JNF: Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Like every other kid who went to Talmud Torah (the after-public-school Hebrew School for the non-religious) in the 1960s, I was given a blue and white pushke and tasked with collecting coins that would magically make the desert Land of Israel bloom through the miracle of trees. There was no trick in knowing which buzzers to ring, I rang them all-every front door in my middle class, rent-controlled neighborhood in Brooklyn that had a mezuzah. It turned out that many gentiles kept mezuzos on their doors, carry-overs from previous Jewish tenants. They viewed them as talismans defending all who lived behind the door against evil. I learned this desire for a talisman could be very effective in selling trees in the Holy Land to Christians as well.

Israel was a dream, unreal to me, and this blue and white box was as close as I would come for many years to touching the Land of Israel. Through the powers of this Jewish National Fund (JNF) box I could turn pennies into plantations of trees; nickels into nurseries of trees; dimes into dunams of trees. I didn’t know then how large a dunam is; I still don’t. Nor could I tell you where Tel Aviv was, how to get to Haifa, or the best time to journey to Jaffa; but I could tell you that Israel needed trees. With this magic box I was an alchemist turning donated silver into Israel’s green. And, it seems, helping the JNF spend money.

Last month Israel held a spectacular series of celebrations in honor of President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday. More impressive than his longevity is that despite never winning an election, famous personalities from the arts, captains of industry, and leaders from the world of politics came to pay homage to Israel’s elder statesman. Particularly impressive was the keynote event led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. During his 45-minute speech, former President Clinton wished his good friend President Peres a happy birthday and imparted wisdom to all assembled. This was an extremely expensive birthday “gift” costing $500,000. After tremendous criticism of the JNF for this profligacy, the JNF was replaced as the donor.

This was not the first, nor probably the last, example of misdirected philanthropy of the JNF. In December of 2009 the JNF proved that its magic was so powerful that not only could it make the desert bloom but through the marvels of modern technology (read: accounting) the JNF could make 3,000 trees appear in Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority, without it costing donors anything. An unnamed customer service representative of the JNF responded to my inquiry as to the source of the funding for the 3,000 JNF-donated trees by assuring me, “None of the trees bought by JNF-KKL donors were used for this purpose. KKL [Keren Kayemet LeYisrael] grows approximately three million saplings a year; less than one million are bought by donors worldwide. These saplings came from a stock that KKL utilizes for international forestry and related projects.”

Wow, what a relief. But wait, how is that possible? To answer my question I decided to watch the magician’s hands more carefully and realized that the JNF was playing the street game called “Three Card Monte.” Money being fungible, through the accounting trick of shifting money from one column to another, the JNF could claim that no coins from its iconic blue and white pushke were used in the funding of this donation to the Palestinian Authority. Regardless of whether these trees were purchased outright by JNF donors, donations to the JNF go to its operational budget, which in turn funded the nurturing and transporting of these trees. It is disingenuous of the JNF to claim that “no donor money was spent in the planting of these 3,000 trees” just because there were no certificates of appreciation sent to donors around the world in recognition of the purchase of a “Ring of Trees”in Ramallah. The money came from somewhere!

Perhaps the Palestinian Authority should have purchased the trees. They could have planted the 3,000 trees in Ramallah in the memory of Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami, the two IDF reservists who, after being illegally detained by PA policeman, were placed under protective custody and taken to the local Ramallah police station where a mob of over a thousand citizens of Ramallah, roughly one out of every four of its residents, participated in lynching and beating them to death on October 12, 2000. (The iconic image of this lynching was a Palestinian murderer waving his bloodied hands out of the police station’s second floor window. The owner of those hands, a terrorist, was released in the Gilad Shalit exchange.)

The Palestinians of Ramallah chose not to memorialize the two IDF reservists.

I have two requests of the JNF, the first far easier than the second:

Please tell your constituency, the legions of kids who took your pushkes and collected proudly for the JNF, and to the countless donors who chose to give the gift of a tree planted in Israel, how you could have thought to pay $500,000 for a 45-minute speech with donation money. Second, tell them all who in fact paid for the donation of 3,000 trees to Ramallah.

The second request will take more than accounting magic; it will take a miracle. I challenge you, the JNF, to explain to the widows of Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami, Hy”d, why the JNF made this generous gift of 3,000 sheltering trees to the city that brutally murdered their husbands.

Postscript: In 2011 a Palestinian developer uprooted these trees because they were a gift from the JNF.


 

Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com