Until a few years ago I had a pushke (Yiddish for “little charity box”) for the Jewish National Fund in every house I lived in, as did most of my relatives. The little blue and white box, which usually features imagery of tree planting or the map of the modern state of Israel, is for most Jews a ubiquitous, heartwarming symbol and an iconic feature of modern Jewish life.
“What is the meaning of the blue box?” one version of the pushke has written on its side. “It is not just a simple container with an unusual message. Small as it is, it stands for a big idea—for one of the greatest partnerships the world has ever known—that of the Jewish people everywhere with the land of Israel.”
For the average Jew, the JNF is most strongly associated with planting trees. When I was a child going to a Jewish day school, I was told that where Israel is now there had before been desert, and the JNF had been instrumental in filling it with trees. Then, as now, Jewish children had trees in Israel dedicated in their name, and schools connected donating towards tree-planting in Israel with both Zionism and messages of ecological stewardship.
There is no question that the JNF has been a force for the greening of Israel, yet for years it has been dogged by accusations of enacting discriminatory policies that aid in the dispossession and disempowerment of Palestinians. More recently it has been accused of directly funding the Israeli army, an activity that is illegal for a Canadian charity. The JNF has also been criticized for its funding of settlements in the occupied territories. Although the organization still enjoys broad support in the Canadian Jewish community, the wind may be changing.
Financial support for Israeli military
In 2017 a complaint was filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, supported by Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a human rights group focused on advocacy for Palestinians.
“JNF Canada works in violation of the Income Tax Act and in contravention of Canadian foreign policy in various ways,” says the complaint.
It alleges that JNF Canada supports initiatives that are intended to benefit the Israeli military. In addition to its philanthropic and land development plans in Israel, JNF Canada has funded infrastructure projects on Israeli army, air, and naval bases.
According to the CRA, funding intended to increase the “effectiveness and efficiency” of a foreign military cannot be tax-deductible.
The CRA also indicates that an organization cannot have charitable status if its actions go against public policy. The 2017 complaint raises the issue of JNF Canada’s involvement in building in the West Bank, which seems to contradict official Canadian foreign policy goals.
According to the website of Global Affairs Canada, “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”
After months of trying to bring the media’s attention to the complaint, Independent Jewish Voices Canada finally got a CBC segment on Jan. 4, bringing the controversy into the mainstream. JNF CEO Lance Davis responded to CBC News with a statement that the organization had stopped funding projects for the Israeli military in 2016 after being informed of the CRA guidance.
But JNF’s history and current activities point to trouble that goes beyond funding infrastructure on army bases, and even beyond funding illegal Jewish settlements.
A troubled history
The JNF was founded at the fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, in Basel, Switzerland. Based on the proposal of a German Jewish mathematician, Zvi Hermann Schapira, its purpose was to buy and cultivate land for Jewish settlement, in what was then Ottoman Palestine, on behalf of the Zionist dream, little more than a fantasy at the time.
By World War II, one million JNF pushkes could be found in Jewish homes around the world. The JNF was instrumental in the founding of the modern city of Tel Aviv and soon became famous for its afforestation efforts. JNF policy is to lease land long-term as opposed to selling it, allowing the organization to retain ultimate control of the land it owns and to position itself as the “trustee” of the land for the Jewish people. It only leases land to Jews, which allows it to maintain exclusive Jewish control of the land.
Created in 1948, the Israeli state began to sell “absentee” land to the JNF for development. This land had belonged to Palestinians who fled or were expelled by Israeli soldiers during the War of Independence. In the 1950s the administration of large portions of JNF land was transferred to the state, thus creating a situation where a private entity (the JNF) executed discriminatory leases (only for Jews) on lands that were administered by the Israeli state, allowing the state to escape claims of direct civil rights violations.
Although the seized lands had previously belonged to or long been used by Palestinians, they were effectively made property of the Israeli state in the 1950s. In many cases the land had technically belonged to the Ottoman state or to Britain and been lived on by Palestinians, but “state ownership” was now transferred to the Israeli state and the land was used for Jewish settlement. Often this occurred with the help of the JNF.
After the 1967 war, in which Israel seized control of what are now the occupied territories of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, the JNF began funding projects in the controversial settlements there as well.
The main projects of the JNF in Israel today are philanthropic and centered on afforestation, the creation of parks and playgrounds for children, and projects that benefit vulnerable members of society. Today the JNF owns 13 per cent of all the land in Israel and brings in some $3 billion a year, most of it from land sales. The Israeli public associates the JNF mostly with forests and parks.
“In many of their parks, they are establishing trails for bicycles. It’s all about leisure, sport, and the healthy life,” says Eitan Bronstein, founder of the Israeli NGO Zochrot, which is dedicated to remembering and documenting the realities of Palestinian life before what Palestinians call the nakba (“destruction”), which occurred during the founding of the Israeli state.
“Yet since the beginning of Israel, the JNF has been involved both in the destruction of Palestinian villages and the building of new Jewish settlements.”
According to Bronstein, the activities of the JNF in Israel constitute a form of “greenwashing.” Areas that were formally Palestinian villages and lands are reallocated to the JNF and then covered in forests or new Jewish settlements, erasing their former identity.
A signature case of Canadian involvement in this aspect of the JNF’s activities is Canada Park, which was funded by JNF Canada and was built on top of what had previously been Palestinian villages.
David Halton, formerly a foreign correspondent for the CBC, has added his voice to the call to take away JNF Canada’s charitable status. Halton says that Canada Park is built over three Palestinian villages, which he saw in 1967 while covering the Six Day War.
“As a matter of decency and legality,” Halton says on the website stopthejnf.ca, “the name ‘Canada Park’ should be removed and any further tax deductible donations to it disallowed.”
A country of refuge for all
The JNF has historically enjoyed good relations with the Canadian government, however, and continues to do so. Its 2013 Negev Dinner (named after its efforts to terraform the southern Israeli desert, where there is an ongoing conflict between the Israeli state and indigenous Bedouins) honoured Stephen Harper for his support for Israel.
The JNF 2018 fundraising gala in Vancouver, which I attended as a journalist, also honoured ex-general Doron Almog, who narrowly escaped an arrest on charges of crimes against humanity during a stopover in Britain in 2005, and featured B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin as a speaker. How likely the audit of the JNF is to reform the organization’s activities in Israel or change its profile in Canada is anybody’s guess.
The truth is that my JNF pushke is still somewhere in my house, a few coins uselessly trapped in it while it sits in a box or drawer. It’s true that the JNF funds some good philanthropic work in Israel, but I would no longer put coins in it, not as long as the organization is in any significant way associated with an unjust version of Zionism or discriminatory policies towards non-Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
Like a growing number of Jews (most of them, I note with hope, younger than me), I am more likely to give my money to IfNotNow, an anti-occupation organization, or to Rabbis for Human Rights, which works in Israel to bring justice and equal rights for all. If there is a future for Israel that I want to invest in, it’s one that allows the country to be a refuge for Jews as intended, but not for Jews alone.