Progressive Jews urge KKL reform after West Bank land deals exposed

    FOR GENERATIONS, the blue and white pushke (charity box) from the Keren Kayement L’Yisrael (KKL), into which Jews from all over the world dropped their coins to redeem the Land of Israel, has been a symbol of Zionist commitment.

    And countless Jews have celebrated births, holidays and other joyous events by planting a tree to help make the Land marking births, holidays, and other joyous events with a tree that would help to red

    KKL, tasked with acquiring and developing land in Israel on behalf of the Jewish people has been a central expression of Zionism since its founding in 1901.

    But recently, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, has issued a scathing criticism of KKL and announced that it has refused to accept sponsorship monies from the Israel-based organisation.

    In a statement issued on October 30,  the URJ writes that it had “recently learned that a company owned by KKL made several significant land purchases in different areas around the West Bank – including particularly sensitive areas.

    “These purchases were made by KKL against the principles of transparency and proper management, deceiving the board of directors and most senior leaders in the organization – and bypassing the entity charged with land purchases, currently chaired by one of our representatives…”

    Consequently, the statement continues, the URJ has “declined to accept a major sponsorship proposal from KKL for the upcoming URJ Biennial in Chicago in December, the largest gathering of Jews in North America.”

    A source within the URJ, familiar with the issue, told Plus61JMedia that the sponsorship would have totalled some A$300,000, which would have made KKL the largest Biennial sponsor.

    Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), told Plus61JMedia  that members of the Israeli movement sitting on the board of KKL have been aware of the issue for approximately two months, and, after attempting to resolve the issues within the organization felt that, as an organisation that believes in a two-State solution, the URJ could not accept the funding.”

    We have long cherished our relations with KKL but these revelations require that we revise our relations until these matters are fully rectified and we are certain this cannot happen again.

    The URJ’s statement clarifies: “As the largest Jewish movement in North America, we remain committed to a democratic and pluralistic Israel, and two states for two peoples.  Accordingly, we emphatically and continually oppose all land acquisition by KKL outside the sovereign borders of the State of Israel, known as the Green Line.

    “The activity of the Zionist institutions must reflect and support a broad consensus of the Jewish people and Israeli society. We have long cherished our relations with KKL (which is separate from the North American Jewish National Fund), but these revelations require that we revise our relations until these matters are fully rectified and we are certain this cannot happen again.”

    Kariv reveals that representatives of the Reform movement on KKL board were also instrumental in ensuring that a report written by an internal attorney, which retroactively claims that these purchases by KKL were legal, was rejected. The movement is further demanding that an external body be appointed to investigate these and other activities conducted by KKL.

    KKL refused Plus61JMedia’s request for an interview with a representative of the organization.  In an email response, Dana Ben David, a spokesperson for KKL, writes, “KKL’s policy with regard to the purchase of lands has not changed and fulfills the original purpose of KKL as the redeemer of the Jewish people’s land.

    “At the same time, as KKL monitors itself all the time in all areas of its activities and in different ways, the Board has decided to examine this issue as well, through an external, unbiased investigator who will examine all aspects of this topic and will present recommendations regarding clear guidelines for the future, and, until that time, Himnuta Jerusalem [the company affiliated with KKL referred to in the statement] will cease all purchases in controversial areas.”

    KKL WAS ESTABLISHED by the Fifth Zionist Congress (1901) in order to purchase land in the Land of Israel in the name of the Jewish People, in both agricultural-rural and urban areas; it also conducted large afforestation projects.  Its initial funding came from Jews throughout the world, many from the poorest regions in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

    With establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 within defined borders, KKL’s role as the “redeemer of the land” for the Jewish people ostensibly came to an end; however, like numerous other pre-state organizations, KKL retained a quasi-governmental status.  In the early years of the State, KKL continued to purchase lands and was also tasked with strengthening Jewish settlement on lands that had been purchased.

    KKL currently owns approximately 13 percent of the country’s land.  Although KKL does not make its budget available to the public, the monies it collects are, according to its mission, held in trust for the Jewish people. Most of its income comes from the sale of land.

    Until the first years of the 21st century, KKL sold land only to Jews; however, during the late 20th and first years of the 21st century, a series of Israeli Supreme Court rulings 2009, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that this practice was illegal.  In response, KKL expanded its environmental projects, including water desalination, and provision of economic support for low-income neighbourhoods.

    Over the past two decades, KKL has come under severe criticism from the Israeli media and from the State Comptroller, all of whom have pointed to inflated salaries, corruption, improper procedures, and lack of transparency.  As far back as 1990, exposes were published linking Himnuta, through a company registered in Panama, to purchasing lands in an effort to settle the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

    Raviv Drucker argues that the recent spate of land purchases reflects not only the ideological commitments of the right-wing groups represented on the Board, but also political manoeuvring.

    Furthermore, the leadership is highly politicized, since its delegates are assigned according to their relative power in the World Zionist Congress.  And KKL’s lack of transparency enables, notes Raviv Drucker, columnist at Haaretz, some of its questionable activities, including the recent land purchases. Drucker argues that the recent spate of land purchases reflects not only the ideological commitments of the right-wing groups represented on the Board, but also political manoeuvring.

    Outside of Israel, KKL is supported by JNF (Jewish National Fund) organizations, which are independently registered in each country. Until about a decade ago, notes Alon Tal, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University and a member of the Board of KKL from 2004-2015, JNF throughout the world largely “toed the line and did the bidding of the parent organization in Israel.

    But as Diaspora communities become more independent, local JNF’s, especially in the United States, increasingly pursued their own agenda, providing less of their funding to KKL and more to direct involved in conservation and ecological programs that are of interest to their supporters.”

    REFERRING TO THE timing of the URJ’s decision, Kariv notes that, despite its involvement in land-purchases in the past, “KKL had not been involved in land purchases over the Green Line for many years and, when we became aware that it was, the URJ took a courageous step by rejecting the funding and publicly calling the KKL out.”

    In an oped in  The Forward, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, writes that the purchases,  “constitute a major violation of trust by those who made them. They engage this vital Zionist institution, which should reflect the consensus of World Jewry, in one of the most divisive issues Israel faces.

    “That some purchases involve properties located in sensitive and contentious areas of the West Bank, an action that many would see endangering Israel’s security, exacerbates the divisive effect.”

    Jacob’s oped continues, “…We are in no way severing our ties with KKL. On the contrary; had we not been there, these misdeeds could — and likely would — have continued. The very fact of our leadership position, and our heft in the organization, allowed us to demand transparency, a full accounting, and a change to future decision-making policies. In light of these transgressions, we are more committed than ever to being present to making a difference.”

    This position, concludes Kariv, “is providing North American Jews with an opportunity to maintain their liberal values and support Israel.  Unlike some left-wing US Jewish organizations and groups, we are not disconnecting from Israel.  But unlike right-wing organizations, we are in favor of a two-state solution and will not refrain from criticising Israel when we feel it is necessary. When you love someone, criticism is also a form of support.”

    Representatives of other organizations serving on the Board of KKL, including those who represent organizations that could be assumed to support land purchases over the Green Line, did not respond to Plus61JMedia’s requests to be interviewed.

    Editor’s Note: Plus61JMedia sought comment from JNF Australia and the Australian Reform Zionist Association (ARZA). Neither body had replied at the time of publication.

    Montage: The Forward