This Columbus Day weekend, the Jewish National Fund USA held its annual meeting in Atlanta. Like many Jews from the US, I grew up in communities that raised money for seemingly benign JNF campaigns to plant trees in Israel through our purchase of Hanukkah candles. But this year, as the JNF gathered in Atlanta, I stood with many Atlanta Jews and others to protest JNF practices which stand as obstacles in the path to a just peace based on freedom, safety, and equality for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
As a charity with 501c3 status, the JNF, created in 1901 to acquire land exclusively for Jewish settlement, enjoys a wide reputation as a leading environmental organization. To many of us, however, this reputation has become incompatible with the reality that the trees we funded for all those years were purposefully used to plant over and to hide villages from which Palestinians were forcibly removed (greenwashing). Far from a charity organization, the activities of the JNF are based on its discriminatory founding mission: the removal of indigenous Palestinians from their land and property to hold in exclusive reserve for Jews living in Israel and elsewhere. This is only one part of a worrying trend when it comes to American tax dollars and Israel.
A recent New York Times report identified “at least 40 American groups”, such as the controversial Hebron Fund, that over the last decade “have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts “for illegal and often extremist Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Illegal Israeli settlement policies are today widely seen as a central obstacle to U.S.-backed peace efforts in the region. We are confident that challenging the JNF’s similarly counterproductive mission is both relevant and timely for those of us who wish for peace.
With ostensible control over vast tracks of Israel’s land holdings, the JNF’s forestation efforts have generally coincided with the erasure of historic Palestinian villages by over-planting pine and other fast-growing species in forests often named for donor countries, such as the controversial “South Africa Park” that covers the depopulated and destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya.
To support this mission the JNF has for decades employed its own paramilitary force, which in Orwellian fashion is named the Green Patrol, in order to uproot Palestinian trees, destroy Palestinian houses and crops, and confiscate livestock for resale to Jews. In one recent action in the Negev/Naqab Desert, the JNF teamed with military and police units, as well as Jewish high-schoolers to destroy the historic Bedouin village of Al-Arakib to make way for planned Jewish settlements and suburbs.
For decades, the JNF and the Israeli state have insisted that only modern urban Jews can protect the fragile desert ecology, when in fact it is often Israeli military exercises, suburban sprawl, industrial agriculture, and overuse of water resources that pose the greatest threats to these same ecosystems. Palestinians, on the other hand, have been recognized by UN and other agencies as the stewards of the land. As is common amongst indigenous peoples, they use age-old, environmentally sustainable methods of grazing, farming, dry riverbed cultivation, water harvesting, cistern catchment, and arid forestry. Not only does the JNF refuse to acknowledge this expertise, it actively portrays local peoples as harmful to the environment in order to acquire more land.
Such policies explain the growing number of Jews who stand with Palestinians and others in exposing the truth behind the JNF and in support of the wider Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The BDS movement, which was initiated by Palestinian civil society as a peaceful means to create meaningful change, embraces non-violent tactics not unlike those used by Black South Africans in the 1980s and Dr. King before that. The campaign against the JNF–including a call to revoke its charitable status–is part of this urgent initiative. Atlanta, with its rich civil rights tradition, was active in the anti-apartheid struggle decades ago, and now Atlanta communities are joining Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a growing chorus in calling for an equally strong BDS campaign against the hard-line Israeli state and its policies of discrimination, segregation, and occupation.
Linking the JNF with systematic discrimination is not to be taken lightly, and it is no small task to challenge the state of Israel and its practices, even for an Israeli citizen like myself. However, doing so is not only imperative, but is in line with a major trajectory within Jewish history and culture committed to social justice
Jesse Benjamin, an associate professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University, is a US and an Israeli citizen. He is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN).