NEW YORK (JTA) — Some 35 Jewish, Israeli and Israeli-Arab organizations signed a petition pressing the Jewish National Fund to stop abetting the destruction of Bedouin villages.
The letter, sent on the eve of the JNF’s annual conference, which convened this week in Atlanta, earned a sharp rebuke from JNF CEO Russell Robinson, who said the JNF actually is helping Bedouins in the Negev Desert.
Addressed to Robinson, JNF Chairman Ronald Lauder and President Stanley Chesley, the letter calls on the JNF “to end its complicity in the discriminatory policy of the government of Israel and the Israel Land Administration (ILA) of destroying Bedouin villages in the Negev and dispossessing Israel’s Bedouin community of their land."
It calls on the JNF to stop forestation activities in areas of existing Bedouin villages, fund projects for Israel’s Bedouin citizens and communities at higher levels, and join human rights organizations working to allow Bedouins to live on their traditional lands.
Its signatories include a host of groups funded by the New Israel Fund, including Shatil, an arm of NIF, and several Israeli-Arab groups funded by the NIF. It was signed as well by Meretz USA, the American progressive Zionist group affiliated with the liberal Israeli political party, and Rabbis for Human Rights.
Robinson rejected the notion that the JNF is working against Bedouins in Israel.
“I challenge them to match half a dollar to a dollar to what we have invested in helping the Bedouin population,” he said. “We have a $3 million campaign to raise money for sustainable farming 100 acres in Hura," a Bedouin area.
Robinson also suggested that the petition is shortsighted. Illegal Bedouin villages “cover 60 percent of the Negev,” he said.
“If you want to become a legal village, this is what you have to do: Put in sewage systems, build infrastructure, electricity. Put that down on 60 percent of the footprint of the Negev, and then you have an environmental crisis,” he said.
The letter, which is available online at bedouinjewishjustice.blogspot.com, accompanied a petition of American Jews that now has nearly 4,000 signatories calling on the JNF to stop projects that displace Bedouin who live in unrecognized villages.