Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Are KKL-JNF the good guys?
This column was written two years ago when it looked like the JNF was about to make some very fruitful changes. Since then there has been no action towards resolving the problems which make the "GoNeutral" program misleading from an ecological viewpoint, and none of the specific changes that JNF promised to make in this or other programs have been acted upon.
When we first initiated this site, we encouraged people to give directly to Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL), the JNF in Israel. We now encourage people to pledge to JNF, but to wait to give their pledge until the problems with GoNeutral are worked out. (See "The Giving Tree".) We also encourage people to give an equal amount to Bustan for Bedouin issues and/or to the Good Energy Initiative of the Heschel Center for carbon offsets.
Even though KKL is not directly involved in Negev development per se, they instrumental in providing infrastructure for development projects, and their policies have sometimes directly harmed the Bedouin (e.g. siting forests to interfere with grazing—see below). Though the Goldberg Commission called for changing Israel's policies towards the Bedouin, which would mitigate this problem, those recommendations have still not been acted upon. Besides this, there are many other questions that have been raised about KKL's bureaucracy over the years, as well as about its environmental credentials, though KKL has done a great deal to address these issues. There are also many ways to plant trees at a tenth of the price of a JNF tree. This page will examine a few of the current and historical issues concerning KKL (including as KKL's role in acquiring land) which may be relevant to people considering what to do with their money.
KKL was created in 1901 to legally purchase land in Palestine for settlement by Zionist pioneers. This land would eventually become part of a state of Israel. How KKL got into the tree-planting business could be debated, but the way I heard it from a KKL representative at the first "Ecozionism" conference in Colorado is not pretty.
According to Ottoman law at the time, any land owned by absentee landlords (effendi) that was not being cultivated could be used for growing crops by local farmers. Much of the KKL land was purchased from effendi, and much of that land was being cultivated in this manner. The only an owner could stop the land from being cultivated was to plant their own crop (or build a building) at the beginning of an agricultural cycle.
According to the KKL rep, KKL-JNF decided to plant trees—not for the love of forests, but to have a "crop" growing that would prevent the peasants from using the land.
Whether this is the truth or not, the idea of reforesting the land quickly became a symbol of the rebirth of the Jewish people. However, KKL decided on planting b'rosh trees, Jerusalem Pine, which are not actually native to Israel (despite the name), and which destroy the soil through acidification, so that native species cannot grow. Again, according to the KKL rep, b'rosh became the tree to plant because they were fast growing and required little care—in other words, they functioned like weeds.
The quick generation of green-looking space in the traditional KKL-JNF forest belies the ecological decimation caused by these trees. If you have ever walked through a true native forest in Israel, filled with diverse spice plants like thyme, all kinds of low spreading trees, even trees like pistachio, and (at the right time) an abundance of wildflowers, you know immediately walking into one of these JNF forests that something is wrong.
For many years people in the environmental movement were boycotting KKL because KKL refused to stop planting b'rosh. This of course was only the tip of the iceberg: an organization founded on an ideology of greening the "barren" desert is hardly in a position to be caretakers for a desert ecosystem. However, for quite some time now, KKL has focused on planting native species. The growing influence of the Green Zionist Alliance and the eco-Zionist movement has led to enormous changes in KKL practice, including the appointment of green advocates to KKL's board, and a strict environmental review process being applied to KKL's projects.
Most recently, KKL has launched its "Go Neutral" campaign, which asks people to buy carbon offsets in the form of JNF trees. Tree-planting in general is somehwat controversial, not as a method of carbon sequestration, but as a method of offset which allows people to think they've solved their part of the problem. The Green Zionist Alliance has written a critical report on KKL's campaign which suggests a number of important ways that KKL could substantially improve this program. (This report will soon be available on Save the Negev.)
In 1948, vast numbers of Palestinian Arabs left the lands given to Israel by the UN or taken by Israel in its war of independence. Most scholars now agree that the majority fled to escape the war zone (neither because they were forced by Israel nor because the Arab amies encouraged them to leave) and that some may have fled in fear that Israel would kill Arab civilians (this fear had a basis in incidents like Deir Yassin). Israel decided to bar those residents from returning to their homes and villages after the war. Many small villages were razed (the number is hotly contested), and in some of those places forests were planted by KKL, an act which could be viewed as reclamation, or as a literal cover-up, depending on one's political perspective.
KKL's historical role notwithstanding, on the front of Israel's relations with its non-Jewish citizens or residents, KKL still has a long ways to go. Today some KKL forests are still planted on the border of Arab areas in order to prevent the expansion of Arab neighborhoods or towns (though such forests do not stand in the way of expanding Jewish neighborhoods—witness Har Homa). According to critics, some of KKL's forests in the Negev are similarly serving the purpose of preventing the Bedouin from using the land.
Most importantly, until fairly recently KKL and the Israel Land Administration (ILA) would offer state lands for sale (technically, for rent for a period of 99 years). These sales, which included land for individual housing sites as well as commercial development, were closed to non-Jews, including Arab citizens. This meant that Jews-only towns and cities were effectively created throughout Israel. However, a lawsuit by the civil rights group Adalah led to a Supreme Court decision to require such sales to be open to all Israeli citizens.
After Israel's Supreme Court decided in favor of Adalah's lawsuit, KKL was required to allow non-Jewish Israeli citizens to participate equally in land tenders. KKL had worked out an arrangement with the Israel Land Administration whereby JNF/KKL lands could be leased to non-Jews, and the ILA would exchange that land for other state land. The so-called "JNF bill" (see links on this bill here), which is on its way through the Knesset, would overturn the Supreme Court decision and allow KKL-JNF and ILA to return to leasing land exclusively to Jews. (Note that Israel does not have a constitution and any Supreme Court decision can be overturned by Knesset legislation.)
The "JNF bill" is strongly supported by JNF-US, and Ron Lauder. However, this bill is actually opposed by the JNF, and even Likud's Moshe Arens attacked the bill as undemocratic. See more articles on the "JNF bill" under "More Blueprint Negev Links".
KKL's largest crisis occured not over these issues but rather over its inflated bureaucracy. Again, KKL has made great efforts to address these concerns and to become more fiscally transparent. At the same time, similar issues have plagued JNF-US (see "Tree Charity Embroiled In New Flap Over Funds"). JNF-US, however, has done little to make its budgets transparent.
Once again, our suggestion is to give to KKL directly, not to give any money through JNF-US, and also to give to an organization that supports the political and civil rights of the Bedouin and the possibility of allowing their culture to again thrive, one such organization being Bustan. I (Reb Duvid) know from personal experience that Bustan does a fantastic job of taking the smallest amount of money and turning it into projects that leverage the best ecological practices and publicity to create bigger changes. I don't know enough about other organizations to make additional recommendations, though I do know that Rabbis for Human Rights has historically worked with the Bedouin (especially the Jahalin near Jerusalem, who were displaced from their ancestral lands by the settlement of Maaleh Admumim).
If you have suggestions for other organizations to give to that you would like mentioned here and elsewhere on Save the Negev, just use the feedback form to let us know.
Rabbis for Human Rights has a 2 Trees Initiative. heres the link:
Posted by: dvorah simone at October 22, 2008 3:23 PM
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006