Left-wing Jewish Group Slams JNF for ‘Land Theft and Ethnic Cleansing’

Melbourne-based Australian Jewish Democratic Society launches website asking, 'What is the Jewish National Fund really doing with your money?'

JNF / Yossi Zamir

SYDNEY – The Jewish National Fund in Australia, one of this country’s most successful and powerful Jewish organizations, is “complicit in ongoing forms of land theft and ethnic cleansing,” a new website claims.

The allegations are contained in the "What's Behind the Jewish National Fund" website, launched here earlier this month by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, a small, left-wing group based in Melbourne. The website accuses the JNF of taking land from Palestinians and Bedouins, funding infrastructure for “illegal” settlements and planting trees in an environmentally destructive manner.

“The JNF promotes itself as a green charity, fund-raising in Jewish communities around the world to support tree planting, and other environmental initiatives in Israel,” the website says. “But what is the JNF really doing with your money?”

Jem Light, a spokesperson from the AJDS, said: “Many Jews give to the Jewish National Fund without having enough information about their activities. We are aiming to expose some of the more unsavory and discriminatory policies of the JNF. Once people find out, I’m sure they will seriously reconsider their donations.”

The website asks people to upload their photo with a message. One of them, by Nicole Erlich, reads: “I’m concerned about the JNF because when I put money in the Blue Box as a child I thought I was only planting trees, not erasing memories.”

Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Officials from JNF Australia failed to answer the allegations when questioned by Haaretz this week.

“The State of Israel does not steal Bedouin land,” a 2012 statement issued by KKL-JNF said. “Negev land was state land from the time of Ottoman rule and Bedouins had no right of possession to this land.”

Dr. Jordy Silverstein, an executive member of AJDS, told Haaretz: “We see this campaign as a response to the JNF’s recent increase of its program of ‘Judaizing’ the Negev. Jewish support for the JNF is so commonplace, and yet we don’t really speak openly and honestly about what the JNF actually does. This campaign asks Australian Jews to be more aware, more honest and more open.”

The website has had over 8,000 hits since it was launched on November 3, Silverstein said.

Other Zionist leaders here rallied to the JNF’s defense, with Dr. Danny Lamm, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, slamming the organization behind the campaign.

“The AJDS has been and remains beneath contempt and merits no interest in any of their miniscule activity,” he told Haaretz this week. However, he did not address the allegations raised by the AJDS.

Dr. Ron Weiser, a former president of the ZFA, told Haaretz: “As far as I know, JNF lands are not connected to the Bedouin issue. As far as I know the lands that the Bedouin are contesting are with the Israel Land Authority. On two separate occasions I have spoken with Keren Kayemet l’Israel about this issue and each time I have been told – without any evidence to the contrary – that KKL is not the party to address any questions to.”

Weiser, a committee member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, added: “From time to time the usual organizations who campaign against Israel’s interests raise baseless and unsubstantiated allegations against the JNF and others.”

In recent weeks the JNF held its annual gala dinners here to raise funds, including for its 2014/15 project in Eliav, a fledgling community in the northern Negev.

“JNF is working with several Bedouin communities to effect change,” according to its American website. It cites previous projects including a sustainable farming project in Wadi Attir, a $7m project to clean a river in Rahat, land it donated in Abu Basma for a medical center and a park it funded in Segev Shalom.

The allegations contained in the AJDS website are not new, and have been published at least since 2011. In an article last year in +972 magazine, a former JNF board member from America said he resigned in 2011 because the organization “first denied and then acknowledged” evicting Palestinians from homes in East Jerusalem.

“The JNF should provide funds to the Bedouin citizens of Israel to rebuild homes that it destroyed and provide the same services to all Israeli citizens living in the Negev,” Seth Morrison wrote. “Only then will I resume donations to the JNF.”

JNF in Australia – whose patron is billionaire businessman Harry Triguboff – has raised millions of dollars a year here to fund a multitude of projects in Israel since 1917, when it funded a forest to honor those who had fought in World War I. Australians also funded the rehabilitation of the Yarkon River, which claimed the lives of four Australians who perished in 1997 when they plunged into the toxic river as they walked across a flimsy bridge into the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games.

AJDS has been a long-running thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment here. The organization has incensed Jewish leaders over its controversial policies, most recently last year when it launched an online campaign to support the boycott of Israeli goods from West Bank settlements.

As one veteran community observer told Haaretz this week: “Although I largely agree with the sentiments [of the website], I am not willing to take on the JNF or get into bed with the AJDS.”