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Duvdevani’s appointment was seen as a consolation prize to the shrunken NRP. The WZO, founded in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress, had no clear role besides managing the national cemetery. But Duvdevani wasn’t planning to be the undertaker. He succeeded in tripling the WZO annual budget, replacing the $7 million it used to receive from the Jewish Agency with $20 million from the JNF, which had a clear interest in bankrolling the WZO, the only body that officially supervises it and appoints its leaders.
With the money, Duvdevani embarked on a wide range of programs across the Jewish world. He funded Zionist education projects, aliyah campaigns, anti-Semitism monitoring initiatives and more. These may have been the roles of other organizations, such as the Jewish Agency, but the Diaspora is wide and the Agency has been in retreat for years due to cutbacks and reorganization. And anyway, Jewish Agency Chairman Nathan Sharansky, though once a renowned freedom fighter, is a failed politician. Duvdevani, on the other hand, always knew how to work with all parties, and they felt comfortable with him. The WZO became a useful source of funding for the parties’ international branches. Suddenly, Zionist youth movements grew, at least on paper. The WZO is also a convenient umbrella organization for the Settlement Department, the government’s long and hidden arm for building in the West Bank and a willing subcontractor for any other Zionist mission. The Settlement Department is the apple of the eye of Duvdevani’s national-religious party colleagues. With the backing of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomianski, it funnels tens of millions of shekels annually into building new neighborhoods and infrastructure in the settlements. A proper Zionist cause.
The unnecessary national fund
With the realization of the dream of generations in the foundation of an independent and sovereign Jewish state, all the roles of the JNF should have been transferred to the new government. After all, the JNF’s objective, building the national home, had been fulfilled.
But for the past 66 years, the JNF’s sole objective has been perpetuating itself. If the national institutions’ hacks admire Duvdevani for bringing the WZO back to life, then JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler is their superstar. Stenzler has leveraged the billions in the fund for a continuous public relations campaign, rebranding the musty old foundation as a “green,” environmentally friendly, movement. But the JNF’s new image is the most expensive false facade in Israel’s history. In reality, it is a massive real estate business, which also supplies the government with forestry services (at a fraction of its budget) to justify its existence to the credulous public.
“Keren Kayemet [the JNF] does a lot of important things,” says one former board member. “But the question is, shouldn’t these things be done by the government? The concern is that if JNF didn’t exist, the government wouldn’t do these things. But anyway, disbanding JNF isn’t on the government’s agenda. It’s a never-ending supply of liquid cash.” A former senior employee in the JNF’s forestry service says, “JNF’s forestry management is one of the most advanced in the world, but in any normal country, the government provides that service.” Many Israeli environmentalists also question the JNF’s green credentials as the organization develops conservation areas for building.
The only reason the JNF still exists is that no politician is in a hurry to dismantle an organization that holds nearly 15 percent of the country’s land and a 4 billion-shekel ($11.6 billion) slush fund that it uses without supervision or standards. The JNF doesn’t even have to market land itself, the Israel Land Authority does it for them, for a 25 percent management fee. One thing the JNF has gotten a lot better at in recent years is demanding from the ILA a better return on the sale of “its land.” But the very idea of “JNF land” is a fallacy, since the lands were purchased for the use of the Jewish people, or came into the state’s ownership, JNF was only ever supposed to be a custodian, not an owner.
The familiar terms “JNF forests” and “JNF parks” are also highly misleading. The 1.6 million dunams (395,000 acres) of forests in Israel are on state land, they are just managed by the JNF. “When land is sold, JNF maintains that it’s theirs, not the state’s,” says a former employee. “But when there’s a forest fire, they suddenly remember that it belongs to the state.” Most of the land “owned” by JNF is classic real state for development, around the cities of central Israel. Treasury officials routinely claim that the JNF holds the key to solving Israel’s housing crisis, and they’re not wrong. Properly managed, the dissolution of the JNF and the transfer of the land it currently holds to the state could open up the entire housing market.