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The JNF’s March of Waste and Corruption Continues

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People take part in the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate the Holocaust on April 12, 2018.
People take part in the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate the Holocaust on April 12, 2018.Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Senior defense officials weren’t the only ones marching in the last March of the Living at Auschwitz. The not-so-important trip by a giant delegation from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund somehow evaded the media’s radar. Dozens of people, apparently more than 100, flew to Poland for a few days on the organization’s tab – board members, executives, consultants and advisors.

Why does an agency whose main job is reforestation and land development need to shell out money for such a trip? The answer, as usual with KKL-JNF, is “why not?” After all, money flows like water there.

Two-and-a-half years ago, the agency’s management changed; it was replaced because it was corrupt. Danny Atar came in as chairman of the board. Expectations weren’t high; Atar carries an unpleasant train of media articles and investigative reports. Nevertheless, he promised miracles. He would bring the state comptroller into every agency department, apply the Freedom of Information Act to it, strengthen the watchdogs and uproot the corrupt norms. Enough time has passed to judge how many of these things actually happened.

The state comptroller’s aegis has not been extended to KKL-JNF. In Atar’s defense, it must be said that on this issue, he actually tried; it was the Yariv Levin-Zeev Elkin government which absurdly put the kibosh on it. But had Atar really wanted to, he could have invited the comptroller’s staff in on his own and asked them to do an audit. He never did.

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With regard to freedom of information, Atar lacks even that excuse. KKL-JNF has never agreed to abide by the law’s provisions. And while the corruption prevalent under the previous management has been reduced, the basis of the rot remains strong.

Take, for instance, the issue of envoys. The agency continues to maintain a worldwide network of unnecessary envoys. The official excuse – that they raise money and thereby repay their own cost – is complete nonsense, if not outright deceit. In many places, they are even explicitly forbidden to engage in fundraising.

Shai Bazak, a former media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was appointed years ago as KKL-JNF’s envoy in London. He costs about 100,000 shekels ($28,000) a month, in exchange for which he must do almost nothing. He’s forbidden from fundraising, under KKL-JNF’s agreement with JNF U.K. But aside from dreadful boredom, nothing threatens him.

Nor is Bazak unique. An audit report was recently published about KKL-JNF’s envoy to Spain. It contained a lot of numbers, but anyone who grasps what happened there can’t help rolling with laughter.

A hack named Michael Adari was once vice chairman of the agency. In 2006, he became its envoy to Latin America. He spent six years in this important post, then returned to Israel.

Two years later, he once again went abroad as an envoy, to set up a JNF branch in Spain. He spent four years in this job, and according to the report, it cost KKL-JNF 4.5 million shekels. Of this, 2.5 million shekels was spent just on his living expenses in Spain. He also received another 1.7 million shekels from the agency (often in payments that shouldn’t have been authorized, since no financial reports were submitted), usually on the grounds that he would use this money to raise funds for the organization.

How much money did he raise? Over the course of four years, a grand total of 928,000 shekels. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? You pay out 4.5 million shekels to get less than a million back.

The very existence of this report shows that Atar did keep at least one promise: He imported a watchdog from a different league. The previous chairman, Efi Stenzler, strove to ensure that there would be no watchdogs, lest, heaven forbid, they issue reports like that.

But the very presence of these higher quality watchdogs proves to what degree KKL-JNF doesn’t deserve to exist. The waste, the corruption and the hedonism (Atar is a big fan of trips abroad) are part of the organization’s DNA.

There’s no real need for this agency, and in the absence of such a need, the following question will always be asked: Why spend the very large amount of money in the organization’s coffers on yet more benefits for its pampered employees, on an envoy who will indulge himself in London, or on a delegation to the March of the Living?

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