they knew I was unhappy with what I'd seen, and said they would take care of everything afterward. I was embarrassed, because I couldn't bring myself to be congratulatory. I spoke about the importance of the place and nothing else."

After the ceremony, the families of the fallen contacted Migdal and the Yad Labanim organization, which honors soldiers who have died in Israel's war. They showed them a letter from June 1971 signed by then-director of the JNF forestry division, Sharon Weitz, in which he explicitly states that because of the donations from the bereaved families, the forest would be called "Hill 69 Forest."

At this point, the Migdal people realized that in their desire to do a good deed, they had unwittingly stumbled into a mine field. Sapir, the Migdal deputy CEO, wrote to Bersky-Kraus and said that her comments were received "with great sorrow" and that "we fully understand the families' hard feelings."

He stressed that "at no point did Migdal seek such a situation - nor was it ever brought to our knowledge that this would be the case - in which our sponsorship of the renovation of the site would, god forbid, come at the expense in any way of the memorial to the fallen who sanctified Hill 69 with their blood. On the contrary, it was out of admiration and appreciation for the fallen and their legacy that Migdal accepted the JNF's proposal to refurbish the site ... Make absolutely no mistake: Migdal is not willing to agree to any activity at the site ... which in any way diminishes or overshadows its being, above all else, a memorial to the fallen and their legacy!"

Ami Uliel, JNF's southern district director, said in response that, "Hill 69 is still Hill 69. No one is damaging the site, no one is damaging the memorial, no one is doing anything that harms anyone."

This was also the spirit of the JNF's official response to Haaretz. In a statement that seems to confuse the memorial site with the "Hill 69 Forest" there, the JNF says: "The name of the memorial site was never changed. Not in the past, not in the present, nor will it be in the future. Therefore, the raising of this claim shows mean-spiritedness that hurts the memory of the fallen." As proof it attached pictures of signs posted along an access road, directing people to "Hill 69."

What does this have to do with the changing of the forest's name? JNF chooses to dig in and even to praise itself: "An examination shows that the memorial site was neglected for years and only with the intervention of JNF - which realized the importance of the matter and the honor of the fallen and their families, and raised funds for the purpose - does the site now have the respect it is due. The sign that thanks the Migdal company relates to its contribution to refurbishing the towers, and for planting and foresting a grove at the Hill 69 site. The sign refers only to the grove and does not change or detract from the name of the site as a whole."

JNF appended a photograph of the sign, which clearly reads "Migdal Forest."

JNF adds that it sees nothing wrong with erecting a sign thanking Migdal for having done a praiseworthy act on behalf of the public good, and for helping to refurbish the memorial to the fallen. In any event, the process of repairing and preserving the towers is still ongoing, and another sign is due to be added to the site that will provide an extensive description of the place's history, the battle that took place there, the heroism of the fallen and a list of their names.

The JNF's response does not make any mention of the dispute between it and Migdal: Earlier this month, Migdal sent a sharply worded letter to JNF claiming that the latter did not discuss the matter of the forest's naming with the company at the time the donation was agreed upon. Therefore, Migdal was informing JNF of the cancellation of their agreement. JNF claims that Migdal's letter is based on "incorrect information."

As for the money Migdal has already transferred to JNF, the letter says that, "in other circumstances, we would also ask to have the sum that was already paid returned to us, for it is inconceivable that as a public entity you would give a conflicting commitment in regard to the dedication of the forest."

Instead Migdal decided to designate this sum as a general donation to JNF.