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JNF Allows Gay Group’s Plaque, Settling a Longstanding Dispute

A 14-year battle between the Jewish National Fund and the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations has finally been resolved.

As a result, a plaque bearing the words “Fourth International Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews” will be posted at the site of a 3,000-tree woodland in Lahav, Israel, that members of the group originally planned to dedicate in 1978.

At that time, there was no such thing as the World Congress, which today is an umbrella group of 42 synagogues, havurot and organizations of gay and lesbian Jews. Instead, groups of gay and lesbian Jews worked together in a loose network and gathered periodically for conventions.

The dispute dates back to 1977, when gay and lesbian Jews began buying trees through JNF, earmarking contributions to honor the Fourth International Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews.

When they arrived at the Lahav forest, in the north-central Negev, a year later to dedicate the woodland, JNF officials told them that it could not be done and that they could have their money back, according to Barrett Brick, executive director of the World Congress.

“We told them they couldn’t stop us from performing a mitzvah,” he recalled. And so began a battle that would go on for over a decade.

JNF’s policy at the time was to inscribe a plaque with a particular group’s name only when one check, for all the trees, came from that group, according to Stuart Paskow, director of communications and information for the land reclamation agency.

PRESSURE FROM THE RIGHT WING

But JNF was also under pressure at the time from right-wing groups in Israel to prevent the dedication of the site to a homosexual group.

Unable to find a way to resolve the issue, the two groups agreed to install a blank plaque.

In 1988, members of the World Congress began contacting JNF again, said Paskow. A year later, he met with Brick and Arthur Leonard, an attorney for the World Congress.

It was then that “we decided to see what we could do through patience and understanding, rather than posturing,” said Paskow.

By the end of last year, the JNF had agreed to inscribe the plaque with the name of the group. The decision was announced last Friday, at the World Congress’ annual board of directors meeting in Atlanta.

The new plaque has been ordered and will be unveiled within four to six weeks at the World Congress woodland, located in Israel’s largest forest, which contains 9 million trees.

“As a Jew, and as a gay person, I am doubly pleased that the JNF has finally acceded to our request,” said Brick. “We are thrilled that the JNF joins the State of Israel, and the vast majority of the Jewish community, in committing to a society inclusive and supportive of all Jews.

“Our bonds with Israel remain unbroken, and we look forward to expressing them once again through the JNF,” he said.

When asked if JNF was concerned about a negative reaction to its decision from right-wing or Orthodox Jewish groups, Paskow said, “We did what was the right thing to do, and we’re prepared to stand behind it.”

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