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Reform Movement Spurns Iconic Israeli Charity To Protest West Bank Land Buys

The largest Jewish denomination in the United States is turning down a donation from an iconic Israeli charity, alleging that the charity tricked the movement by buying and then hiding land purchases in the West Bank.

Keren Kayemet LeYisrael-Jewish National Fund is probably best known in the United States for its famous blue tzedakah box and for planting trees in the Holy Land. The quasi-governmental organization is also a major owner and purchaser of land throughout Israel, and the Union of Reform Judaism has long supported it.

Yet on Tuesday, URJ president Rick Jacobs published a series of tweets accusing the charity of “deceiving the board of directors and most senior leaders in the organization.”

The Reform movement, the most politically and theologically liberal of the major American Jewish denominations, has long tried to strike a balance between supporting Israel’s security and criticizing many of its policies, including religious freedom and settlement activities. Around 35% of American Jews identify as Reform, according to the 2013 Pew Survey of American Judaism.

The Reform movement has criticized KKL-JNF before, and KKL-JNF’s activities in Palestinian-claimed areas are no secret. But what the movement described as KKL-JNF’s dishonesty made this episode different, and the public rupture is a new step in the movement’s willingness to distance itself the Israeli government.

The Union for Reform Judaism declined to make Jacobs available for an interview. KKL-JNF did not respond to a request for comment, but told the Israeli journalist who first reported on this story that they complied with all regulations.

Reform representatives – who have for decades sat on the KKL-JNF board and approved new CEOs – claimed to have discovered that a KKL-JNF subsidiary had purchased more than 50 million shekels ($14 million) worth of land in politically-sensitive West Bank areas like Jericho and Hebron, Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker reported earlier this week. What’s more, the movement claims that those purchases were hidden from Reform representatives on the KKL board.

“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,” Jacobs wrote.

Jacobs called for an independent investigation, announced the cancellation of a KKL deal to sponsor the movement’s December convention, and said that they would “revise our relations until these matters are fully rectified and we are certain that this cannot happen again.”

(KKL-JNF is a separate entity from an American spinoff charity that is also called the Jewish National Fund. The American JNF only donates around 1% of its grants to KKL-JNF, the Forward revealed in 2015.)

KKL-JNF’s expansion of existing settlements and (more rarely) purchase of West Bank lands have been known and reported on for decades.

Indeed, Drucker wrote that Reform leaders had “long buried their heads in the sand” about the West Bank activities that they disapproved of.

“Anybody who is closely watching the activities of KKL in Israel knows they’re deeply enmeshed in” expanding the settlement enterprise, Rabbi Jill Jacobs (no relation to Rick), executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, told the Forward.

In one recent case, KKL fought a 30-year court battle to evict a Palestinian family from an eastern Jerusalem home that the organization had claimed under Israel’s absentee property law, finally succeeding last month.

Peace Now, the Israeli anti-occupation group, issued a statement last month calling KKL “a settler fund.” Americans for Peace Now, its U.S. sister organization, applauded the Reform movement’s criticisms of KKL when contacted by the Forward, as did Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

“It’s a good step that American Jews are saying that we’re going to use the power that we have to insist that a major land owner in Israel is not putting a roadblock in the path to peace,” she said.

The URJ biennial conference is scheduled to be held this December in Chicago. Drucker reported that the KKL sponsorship deal was for $200,000.

The 2017 convention, where KKL chairman Danny Atar was a guest speaker, had around 6,000 participants. Ahead of the convention that year, more than 100 Reform rabbis wrote an open letter to Atar criticizing KKL’s settlement activities.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

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