Recently, sundry elements in the Israeli government began to apply pressure on the Jewish National Fund to empty out its capital reserves in order to finance “national projects” that the government endorses - but does not want to pay for.
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The JNF International Board was unexpectedly asked to consider an urgent proposal to spend 2.5 billion shekels ($720 million dollars) on initiatives, presumably involving transportation and housing, which are not yet clearly defined. This amounts to a sum that dwarfs any ordinary annual budget. There are many reasons why this would be a rash and irresponsible hijacking of funds; chief among them, under this scheme, is that money that belongs to future generations would be exploited for the benefit of the present generation.
Due to a last minute intervention by Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, Israel’s deputy attorney general decided to temporarily freeze the proposed transaction between the Ministry of Housing and the JNF. But the deal could be reactivated at any moment. The episode continues to raise fundamental ethical questions regarding Israeli society’s commitment to the future and the integrity of Zionism today.
In recent years, the JNF board has built up a budgetary reserve of four billion shekels ($1.15 billion) by maintaining a budget far lower than the annual income derived from land leases and donations. This is a very positive development. It is not a dark secret, nor is it an expression of corruption or mismanagement. Rather, it constitutes a new policy which embraces equity and sustainability for future generations. It is designed to guarantee the future of the JNF and its important work for the quality of life and environment in Israel.
The policy is about fairness because, truth be told, the JNF land reserves belong to future generations. The JNF’s budget is derived primarily from leasing those lands that are formally owned 'by the Jewish people,' now and in the future. According to the organization’s charter, JNF real estate can never be sold in perpetuity. Ever since 1901, this position has reflected a profound Zionist land ethic which is common among many indigenous peoples. Accordingly, rather than sell land, the JNF leases it for 49 years, reflecting the biblical jubilee standard.
Unfortunately, in today’s Israeli reality, these leases are tantamount to land sales in almost every respect, as the public has come to see the transactions as permanent. There should be no illusions about this. During 66 years of Israeli statehood, the land reserves of the Jewish people have been steadily depleted even though the lands were purchased with the intention of being a lasting resource in Israel to benefit all future generations of the Jewish people.
The leasing of JNF lands is legitimate in areas where zoning is appropriate for development, as long as the payments are utilized for projects, infrastructure and activities that preserve and nurture the land of Israel and its environment. Forestry is one such expression of restoration. Moreover, the sale is only fair and reasonable if JNF saves a significant proportion of these sales and invests them on behalf of the future generations that will no longer have access to the lands bought in their name. Unfortunately, over the years, JNF boards did not prioritize such an endowment, money was not set aside and revenues were quickly consumed.
Land is a non-renewable resource. In a small and crowded place like Israel, it is the scarcest of resources. It is only a matter of time until the reservoir of appropriate JNF real estate is exhausted. When this happens, the organization will cease to run at present levels of operation, unless it starts to sell off other lands that should be preserved. Alternatively, we can prepare for that eventuality by saving profits today.
The term “sustainability” ("kayamut" in Hebrew) should be much more than a slogan for the JNF. Indeed, it appears in its Hebrew name, “Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael.” Little thought was given to the implications during the organization’s first 100 years. Perhaps the exigencies of nation-building were simply too great. Recently, however, sustainability has come to define the organization’s ideology and the way it plants trees, restores streams and degraded lands and builds parks and trails for biking and hiking.
This perspective needs to be manifested in JNF’s financial management policy. One of the central pillars of sustainability involves intergenerational justice: Utilizing only the fruits of present resources rather than compromising them for our children. In this context, creating an endowment, a true Jewish National Fund for the future of the land of Israel, is a moral imperative. The dynamic is not unlike the debate surrounding the revenues from Israel’s gas reserves, which was resolved when the government wisely agreed to create a fund. Like that in Norway, Israel’s natural gas-funded endowment will preserve the wealth from natural resource sales and share it with future generations.
Notwithstanding the temporary suspension of the decision, in the coming weeks the JNF board may have to consider whether to succumb to the government’s pressure and surrender the 2.5 billion shekels being demanded. Alternatively, the JNF could seize a historic opportunity to change the terms of the debate.
The choice is clear: The Jewish National Fund can establish a formal endowment that will ensure the future of the country’s forests, parks, water resources, agricultural soils and quality of life. Or it can agree to devour money that should be saved for the future - even as we all know that stealing from children is a particularly odious crime.
Professor Alon Tal from Ben Gurion University is a member of the JNF-KKL international board representing Mercaz (the Masorti/Conservative movement) and the Green Zionist Alliance.