Resignation from the JNF Board

Editor’s Note: Seth Morrison resigned from the JNF board in 2011. The following articles explaining his resignation were originally published in the Forward (December 23, 2011) and +972 Blog (October 24, 2014).

By Seth Morrision

JNF Board Member Quits Over Evictions
Seth Morrison Says Clearing Out Palestinians Hurts Peace

Some of my earliest Jewish memories involve dropping spare change in the Jewish National Fund’s iconic little blue boxes. I was proud that my money would help plant trees in Israel. The JNF, I knew, was making the desert bloom.
As an adult, I became a member of the organization’s Washington, D.C., board and moved from donating extra nickels to raising thousands of dollars for JNF.
Now, I regret to announce that this week I have resigned my board position and am severing all ties with the organization.

My commitment to building a safe and secure Israel has not changed. My admiration for much of JNF’s environmental work has not changed. What has changed is a sense of betrayal I have at learning that JNF is a force in preventing long-term peace.

This fall, a subsidiary of the Israeli branch of JNF launched eviction proceedings against the Sumarin family, who live in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Under Israel’s controversial “Absentee Property Law,” the state may reclaim homes whose owners were not present in 1967, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem. In the case of the Sumarin family, the children of the original owner, Musa Sumarin, were declared absentees after his death even though there were other family members living in the home at the time. In 1991, the Israeli government took the step of transferring the property to the JNF subsidiary.

I have learned that the action on the Sumarin home is not an isolated case. JNF has gained ownership of other Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and, in many instances, then transferred these properties through its subsidiaries to Elad, a settler organization whose purpose is to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.

In my eyes, the expulsion of the Sumarin family is a violation of human rights. But it is also part of the systematic transfer of Palestinian property to ideological settlers who wish to put facts on the ground that hinder a lasting peace agreement.
A few days before the proposed eviction, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, in partnership with its counterpart in Israel, asked American Jews to write to the CEO of JNF requesting that he stop the eviction. More than 1,300 people responded. I believe that, like me, these writers felt deeply betrayed that the organization many of us have supported since our childhood would act in such unjust ways.

JNF’s initial response was to deny any involvement in the eviction. When legal papers that name a subsidiary of JNF as the initiator of the proceedings became public, the organization decided to postpone the eviction.

I hope that JNF will decide to cancel this eviction for good, and to refrain from pursuing additional such evictions. But I felt I had to resign now because senior people at JNF made clear to me that they still plan to get the Sumarin family out and transfer the property to Elad.

I have always supported Israel through organizations like JNF because I believe that the Jewish people have the right to a secure, democratic and peaceful homeland in Israel. And I strongly believe that the Palestinian people have the right to a secure, democratic and peaceful homeland in a neighboring Palestinian state. By supporting right-wing settlers in “Judaizing” Palestinian neighborhoods, JNF makes this vision harder to achieve. I fear that such actions endanger Israel’s future as a secure and democratic state.

My commitment to Israel remains strong. But I will invest my time and financial resources in organizations committed to peace, democracy and coexistence between peoples.

Lying by omission: The JNF’s role in setting Negev land policy

The Jewish National Fund has in the past been caught lying about its role in East Jerusalem evictions of Palestinians. Now its role in Israeli land policy in the Negev is revealed to be much larger than it admits. A former JNF board member demands the organization take responsibility for its actions.

For many years the Jewish National Fund (KKL/JNF), the group known largely for planting trees in Israel, has denied any involvement in taking Bedouin land as part of its efforts to Judaize the Negev. Its website says, “KKL-JNF develops land only in areas designated in the master plans as instructed by, and as requested by the ILA (Israel Land Authority), which are state lands or KKL-JNF lands.”

Putting it simply, they were just taking orders.

The sad truth is that the KKL/JNF has lied by omission. On the ILA web site we learn that that the Israel Land Council determines the policy of the ILA. It goes on to say, “[t]he Council is comprised of 22 members; 12 represent government ministries and 10 represent the Jewish National Fund.”

In other words, JNF controls 46 percent of the votes deciding Israel’s land allocation policies.

In late 2011 I stopped giving to the JNF and resigned from its Washington, DC Board when the JNF/KKL first denied and then acknowledged evicting Palestinians from homes in East Jerusalem. Now, without immediate action at the JNF National Conference in Denver, Colorado in late October, Israel’s and by extension the JNF’s moral crisis will get much worse.

In a matter of weeks, the Israeli Knesset is expected to approve the Prawer-Begin Plan to forcibly evict up to 70,000 Bedouins from their lands. This plan – developed without input from the Bedouin communities being relocated – has a simple aim, take Bedouin lands and build segregated communities for Jews. It is bad enough that this plan disenfranchises 70,000 Israeli citizens; why should JNF compound the situation by denying involvement in this forced removal of non-Jewish Israeli citizens from the Negev?

The JNF/KKL website brags about a few projects to help the Bedouins, but doing a bit of good work does not cancel out the terrible evil of the Prawer-Begin Plan.

If JNF truly cares about Israel as a functioning democracy, if not for Palestinians under Israeli control then at least for its own citizens, it will take responsibility for its actions and devote time at the National Conference in Denver to demand that Israel cancel the Prawer-Begin Plan, recognize the unrecognized villages and engage in meaningful negotiations with the Bedouin community. Then JNF should provide funds to the Bedouin citizens of Israel to rebuild homes that it destroyed and provide the same services to all Israeli citizens living in the Negev. Only then will I resume donations to the JNF.