August 9, 2007
‘Jews Only’ JNF land plan counters Israel’s values
Imagine the following scenario: Italy's Parliament passes a law that restricts the sale of public lands to Christians. Government officials rush to justify the measure, citing historic ties between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the consequences of the legislation are clear: Italian Jews and Muslims are to be denied fundamental rights that Christian citizens alone will enjoy.
We know what would follow: howls of outrage from every Jewish defense organization in North America. Jews throughout the world would demand the immediate repeal of the offending law and call upon Christian groups to join their protests.
How, then, can Jews remain silent when Israel's Knesset stands ready to enshrine in law the right of an Israeli government agency to lease public land only to Jews?
The law in question is the Jewish National Fund (JNF) law.
JNF owns 13 percent of Israeli land. Since 1960, that land has been administered by a government agency, the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), which agreed that it would act in accordance with the JNF covenant and lease land only to Jews.
In 2005, Israel's attorney general ruled that this policy violated Israeli anti-discrimination laws, but the ruling was never implemented.
Now, as Israel's Supreme Court stands ready to affirm the attorney general's view and end the discriminatory policy, the Knesset has passed a preliminary bill that would authorize the ILA to continue its policy of discrimination.
The JNF holds a place of honor in the Jewish world. It was founded in 1901 by the Zionist movement as the vehicle to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. Millions of Jews grew up depositing coins in blue-and-white JNF pushkes to support the organization's projects.
Since 1948, the JNF has done superb work in reforestation, water reclamation and environmental education. Sadly, however, JNF now insists that policies once necessary for its mission must be written into law, even if those policies today can only damage the state they helped create.
Let there be no mistake. The proposed law is an abomination that contradicts Israel's most fundamental values and will undermine her position throughout the world.
Not one of the many justifications provided for this law has any validity. The claim is made that JNF land was purchased for Jewish settlement with the pennies, nickels and dimes of the Jewish people throughout the world, and that these commitments must be honored.
In fact, only about a third of JNF land was purchased before Israel's founding in 1948. The remaining two-thirds was transferred or sold to the JNF by the Israeli government, often at reduced prices, much of it from unclaimed or abandoned Arab land. In short, JNF holdings more accurately can be described as belonging to the citizens of Israel, including its Arab citizens.
The claim is made that the JNF and the ILA had a deal, and the terms of that deal must be respected. But no democratic government can accept principles that run counter to its own values and laws.
The claim is made that Israel is a Jewish state and, as such, it can favor its Jewish citizens. But to say this is to misunderstand what a Jewish state is all about.
As a Jewish state, Israel has, and must maintain, a secure Jewish majority. It has, and must maintain, a vibrant and aggressively Jewish national culture. It offers, and must maintain, preference in immigration to Jews throughout the world.
However, as Israel's Declaration of Independence makes explicitly clear, preference in immigration is the only legal right to be granted to Jews that is not also to be granted to Israel's non-Jewish citizens. Discrimination in all other matters, including the right to purchase land and acquire property, is forbidden.
It is unthinkable that Israel will be a country where purchasing land will require a paper from the chief rabbinate certifying one's Jewish status. It is unthinkable that Christian and Muslim Israelis, non-Jewish foreign investors and the 700,000 Russian immigrants whose religious status is unclear will be prohibited from leasing public lands. It is unthinkable that a people who has suffered from similar discriminatory laws throughout its history, including in Iran and Saudi Arabia today, will now impose them on others.
We need to think, too, of the reaction to such legislation in the Vatican, the United Nations and the International Court of Justice at The Hague, not to mention interfaith forums, including those generally sympathetic to Jews and to Israel.
The JNF is a worthy body. My admiration for its accomplishments is not diminished by the fact that certain JNF policies that made sense in another era of history do not make sense today. But if the JNF wishes to retain its central role in Jewish life, it needs to oppose this terrible law.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
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