JNF Shifts Its Focus to Improving Environment on Its Land in Israel

An array of little blue boxes used to collect money from Jews across the globe for decades were displayed outside the Jewish National Fund’s international conference in Jerusalem as a testimony to this symbol of Jewish unity.

But the JNF knows that the boxes, which since 1901 were pivotal in helping acquire land in Palestine to establish a Jewish state, will not be enough to take the organization into its second century.

Instead, the organization is focusing on addressing ecological issues while maintaining the Zionist ideals the group was founded upon.

“We will continue to maintain the Jewish ownership of this land in line with our historical duties,” Shlomo Gravetz, world chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, told JTA. “But we also want to use the land to improve the quality of life in Israel by bringing Israelis closer to nature.”

In recent years, the group has adopted a nonradical ecological agenda which differs from more radical green groups that believe nature should never be touched.

“Only a green Israel is a livable and secure Israel,” Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund of America, said in a news release.

The new JNF logo is made up of two colors: blue to represent Israel’s precious water resources and green for the development of Israel’s semi-arid land.

Beyond plans for transforming the millions of tourists to Israel’s forests into serious naturalists, JNF is working to address the country’s main ecological problems.

JNF has worked with local municipalities and private developers to rehabilitate Israel’s rivers, which are some of the most polluted in the world.

During the past decade, JNF has constructed more than 100 reservoirs, which, according to Gravetz, have created a 5 percent increase in Israel’s water supply.

This past winter’s severe drought highlighted the region’s chronic water shortage, the result of rapid urbanization in an arid climate. Gravetz said he was forced to cut water consumption on his own farm by 40 percent.

By building reservoirs, rehabilitating rivers and helping forests flourish, JNF also hopes to boost funding at a time when many Jews are reconsidering donations to Israel.

“Many people want to give to Israel but they hate the politics,” said Alan Slade, federal president of JNF Australia. “JNF is totally apolitical.”

Russell Robinson, JNF’s executive vice president in New York, said the group is raising more money in the United States. American donations climbed from $21 million in 1997 to $28 million in 1998, and could exceed $30 million this year.

This year, KKL, the Jewish National Fund’s umbrella body, began streamlining its organization and has sent 1,011 workers to early retirement.

The reduction of nearly one-third of its work force in Israel could save about $25 million a year. In total, JNF raised some $40 million outside Israel in 1998, about a quarter of its $150 million budget. The remainder comes from rents on JNF lands in Israel.

The group, however, has twice found itself the focus of controversy in recent months.

A power struggle that nearly led JNF UK, the organization’s London office, to sever ties with KKL Israel headquarters sent ripples throughout the organization’s offices worldwide. That spat has since been mended.

Last August, Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli movement, accused JNF of collaborating with settler organizations to evict an Arab family from its eastern Jerusalem home.

The organization insists the dispute is a legal issue because the Gozlan family’s home was built on land owned by JNF. The group said it has agreed not to forcibly evict the family, but still insists that it has the right to.

The dispute highlighted one controversial aspect of JNF’s policy, which conference participants say will not change: JNF, which owns some 13 percent of Israel’s land, does not lease land to non-Jews as a matter of policy.

Israeli Arabs say the policy is discriminatory. Azmi Beshara, Israel’s first Arab candidate for prime minister, said Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population but live on only 3 percent of the country’s land, and the fast- growing community desperately needs room to expand. Some Israeli demographers and sociologists warn that without a solution, Israel may eventually face a serious crisis on this issue.

Gravetz says these issues need to be addressed by the government. “I don’t think it is up to the KKL to sort those problems out,” he said. “We will stick to our historical duties as trustees of the Jewish people.”

Overseas JNF leaders agree, but some think the shift toward ecological issues could help solve the problem.

“No, we don’t lease land to non-Jews, but we do a lot of things for all of the people of Israel,” Robinson said. “When we provide comfort zones or help the ecology, it’s for all the people of Israel — not just Jews.”

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