One might think that Russell Robinson, longtime CEO of the Jewish National Fund in the United States, would be unhappy, disturbed or, at a minimum, somehow affected by recent events concerning the organization that bears the same as his in Israel.
After all, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund has hit the headlines recently for a drastic policy proposal by its leadership: to formalize the purchase of lands in the West Bank that would expand and strengthen the settler enterprise. When asked about it, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department deemed it a “unilateral action” incompatible with pursuing a two-state solution. Several of the Israeli organization’s board members, representing the Reform and Conservative movements, have sounded the alarm, calling the decision reckless and disastrous, warning that it would dry up Diaspora donations to the group and “endanger the very existence” of the organization.
But in a Zoom interview with Haaretz from his New York office, Robinson is relaxed, jovial and utterly unconcerned with the mess playing out in Jerusalem.
As far as he is concerned, the hullabaloo in Israel has absolutely nothing to do with his robust New York-based charity, which is on target to raise $100 million this year for multiple ambitious development projects across Israel. Less than 1 percent of that amount, he confirms, will find its way into the Israeli organization’s coffers – and that’s only because KKL-JNF Israel serves as a “vendor” for his organization.
The current situation is the result of a process that has played out over the 23 years Robinson has been at the helm of JNF-USA, during which time he has overseen a complete divorce between the two organizations.
“We didn’t want to be stuck in any of the political mud that all the national institutions in Israel are stuck in – the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization, Yad Vashem, Keren Kayemeth,” Robinson explains. “Our own destiny is in our hands. That’s why we have our own board of directors, that’s why we make our own decisions about where our dollars go. That’s why we have our own office in Israel to implement them.”
As he sees it, a decision by the KKL-JNF leadership has as little to do with JNF-USA as a move by the Jewish Agency or Yad Vashem. “We’re an organization called the Jewish National Fund USA. We set our own directions and path. We have our own vision.”
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Regarding the fact that they still share a name, Robinson notes, “Everybody named Schwartz also shares a name” – implying that he feels as unrelated to the Israeli group as a Schwartz living in Cleveland might to a Schwartz in Tel Aviv. “I have zero relationship with the board of directors of the KKL, zero. And KKL has zero relationship with our board,” he says.
History and baggage
“Jewish National Fund” carries a great deal more history and baggage than the name Schwartz, of course. It is part and parcel of the history of Zionism, conjuring up nostalgic associations with the little blue charity boxes passed around by Jews worldwide, gathering coins to help purchase the land that would become the Jewish state. In subsequent years, the group became identified with the tradition of “planting a tree in Israel” – another Diaspora symbol of support for the Jewish state.
But the association is clearly outweighed by the uncomfortable “political mud” Robinson refers to. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund owns 13 percent of Israel’s land and enjoys a healthy income from leasing it. Like the other historic institutions he refers to, it is a political animal, completely intertwined with Israeli politics.
The current controversy is far from its first. It has been rapped by Israel’s state comptroller for potentially criminal-level mismanagement, accused of racial discrimination in its policies. Most recently, it has been implicated for denying Bedouin communities access to their lands and for displacing a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood.
JNF-USA’s decision to separate from its historic Israeli partner was first revealed in an investigation by The Forward in 2017. That article pointed out that while 60 percent of the U.S. organization’s fundraising went to its Israeli counterpart in 2008, seven years later, the amount of money transferred to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael had dropped to the insignificant fraction it is today.
Behind the scenes, sources say, KKL-JNF leaders are “furious” about the American organization’s chutzpah in embracing the name’s history but abandoning the formal connection to the Israeli institution. Others, more sympathetic to Robinson’s concerns, have made attempts to “put past disagreements aside and discuss new frameworks of cooperation to allow this historic partnership to continue for the good of Israel and Zionist unity” – but apparently to no avail.
Robinson was installed as CEO in 1998 by then-JNF President Ronald Lauder, and began remodeling the group into what he describes as for an age where donors are “no longer interested in throwing their money into a bucket, but demand control and accountability.”
