NEW YORK, July 11 (JTA) — In the aftermath of an Israeli newspaper article accusing it of uprooting tourist-planted trees in Jerusalem, the Jewish National Fund is on the defensive.
It has suspended workers at the tree-planting center in question, appointed a committee to investigate the allegations and said in an official statement that uprooting trees to have other tourists replant them is “in utter contradiction to JNF’s policy and regulations.”
But whether or not the JNF is pulling saplings out of the ground, it is clear that tree planting no longer plays center stage in the organization’s activities or fund raising.
Tree planting is “a good public relations program” and a “good emotional opportunity for people to link to the land of Israel,” said Russell Robinson, executive vice president of the JNF’s U.S. operations.
Officials are downplaying the impact of the Ma’ariv article last month — and ensuing media coverage in the United States — contending it will have little effect on its fund-raising and public relations efforts in the United States.
Most American Jews have long associated the JNF with trees, dating back to the organization’s origins in 1903, when it used trees to stake out Jewish-owned land in Ottoman-ruled Palestine.
Today, an estimated 75 percent of Jewish tours to Israel include an opportunity to plant trees under JNF auspices, and 80,000 trees are planted each year by tourists.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of trees are ordered each year by American Jews who mark life-cycle events by purchasing JNF trees in a loved one’s honor.
And trees are featured heavily in the organization’s promotional materials, with its Web site featuring an “online tree planting center” from which donors can order trees.
But JNF officials say the “plant-your-own-tree” centers are a small portion of the organization’s work and cultivate more good will than forests.
With Israel facing a slew of environmental problems — the need for water being the most pressing — the JNF is planting some 2.5 million trees each year and tending to the 220 million trees that already exist.
But 10 years ago, the JNF planted closer to 4 million trees each year.
Now the organization, known in Israel as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, is sinking an increasing amount of its resources into constructing reservoirs and rehabilitating the country’s rivers, which are some of the most polluted in the world.
The group has constructed 100 reservoirs in the past decade and is currently raising money to construct another 100 in the coming years.
Twenty-eight percent of the organization’s total budget in Israel is spent on afforestation — planting new trees and maintaining existing forests — and 23 percent is spent on developing water resources, according to officials.
JNF officials anticipate that water will soon surpass trees as a spending priority, and the organization will soon offer donors not only the opportunity to plant a tree, but to link a donation to a reservoir or other water-related effort.
The remaining money the JNF spends in Israel goes toward developing communities in the Negev Desert, developing tourist sites, Zionist and ecological education and research.
Last month’s Ma’ariv article, entitled “The Great Tree Fraud,” suggested that workers at the JNF’s planting center in Jerusalem routinely uproot trees planted by tourists and give the same saplings to the next group of tourists to plant again.
The article also said that few of the trees survive.
JNF officials have responded that if uprooting occurred, it was an isolated incident and not official policy.
But Robinson acknowledged that fewer than half of the trees planted in Jerusalem survive, primarily because of the arid and rocky soil.
Almost 95 percent of the trees planted at the five planting centers outside of Jerusalem survive, he said.
However, the Jerusalem site — with its proximity to other major tourist attractions — is where slightly more than 25 percent of tourists plant.
Robinson also said the JNF’s six tree-planting centers — where tourists pay $10 to plant a tree — are actually money-losing ventures.
“We have to have workers on site, people watering the trees, and when they die we have to replant them,” he said, noting that because the tourists are “not professional tree planters,” some do not fully or properly plant the trees, which then must be replanted by workers.
While tourists planting trees may not directly benefit the JNF, the activity of “putting a hand in the soil of the Jewish people” helps foster an attachment to Israel and environmentalism, said Robinson.
He said then when he talks to people about the water crisis in Israel, “they see the importance.”
Robinson said that in the aftermath of the negative press, only a few donors have called to express concerns about the uprooting allegations and that most who did call ended up buying trees anyway once they were told that the uprootings — if they happened — were isolated incidents.
The controversy comes as the JNF is still recovering from widely publicized reports four years ago that the JNF sent only 20 percent of its revenues raised in the United States to Israel.
An internal probe confirmed that finding and also found “inefficiencies” in its accounting and spending practices.
Those findings undermined the organization’s fund raising and image, but in the past three years, officials say, it has significantly restructured, sharply cut its overhead spending and surpassed pre-1996 fund raising levels.
Now, approximately 60 percent of funds raised go to Israel, said Robinson, with the remainder staying in the United States for Zionist education and fund raising.
The JNF in the United States has increased its revenues from $21 million three years ago to $33 million this year, brought in several million-dollar donors and now has a total of 450,000 donors, up from 375,000 three years ago, according to Robinson.
In 1994, prior to the internal probe, the organization raised $26. 9 million.
JNF officials credit the organization’s president, Ronald Lauder, with contributing generously — officials won’t say how much — and helping to bring in many new major donors, including several million-dollar donors.
Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, is also chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Money raised in the United States by the JNF accounts for only 12.5 percent of the operating budget of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael.
The second largest landowner in Israel, the KKL gains most of its revenues from real estate holdings and has been criticized in the past for its refusal to rent land to Arabs.
Ruth Hurwitz, a lay leader at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, who coordinates partnerships between her organization and the JNF, said Hadassah’s relationship with JNF will not be affected by the controversy over the tree planting.
In fact, Hadassah is about to contribute $3 million toward a JNF reservoir, she said.
“I have every confidence in the investigation they’re doing,” she said.
Like Robinson, she praised the plant-your-own-tree ritual, saying tourists “want that experience of planting a tree with their own hands.”
“It’s extremely meaningful to everyone who does it,” she added.