JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (JTA) — The Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael did not deliberately uproot trees planted by tourists in Jerusalem, according to a retired judge who looked into the controversy.
An examination was conducted by retired Judge Arie Segalson, who was appointed by the JNF-KKL in July to review the “Plant a Tree With You Own Hands” program after an article in the Israeli press claimed the organization was pulling up saplings planted by tourists and having others plant more trees in the same place.
The five-month examination did find forestry guidelines was not followed at the Ein Kerem planting area cited in the article, but they did not substantiate the allegations. The examination found saplings were improperly cared for and uprooted without their superiors’ knowledge.
But the examination cleared the organization of deliberately uprooting trees, as suggested in the articles that appeared last June in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv and its Jerusalem weekly, Kol Hazman.
“We never denied there were aberrations at the site, but the examination determined specifically it was an isolated lapse,” said JNF-KKL World Chairman Yehiel Leket. “The point is that there was no policy to pull up the trees planted by tourists to let others put different trees in their place. There was no deception.”
Some 80,000 trees are planted annually through the plant-a-tree program. Though the project is not one of the organization’s central activities, it plays a significant role in fostering a good public image.
Leket said it’s difficult to tell whether the controversy has had an impact on the plant-a-tree program. He pointed to the sharp drop in tourism since the outbreak of unrest in the territories, but noted that even those tourists who do come to Israel still plant trees.
In his examination, Segalson studied all aspects of the JNF-KKL tree center operations.
According to a statement released by the JNF in New York, the retired judge interviewed 18 JNF-KKL employees. He visited the five other tree-planting centers outside Jerusalem, where no irregularities were found.
According to the statement, Segalson noted that workers were diligent in their care for the saplings both before and after their planting.
Regarding the Ein Kerem tree-planting center, Segalson concluded that at no time did a worker uproot a tree in the manner described in the articles, which suggested saplings were pulled up shortly after their being planted. However, the examination said that the workers at the center did not follow appropriate forestry practices of watering, planting and maintenance, which prevented the saplings from taking root.
The saplings were then removed without the supervisors’ approval. The examination blamed a lack of strong supervision at the center for the problem.
Leket added that the environmental conditions at the Ein Kerem site make it particularly difficult for the trees to take root.
The inquiry also criticized the reporter who wrote the article in Kol Hazman. Segalson said the “facts as described in the article by the reporter were baseless, distorted and do not reflect reality.”
The statement said Segalson also concluded the photographs that appeared in the article distorted reality and that the accompanying captions were misleading.
A police complaint was lodged against the reporter.
Avi Zilberberg, editor of Kol Hazman, said the paper stood by the story.
“We stand behind all of our research and what was published,” he said. Zilberberg added that the paper was never contacted regarding the original photographs that were taken at the site.
“It seems very strange to me that they conducted an examination without contacting us or asking for the materials we have. I have dozens of pictures which prove what was published,” Zilberberg said.
Following submission of Segalson’s report, the JNF-KKL executive decided to adopt its recommendations. They include removing all tree-planting responsibility from former managers of the plant-a-tree project.
A decision was also made to restructure management of the program. Formerly overseen by the department responsible for raising funds abroad, it will be moved to the Department of Forestry, which is responsible for planting more than 2.5 million trees a year.