Pay and Stay: JNF Honors Jewish Vets Without Background Checks

For a tidy sum of $5,000, family and friends can memorialize Jewish veterans on the Wall of Honor at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill, just over the Green Line.

A payment of $5,000 will ensure that the Jewish veteran of your choice will be memorialized on the Wall of Honor, first dedicated in 2007 at Ammunition Hill, just over the Green Line in Jerusalem.

The project, run under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund and the Ammunition Hill Foundation, “is a tribute to the heroism and courage of Jewish soldiers who, throughout history, have fought in defense of their countries far beyond their proportions to the general population,” explains the JNF's English website.

Aside from the donation, to add a name to the small, gray plaques on the wall, all you need to do is fill out a seven-question online form. Usually, neither the JNF nor the foundation carry out any background checks to ensure that the names – of Jewish veterans who, according to the criteria, are currently serving or have “served in the past, in the military of any country” – are genuine. Those in charge of the project rely, pardon the pun, on an honor system.

“We trust that the information they [donors] provide – name, rank, years of service and country – is real,” a JNF spokesperson told Haaretz.

You might wonder what the site of a decisive battle in the 1967 Six-Day War, located over the Green Line, has to do with memorializing Jewish soldiers. You might also wonder why Jewish veterans, or their friends and family, should have to fork out thousands of dollars to pay for that privilege. But, even putting those questions aside, another remains: If there is going to be a memorial to Jewish veterans, shouldn’t somebody be making sure that the names on the wall deserve to be there?

The Wall of Honor

“We don’t have the tools to check,” said Shimon “Katcha” Cahaner, who headed the foundation for many years and sees the wall as his pet project. “If someone comes and says I was a general in the U.S. Navy, we can check that, but if they say I was a lance corporal in the Micronesian army, that’s much harder, and we won’t check.”

Maoz Katri, director of the foundation since 2010, says that the staff does try to speak with people submitting names, but he admitted they don't really investigate. People can also pass on relevant documents for inclusion in a database of honorees. In general, however, "if people feel good lying, let them," said Katri. In any case, he pointed out, honorees don't get financial benefits of any kind, so what does it matter?

For those lower on cash, a $180-donation ensures a place on “our online Honor Roll, to be displayed at Ammunition Hill,” according to the JNF website. While the list of hundreds of such names is available on the site itself, on a recent visit to Ammunition Hill, said display of the Honor Roll was nowhere to be seen.

“I don’t know if it exists, or how much it exists, I admit,” Cahaner said, when asked about the Honor Roll. “When I was at the foundation, we were in touch with computer companies to develop a program to do this, but I’m not sure how far they took it.” For his part, Katri said he wasn't aware of that program, and said he doesn't think it is being carried out.

The plaques on the memorial bear a soldier’s name, country, branch, rank and dates of services, with no indication of whether he or she is dead or alive. Proceeds from the project are earmarked for upkeep and development of the cash-poor heritage site, established to perpetuate the events of the decisive battle of the war there, on June 6, 1967.

The contribution is $5,000 dollars is a bit steep, admitted Katri, explaining that the amount was set with U.S. donors in mind. In the past, he noted, those in charge of the memorial have made exceptions for Israelis who have approached them individually, and reduced the price to 5,000 shekels (around $1,300). This "is an appropriate sum" in Israel, Katri said.

To date, some 247 names appear on the wall and include a mix of Jews from the Diaspora – mainly the United States – and Israel. Among them is the name of Cahaner, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who fought in '67, although he insists his JNF colleagues put it there against his will. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also features, as does Major-General Orde Charles Wingate, a renowned British Mandate officer. A devout Christian, Wingate may have been a friend of the Zionists, but he certainly wasn’t a Jewish veteran. The JNF and the foundation confirmed that plaques of some prominent figures – Cahaner, Wingate and Sharon included – are paid for by donors to the organization, and not their friends or family.

Being a custodian of Jewish veterans’ memory isn’t exactly in the Ammunition Hill Foundation’s mandate, but the organization doesn't see it that way. Cahaner said he pushed for the memorial because no one else was doing anything similar. “Jews were willing to give their lives, and for places where they weren’t first-class citizens," he explained. "So, I thought, we have to honor them.” According to Katri, the site of a 1967 battle is the perfect place to honor all Jewish soldiers.

As far as the JNF is concerned, the project is part and parcel of its role “to build a prosperous future for the land and people of Israel,” the spokeperson said. “Preserving history where it happened is essential to the legacy of the Jewish people.”

JNF runs projects in seven different sectors, and the Wall of Honor is filed under “Tourism and Recreation.”