America’s largest Jewish denomination is issuing calls for the Israeli Knesset to reverse course on a controversial piece of legislation declaring that Jewish National Fund lands can be leased only to Jews.
The legislation, introduced by three Israeli Knesset members, passed last week in a vote of 64-16 in its first reading. In order for the bill, which would bar JNF lands from falling into Arab hands, to officially become law, it needs to come before the Knesset two more times.
This week, the Reform Movement joined a growing chorus of calls from left-wing Jewish groups roundly condemning the bill as racist and undemocratic.
“It’s very hard to imagine any circumstance where a Jewish minority in any Diaspora country would accept with equanimity a bill that would forbid Jews from purchasing land,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Therefore it is essential that when the Jewish majority in Israel exercises power, it extend to others the rights it always demanded for itself when we were in the minority.”
Yoffie also expressed concern that if the bill were to pass, it could have far-reaching implications for Israel’s image on the global stage. “You can’t pass a bill that in democratic circles around the world will not be understood, and will bring condemnation on the heads of the Knesset and Israel leaders,” he said.
The JNF, a quasi-governmental body founded more than a century ago as a central Zionist state-building institution, owns 13% of Israeli lands. Historically, Diaspora Jews have contributed funds to JNF — often dropping pennies in their iconic blue tin collection boxes — in order for it to purchase Palestinian lands, often owned by absentee landlords, to create a Jewish homeland. In 1962, JNF reached an agreement with the State of Israel, allowing it to lease its land to Jews through the government’s Israel Land Authority.
In 2005, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ruled in favor of a preliminary court decision mandating that the ILA cannot discriminate against Arab citizens by leasing only to Jews. The court hearing was a response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a legal group that defends civil rights in the Jewish state.
The recent Knesset bill is widely viewed as a means of circumventing the attorney general’s previous decision. It also may serve as a way of pre-empting an upcoming September court hearing on ACRI’s 2005 petition, according to the group’s chief legal counsel, Dan Yakir.
“If the petition passed, it would force the Israel Land Authority to market JNF land to Arabs as well as Jews,” Yakir said. Yakir explained that the court’s previous ruling was not binding, and the forthcoming decision would mark a final ruling.
Despite the outcry from liberal groups — including the New Israel Fund and Ameinu, the American affiliate of the World Labor Zionist Movement — JNF is standing by the Knesset bill.
“We were founded to create a Jewish state, and the lands that we bought were part of our covenant with the Jewish people to protect and care for the land in perpetuity,” said Jodi Bodner, a spokeswoman for the JNF in America. “We need to protect the dollars and pennies of those who sacrificed themselves.”