JNF, Zionism and the Real Estate Question

Categories: Letters from the Leadership

Over the summer Ameinu got involved with a particularly emotional and complicated issue, a law that Israel’s Knesset passed in a preliminary reading that essentially allows the Israel Land Authority (ILA) to discriminate against Arabs by selling Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL/JNF)land to Jews only.  The proposed law comes to codify a 1961 agreement between the KKL/JNF and the ILA, which authorizes the ILA to manage KKL/JNF lands in accordance with the KKL/JNF charter which limited the sale of land to Jews only.

Why was this law proposed this summer, 46 years after the aforementioned agreement?   Has no one cared about this apparent discriminatory behavior until now?   The answer is not a simple one and raises issues about the Zionist movement, Israeli self-identity and the vibrant nature of Israeli democracy. All of this also raises the question of the role of the KKL/JNF, 60 years after the establishment of the state.

To get a better handle on the issues, over the past two weeks I have been in contact with KKL/JNF board members, JNF United States board members, Knesset members and Israeli civil rights activists.

First, this is what I have learned about the facts and history.

Since it was chartered by Theodore Herzl and the World Zionist Organization in 1901, the KKL/JNF has purchased land to promote settlement of Israel by the Jewish people. This includes land bought from the State that was originally owned by Arab residents prior to the 1948 War of Independence. As a result, the KK’L/JNF owns around 13% of the land in Israel.

For many years, there were individual cases of non-Jews interested in buying an apartment or house that was situated on KKL/JNF land. To avoid state sanctioned discrimination, the KKL/JNF and the ILA simply exchanged property. The non-Jew was allowed to purchase the property, it became an ILA holding and the ILA gave a similar property to KKL/JNF. As long as the laws and regulations regarding ILA and KKL/JNF lands remained identical, this arrangement was considered a sometimes bureaucratic but satisfactory way to address the 5-10 annual occurrences. In practice, a legal fiction helped maintain both the KKL/JNF ownership of “the Jewish people’s land” and equal access to land sales for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Here is the complicated part. A person who owns an apartment or house on KKL/JNF land doesn’t actually own the land under the building, but rather holds a 49 year renewable lease. In 2004, as part of an effort to simplify land ownership, the government changed the ILA regulations to allow people to actually purchase the ILA land and the building. This created differences between the KKL/JNF and the ILA lands and essentially made it complicated for the two agencies to continue the 43 year “property swap” practice.

This predictably triggered an appeal to the Israeli High Court of Justice (hence my comment about the vibrant Israeli democracy) and in 2004 the court decided that the ILA couldn’t discriminate against non-Jewish citizens even when administering KKL/JNF lands. When the ILA did not implement the court decision, the Attorney General ruled that the policy was discriminatory and he would not defend it in the High Court, first in 2005 and again this spring (another healthy dose of Israeli democracy at work).

The law that passed the Knesset in a first reading this summer would allow the ILA to follow its 1961 agreement with the KKL/JNF, thus circumventing both the court decision and the Attorney General’s instructions.

The reactions were swift.

Israel’s critics around the world held up the legislation as proof of Israel’s inherent racist nature. An Israeli daily newspaper and Knesset members used the same language in their attack on the proposed law.

Reaction from Israel’s supporters around the world was varied. Ameinu was vocal in opposition to the law together with our colleagues in Ameinu Australia, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Union of Reform Judaism and others. Leaders of JNF USA, the American fundraising affiliate, were equally vocal in their support for what they saw as the preservation of the historic role of the KKL/JNF in Israel.

Immediately after the law passed in a preliminary reading, the Knesset went into a recess that began in August and lasted through the end of the Jewish holidays. Those Israeli legislators really know how to live!

In September, the KKL/JNF board met to discuss how to avoid what appeared to be a dangerous collision in both the Knesset and the arena of public debate. Since that meeting all signs point towards a negotiated solution. In a temporary agreement overseen by the High Court of Justice, the KKL/JNF has agreed to sell landto non-Jews forthree months while it drafts a final land-swap deal with the ILA. Under the proposed arrangement theKKL/JNF will exchange urban land for rural property and financial compensation, thus eliminating the direct conflict area.

In a recent Ha’aretz article, KKL/JNF Deputy Chair Menachem Leibowitz was quoted as saying that most of the organization’s leadership oppose the Knesset bill. Through private conversations I can confirm that this is correct. The common phrases used to refer to the proposed law were “irrelevant” and “unnecessary.” I was told that “it will never get out of committee.”

Unfortunately, the bill’s sponsors have not withdrawn the bill, not even temporarily, and are pushing forward. They clearly see this as an opportunity to make a political statement, even if the KKL/JNF does not agree. One source told me that the bill’s supporters are using this opportunity to issue dire warnings about the “demographic time bomb.” While demographics in Israel is a topic worth discussing, it is hard to see how the sale of 5-10 apartments to non-Jews really requires a new law.

As the bill’s sponsors push on…Ameinu here in the U.S. and our Australian colleagues are sending letters to Knesset members urging them to oppose the bill. We are recruiting other organizations as well.

Even if the law never sees the light of day AND the KKL/JNF and ILA reach an acceptable agreement to ensure equal access to housing for Jews and non-Jews alike, a major issue remains.

What is the role of the KKL-JNF 60 years after the establishment of the state? Some suggest that organization is already shifting from a largely settlement role to an environmental one. Efi Stensler, the World KKL-JNF Chairman, refers to it as “the largest green organization in Israel.” Alon Tal, a leading member of the Board of Directors, speaks with great enthusiasm about the environmental initiatives under way in areas of research, forestation, water management, bike paths and more under the auspices of the KKL/JNF. While the land leasing activity is a “good business” and brings revenue to the organization, that may very well long term be a distraction from the new “core business” of environmental innovation and protection.

The World Zionist Organization, as the parent body of the KKL/JNF, should appropriately discuss the mission of the organization in light of its tremendous achievements and the changing reality. On a related note, the local Zionist movement in each country should engage in a similar discussion with the local JNF fundraising arm.It is important that Diaspora JNF lay leaders make decisions based on full information and first hand knowledge of Israel’s needs.

Diaspora Jews have the right and responsibility to speak out on issues of import that impact Israel. The question of the role and activity of the KKL/JNF is a natural one that deserves our continuing attention.

About Kenneth Bob, National President

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu. He is a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors,  the treasurer of Board of Directors of J Street and a board member of the Forward Association. Ken is a past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation, the national alumni association of the Labor Zionist youth movement, providing financial support for their educational programming throughout North America. In his professional life, Ken is an experienced entrepreneur and currently provides management consulting for small and merging companies.
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