U.S. Jewish Group Goes After JNF Over West Bank Donations

Rabbinic human rights group T’ruah calls for transparency on donor money spent on settlements.

Jewish National Fund

NEW YORK - If you don’t have a little blue tzedakha box on a shelf, your parents and grandparents surely did. And who doesn’t have a certificate saying that trees were planted in honor of their birth, bar mitzvah or wedding? The Jewish National Fund’s classic fundraising motifs are as much a part of American Jewish iconography as a bagel and shmear.

Now another Jewish group, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,  is starting a campaign that aims to force the JNF to become more transparent about which donations are spent over the Green Line. The international community, including the U.S. government, opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank and considers it an obstacle to peace efforts.

The T’ruah effort is centered on a folksy 3-minute animation pointing viewers’ attention to JNF projects in the West Bank. “Building beyond the Green Line blocks peace,” says the green dollar bill character.

“It’s an educational opportunity to get the Jewish community to think about where their donations go, and to start asking questions to make sure we’re putting our tzedakha in line with our values,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T’ruah’s executive director.

“JNF is a household name, and so many of us grew up putting coins in that pushke and getting tree certificates. There’s just so much emotional attachment to making the desert bloom,” Jacobs told Haaretz. She said "it’s pretty upsetting" that some of JNF’s money is being spent in West Bank settlements and "getting in the way of a secure future for Israel.”

JNF CEO Russell Robinson said in an interview: “we only do projects within consensus areas of Israel, like Ma’alei Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion. And we do very few there.”

The projects there are “donor-driven,” he told Haaretz. “In the course of my 15 years here maybe we’ve done five or six projects there, like a park here or there. Is a park in Ma’alei Adumim an impediment to peace?”

Currently under construction is a Gush Etzion Visitor Center, funded jointly by the JNF, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael and the Israeli government. Likewise a Gush Etzion pedestrian walkway called “The Boys Promenade,” after the three teens who were murdered in June 2014, is being built.

T’ruah’s Jacobs defends the criticism of settlement spending. “It’s hurting the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis, of the soldiers who have to go in and defend the settlement enterprise,” she said.

Robinson dismisses the arguments as “nonsensical,” noting that the overwhelming focus of the group’s work is inside Israel proper. “I would hold our transparency up to anyone on anything we do.”

The group's “objectives are water projects, historical sites in the Galilee and Negev, and Zionist education,” Robinson told Haaretz.

In its 2015 fiscal year, concluded last week, JNF raised $121 million, Robinson said. That’s up from $101 million in 2013 and $53 million in 2010, according to its U.S. tax filings. Roughly 85 percent of that is spent on projects and programs in Israel, Robinson says, though on its 2013 tax filing it states that $18.8 million went to fund projects in the Middle East. And while it varies, typically 15 to 20 percent goes to the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) for joint projects, Robinson said.

While people associate JNF with tree planting, that accounts for just 5 percent of its income. JNF contracts with KKL to plant almost 300,000 trees annually — a small fraction of the 3 million trees KKL plants.

Though on its website and in other communications KKL labels itself KKL JNF, they are two separate organizations, Robinson says — legally, financially and administratively. But on its U.S. tax filings the JNF identifies itself as JNF (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael).

They are akin to cousins with the same grandfather, Theodore Herzl, who founded JNF in 1901, according to Robinson.

David Shay

And the U.S. JNF is involved in projects in Israel beyond what most American Jews likely realize.

In 2014 it took over Alexander Muss High School in Israel, at which roughly 1,600 teens annually participate in programs. JNF plans to grow that to 5,000 students a year, Robinson said, and is looking to obtain a second campus.

JNF built – as half-funder and project manager – a medical center in the Arava, partnering with the Israeli government to attract more families to live there. In Ofakim, in the Negev, JNF built a rehabilitation center village called Aleh Negev which has 260 disabled residents and serves 5,000 outpatients a year, Robinson said. It will eventually “have 2,500 jobs,” including 500 at the doctor and nurse level, he said. JNF is also building a river walk in Be'er Sheva to attract more residents and tourists to the southern desert city. In five years it will have turned a 7-mile dry riverbed into a river of recycled water flowing year round, said Robinson. There is also a $6 million visitor center built by JNF, he said, a 22 acre lake downtown and a 12,500 seat amphitheater.

But KKL and JNF have also been involved in controversy. Questions are periodically raised, most recently in 2013, about how KKL (called JNF in the media), which isn’t subject to governmental oversight, spends its formidable income. For years it tried evicting a Palestinian family from its home in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, claiming ownership of the property and garnering negative international attention in the process. The group dropped that case a few years ago.

This year, JNF Canada cancelled an appearance by American Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee at a June fundraising dinner when members of the LGBT community protested, given his opposition to gay rights and public support for admitted child molester and reality TV star Josh Duggar.

In April, JNF US’s Southeast region planned to honor mega-church pastor and televangelist Rev. Charles Stanley with its Tree of Life Award. Some objected, given Stanley’s views on homosexuality, which in one of his many best-selling books he called “a place of extreme emotional sorrow and separation from God.” Stanley withdrew from the event.

Some of those who receive funding from the JNF welcomed T’ruah's call for transparency on West Bank spending. Rabbi Michael Cohen is founder of the Green Zionist Alliance and works as director of strategic partnerships for The Arava Institute for Environmental Education, which gets some funding from JNF.

“In this day and age where it’s really clear that Israeli policies across the Green Line are a factor in whether we go forward with the peace process or not, it’s a good and a fair question” about whether donor money is spent there, Cohen told Haaretz. “More Jewish Americans are aware that there’s this line and that the activities on the other side have serious political implications, and more people want their money not to go on that side,” Cohen said. Funding projects in the settlements “doesn’t take away from the good work the JNF does, but it’s also a fair question to ask.”

T’ruah plans to focus on other Jewish organizations as part of its campaign, which has been named “The Moses Standard" after the accounting that, according to a Torah portion and Midrash, the Biblical forefather gave of the gold collected to build the Tabernacle.

While the next targets of the campaign haven’t yet been selected, “we’re asking Jewish organizations to sign The Moses Standard and make publicly available on their website where their grant money to Israel is going,” Jacobs said. “If Moses was able to do it with all of the little pieces of gold and jewelry [he collected from the Israelites], then Jewish organizations can do it too."