He shuns any characterization of the distancing from the Israeli group as a “divorce,” preferring to describe it as a pivot to “sophisticated philanthropy” in which donors play an active role in deciding where their money goes.
Based on the direction of JNF-USA, that place is not the West Bank.
By emphasizing the development of the Galilee and Negev regions, the U.S. group preserves the pioneering spirit of its legacy, while implicitly steering clear of the divisive politics that projects in the occupied territories carry.
That subtext is heard loud and clear as Robinson waxes enthusiastic about his group’s projects aimed at developing and increasing population growth to the country’s northern and southern periphery: Initiatives range from supporting the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training to a Galilee Culinary Institute.
“Our work is not about being for or against anything,” Robinson says. “We have set our sights and our goals on the Negev and Galilee, which we see as the frontiers of Israel. When I talk about ‘Greater Israel,’ my Greater Israel is 77 percent of the state – 60 percent of which is in the Negev and 17 percent in the Galilee.”
While the group ducks divisive politics by keeping the bulk of its projects out of the occupied territories, it does not avoid them entirely, and therefore cannot be attacked from the right as boycotting them. For instance, under the banner of its “Heritage Site Preservation” projects, which Robinson characterizes as an Israeli version of the U.S. “Freedom Trail” of historic sites, JNF-USA has given hundreds of thousands of dollars for developments of the Gush Etzion Visitors Center and the Ammunition Hill Memorial Site in Jerusalem, both of which are located over Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
Donors have also supported a promenade and memorial site in Gush Etzion commemorating Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah – the three yeshiva students kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014 – together with Ezra Schwartz, a gap-year student from Boston killed by terrorists the following year. “The promenade we did for the boys came out of an obviously emotional moment that our donors wanted to be part of,” Robinson explains.
In addition, he says, two fire trucks underwritten by JNF-USA served West Bank communities, “because it is the government of Israel that decides where fire equipment is needed and not needed,” not his organization.
While Robinson does not say so explicitly, it seems clear that his group walks a tightrope between directing funds to serve its donors’ desires and avoiding potential political minefields. “When it comes to projects, the donors sit down and become part of our discussion. We ask: ‘Can we do it? Are we the best organization to do it? Or is it better to go somewhere else and do it because we aren’t set up for it?’”
He continues: “We’re not going to do something unless it’s worthy for us to take our great reputation just because a donor wants to put dollars here or there. We have enough stuff on the table that we believe makes a big difference in Jewish life.”
As for the remaining “less than a million dollars” annually that does find its way to KKL-JNF, Robinson explains his organization’s “vendor relationship” with them by noting: “Our money goes to projects that fulfill the goals of our donors. Forestation is a role of the KKL. So when people plant trees and groves, we send money to KKL for forestation. KKL does water reservoirs – they are the recognized authority to dig those holes and build those reservoirs.” Their Israeli counterpart, he says, is hired to “perform a cost-effective price at our desire, where we want them to do it.” Robinson admits that he has received calls and emails discussing the current KKL-JNF controversy – mainly, he says, as the result of the statements released by representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements warning that it could hurt JNF fundraising around the world.
He shrugs off their dire predictions.
“Nobody checked with me before releasing those statements,” he smiles. “Our fundraising has been stronger and stronger because people want to have a different conversation. … Nobody cares about the hallways of Knesset or the hallways of Congress. We care about the people of Be’er Sheva and Kiryat Shmona, in Modi’in and in Acre. Our message is: Let’s get together with each other and leave aside these high-level politics that nobody wants to get involved in anyway.”
KKL-JNF Deputy Chairman Alon Tal, who represents Kahol Lavan on the JNF board and strongly opposes the recent West Bank land acquisition decision (which still needs to be ratified at board level after the Israeli election on March 23), says that in his view, it has been sad to watch the two groups grow apart.
“The slow and steady distancing of KKL and JNF-USA is unfortunate, especially for someone like me who has such high regard for both organizations,” he says. “The truth is that JNF-USA over the years, under Russell Robinson‘s leadership, has indeed developed a unique, robust and creative institutional culture, which makes an extraordinary contribution to the quality of life in Israel, especially in the periphery.”