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United Kingdom’s JNF chapter splits from Israel headquarters

JERUSALEM, March 18 (JTA) — After a yearlong power struggle, the Jewish National Fund’s United Kingdom fund-raising office is breaking away from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, one of Israel’s most prominent fund-raising organizations. The move marks the first time that one of the more than 30 Keren Kayemeth overseas offices has split from the Israel headquarters of the organization known primarily for land development and tree-planting in Israel. Though not considered to be at issue here, the British split coincides with growing tension between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, as many Jewish communities consider changing funding priorities and channels to Israel amid an intensifying conflict over religious pluralism in Israel. The divorce could also have far-reaching financial implications. JNF UK, Britain’s third largest Jewish charity, raised $8 million last year. But more importantly, it has contributed its funds through Keren Kayemeth, known as KKL, for 90 years. KKL owns some 17 percent of Israel’s land. “They were trying to turn us into a British chapter of KKL,” Gail Seal, JNF UK president, said in a telephone interview with JTA. “If we accepted this, we would be in danger of losing our charitable status in the UK.” In Israel, KKL World Chairman Shlomo Gravetz reversed the charges. He accused the British office of “political manipulation” aimed at wresting control from KKL in Israel and of trying to convince other overseas JNF offices to do the same. “We will never agree to allow the center of activity to be transferred from Jerusalem,” he said. KKL, founded in 1901, was the vehicle through which Jews around the world funded the acquisition of land in Palestine. This acquisition was instrumental to Israel’s establishment in 1948. KKL’s controversial charter bans the sale of land to non-Jews. On Wednesday, Seal sent a harsh letter to Gravetz, explaining the group’s decision. In the letter obtained by JTA, Seal accused Gravetz of trying to control internal affairs and even shut down the London office, which is registered as an independent charity in the U.K. “We are, with immediate effect, formalising the steps we have already taken to fund raise through Israel through other avenues,” said the letter, citing a unanimous decision by its board on March 7. For his part, Gravetz slammed JNF UK for its “brutal” treatment of Israeli representatives who had been working in London. The dispute reached a climax in January, when JNF UK barred two Israeli representatives of KKL from entering its London office. KKL demanded an apology. Seal conceded that JNF UK could have handled the situation in a more diplomatic fashion, but she defended the decision, saying JNF UK kept the Israelis out to protect the organization’s assets and donor confidentiality. Seal has scheduled a meeting with representatives of all British Jewish organizations and said the row may strain relations between Britain’s Jewish community and Israel. But, she added, JNF UK intends to continue raising money for Israel, and will channel all funds raised to date through JNF UK. However, KKL plans to take the dispute to a London court, and will try to force JNF UK to change its name. “In the name of KKL’s goals and ideals, moneys will be raised from Jews in England but will not be transferred to KKL,” said Gravetz. “We will demand that they return every penny collected that has not been transferred to us.”