Everything JNF Wants to Know About Democracy, But Was Afraid to Ask

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Shahar Ilan reported in Ha’aretz on 7/30 that the JNF is receiving “messages from its branches all over the world. The branch activists cannot contend with the claims that the JNF discriminates against Arabs…On May 17… the [Israel] Attorney General’s office sent a letter to the High Court stating, ‘The Attorney General believes that the Israel Lands Authority must uphold the principle of equality and that it cannot discriminate based on nationality when acting in its capacity as director of JNF lands.’”

Ilan pours cold water on JNF’s claim that “no one can tell it what to do with its property.” In fact, he explains, “half the lands in [JNF’s] possession belong to absentee [Arab] owners, and were sold to it by the state in 1953. The ACRI [the Association for Civil Rights in Israel] stated in its petition: ‘These lands are the property of the entire public, and their transfer to JNF does not free them from coming under the purview of public law…It is clearly problematic if the JNF acquired the property of absentee Arab landowners and Arabs now cannot lease the land.” We are talking about 11% of the land in the entire State of Israel.

Meron Benvenisti points out in Ha’aretz (May 29, 2007) that these lands “were not purchased with the small coins put into the blue boxes, but were rather lands abandoned by Arabs that David Ben-Gurion, in a typical maneuver, ‘sold’ to the JNF in 1949-1950.” ”This was an improper and also an illegal decision,” explains Benvenisti. “The Israeli government sold the JNF lands that it did not own, but which had rather been captured in the war (and even the laws that it had enacted by then did not grant the state ownership of these lands).” What’s more, “The heads of the JNF knew very well that the sale was illegal, but it was important to them to establish that the JNF would continue serving as the institution that held the Jewish people’s lands and developed them for purposes of settlement. They insisted that the government commit itself to ‘making (in the future) all the legal arrangements so that the lands will be registered under the JNF’s full ownership under the laws of the State of Israel.’”

The Jerusalem Post reports that “The reasoning behind the bill, according to the JNF, is that “the land purchased by the Jewish people for the Jewish people should remain in the hands of its rightful owners.” “It’s important for us who had a covenant with the donors, that we honor that covenant,” said Russell Robinson, chief executive officer of JNF. “For 2000 years, I don’t remember that we were praying and dreaming that we can’t wait to establish a democratic state in the Middle East, but we did say that we can’t wait to reestablish a Jewish homeland.”

Realistic Dove blogger and Ameinu board member Dan Fleshler, who wrote Ameinu’s letter to the Knesset Members sponsoring the JNF land bill, best captured the astonishment of many at Russell Robinson’s apologetics for the bill:

“Excuse me? Along with ending the occupation, the most daunting challenge faced by Israel is to remain a democracy with a Jewish majority that affords equal rights and a sense of belonging to Israel’s Arab citizens. The anti-Israel left and the far right in Israel believe that is impossible. Many Israelis (Jews and Arabs) and their supporters overseas believe it can and must be done (with, for example, aggressive affirmative action programs to close the economic and educational gaps, mandatory teaching of Arabic in all public schools, a civil service option for Israel Arabs who can’t serve in the military, declaring that Israel is a “state for all its citizens” and other measures).

“But rather than trying to figure out how to address the challenge, the man responsible for the JNF in the U.S. has apparently thrown up his hands and said, ‘Forget democracy. That’s a minor priority.’

“No it isn’t. We should be ‘praying and dreaming’ that the problems of Israel’s Arabs citizens will be solved, rather than telling them that they will never have the same rights as their Jewish neighbors. That’s the task ahead for Israel. It won’t be accomplished by scribbling the same propositions, again and again. Too many of them are based on a time when the ‘terrible incantations of defeats’ were still ringing in our ears. The Jews have won. The state is here. But the victory will always be partial unless and until that state is reinvented so that one fifth of its citizens feel like they have a stake in it.”

After playing down the importance of equality and liberal democracy, JNF America CEO Russell Robinson argues further in a position paper published by the JNF under the title “The Jewish State of Israel,” that “democracy is a process that allows us to participate freely in the decisions and debates of the country in which we live.” This however is a popular but famously flawed, minimalist concept of democracy as purely procedural. The kind of democracy which we in the West “all believe,” in Robinson’s words, is in fact a political system which guarantees certain fundamental rights, liberties and opportunities equally to all citizens generally through a Constitution or other set of basic laws, with separation of power, checks and balances applied by courts, a legislature and an executive, and a free press. To confuse the liberal democracy in which we all believe in the enlightened world—the standard by which we criticize the current JNF bill—with minimalist electoral democracy is tendentious and misleading.

Robinson expands his “weak procedural democracy” concept into an even more suspect democracies-aren’t so-good-for-the-Jews argument. He offers the claim that “A democratic system brought an evil man, Hitler, to power and took from us 6 million of our people…We need Israel because history has proved that even within democracies the Jewish people have had to endure pogroms, discrimination, anti-Semitism and death.” Hitler in fact exploited the mechanisms of electoral parliamentary democracy, along with xenophobic and ultra-nationalist demagoguery, to institute a violent dictatorship, suppress political opposition, suspend basic rights and launch a world war and the destruction of European Jewry. But this is no more useful than saying that a procedural, electoral democracy resulted in the election of Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist political movement, to form the Palestinian government last year.

These examples show not that democracies don’t protect the Jews—anti-Semitic pogroms and genocide occurred mainly in non-democratic countries like Russia and Poland, and in a German dictatorship, not in the democracies of Western Europe and the United States (except where they were overrun by the Nazis, as in France)—but that the kind of democracy that Robinson himself says “we all believe in” is not in fact what we all believe in. Rather, we support liberal democracy, in which equal rights are guaranteed to all citizens, not illiberal electoral democracies, which are notoriously prone to nationalist war and conflict and which deny their citizens equal protection under the law. It is, to reiterate, the correct conception of democracy—a political system which establishes institutions for the equal protection of the rights and opportunities of all citizens, which include free and fair elections and much more—in which we believe and on the basis of which we object to the JNF bill.

Labor MK, and former contender for the leadership of the Labor Party, Ami Ayalon has taken some heat for his vote in favor of the JNF land bill on its first reading. In fact, Ayalon has explained to Ha’aretz that he recognizes that “there is a built-in contradiction between the JNF as a body that deals with acquiring lands and settling Jews, and the administration of state lands by the Israel Lands Authority.” His solution is for JNF to agree to “return to the state all absentee owners’ land” and for it to “change its aims and start leasing lands not only to Jews, but for any objective that suits the state’s needs.” This is a worthy and far-reaching proposal.

However, Ayalon does not apply his own principle in a principled way. He proposes, for example, that the JNF “should lease lands to demobilized soldiers of all religions.” But this would simply reproduce the discrimination against Israeli Arab citizens in a new form. Among Israel’s 20% Arab population, only Druze and Circassians serve in the IDF, a tiny fraction of the Arab population. Until Israel institutes national service for all citizens and the JNF offers to lease land to all who have completed national service, either in the IDF or in a civil national service corps, the changes Ayalon proposes would reproduce the discrimination against most Arab citizens of Israel. Ayalon also believes that JNF should lease its land for the establishment of Jewish-Muslim institutions, a worthy cause.

At the same time, Ayalon’s position gives him a rope to climb down from the JNF tree. Ayalon has promised that if his proposed changes are not made to the bill, he will vote against it on any second reading in the Knesset. We need more principled flip-flopping of just this sort in the Knesset. Now that’s democracy at work!

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