Israeli media report that former President Bill Clinton will speak at an event honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday. According to the reports, President Clinton is to receive half a million dollars for his talk, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund. Despite its important role in establishing the State of Israel, in the decades that followed, and especially since the occupation of the West Bank, the JNF has been a leading factor both in controversial and discriminatory land distribution policies within sovereign Israel, as well as in the settlement enterprise in the West Bank.
The Jewish National Fund was founded in 1901, and was one of the first practical projects the newly established World Zionist Organization led. In the next 47 years the JNF was crucial in purchasing and developing lands for the establishment of Jewish communities—kibbutzim, moshavim, towns and villages—despite hostile Ottoman and later British authorities in pre-Israel Palestine. It also played an important psychological role in creating an emotional commitment of Jews in the diaspora towards the Jewish community in Palestine and later on in the newly established State of Israel. Many who lived through those days cherish the famous JNF Blue Box, which was present in many Jewish homes across the world, with kids and grown-ups alike donating their pennies and dimes to plant a tree in the Jewish national homeland.
Yet after the establishment of Israel, which was supposed to be the fulfillment of the JNF’s goal, the organization continued to exist, increasingly taking upon itself controversial policies as years passed. The Israeli government transferred a significant part of the lands it now owned to the ownership of the JNF. The latter, a so-called private organization, was able to implement discriminatory policies that a democratic government committed to the principle of equality could not. In many of the communities established by the JNF, the by-laws require that residents must be eligible to be members of the Jewish Agency, meaning that they must be Jewish. Given that many of those communities were established surrounding Arab communities (in lands appropriated from them by the state), the goal was pretty blunt. Only in the year of 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled this policy as illegal. Yet even today, the JNF plays a major role in the land battles in Southern Israel, where the authorities have repeatedly demolished homes in unrecognized Bedouin communities.
Israeli Mizrahi Jewish activists (mainly the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition) also slammed the JNF for its role in discriminatory land distribution policies which harmed Development Towns, populated primarily by Mizrahi Jews.
Perhaps the JNF’s most controversial role is the one it took upon itself in June 1967, right after the Six Day War and the military occupation of the West Bank. The JNF is involved in development and infrastructure projects in the settlements. Many of the lands that were allocated for Israeli settlements in the West Bank were purchased by “Himnuta,” a subsidiary of the JNF. The JNF is also investing in foresting projects in the settlements which expand their territory at the expense of local Palestinian residents. All of these actions are contrary to international law, which determines that the occupier is merely a guardian of the lands, and must use them solely for immediate military needs or for the benefit of the local occupied population. This same law prohibits transferring its own population into occupied territory; certainly the resources of the West Bank cannot be allocated to Israel’s population.
For better or worse, the JNF is part of Israel. It should be acclaimed by anyone who cares about Israel for its historic role in establishing the Jewish homeland. Even today, the JNF is a leader in important ecological projects. Yet these accomplishments cannot excuse its discriminatory and at times illegal policies towards both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, whose basic human rights are violated. Former President Clinton, who led bold attempts for peace between Israel and the Palestinians during his time in office, and who is famous for his deep knowledge of the details of the conflict, should be more prudent in choosing the organizations from which he will receive honoraria, and avoid those that perpetuate the occupation.