February 2022: As one of the principal fundraising arms of the Zionist movement, the Jewish National Fund has led a chameleon-like existence, adapting to political developments to sustain its credibility as a benign force above the political fray. The JNF has played a key role in establishing an apartheid state by acquiring land for state building on the principle of privileging one ethnicity, Jews.
Pre-World War 2, Zionism’s appeal to Jewish communities drew on the imperialist imaginary that European colonisation could take modernity to “backward” parts of the world. It claimed for Jews the mission to take on the “white man’s burden” in Palestine. Since the 1970s, with outright colonisation largely discredited, the JNF switched to claiming to protect and nurture the natural environment. Behind this much trumpeted claim, lies a long and sordid history of complicity in ethnic cleansing.
Settler colonialism has a particularly bloody record. The countless massacres and even genocide that European settlers carried out were excused on the political right as part of the Darwinian struggle of races and, on the social democratic left, as the price of progress to a more developed economy.
Zionist ideologues such as Yosef Weitz, who had a formative influence on the JNF, was additionally inspired by the Prussian state’s model of colonisation, which it carried out in the late 19th century to populate its eastern borders with Germans with aim of pushing out Polish peasants from that region. The JNF transferred this model to Palestine as part of the Zionist movement’s settlement programme. Once the British took control of Palestine, at the end of the first World War, the JNF was able to proceed under imperial protection. Yet, the JNFs land purchases until 1947, yielded only about 7 percent of Palestine’s agricultural land. It was the Palestinians’ ethnic cleansing of 1947-1949 and then of 1967, that proved to be the main mechanism for seizing their land and placing it under Israeli control. To disguise such barefaced colonial conquest, in a period of decolonization, required subterfuge and obfuscation. The JNF was on hand for this task.
It had been set up specifically for the goal of acquiring land to settle Jewish immigrants in Palestine. Land that came into JNF ownership was to be in perpetuity and exclusively for the benefit of Jews. It was this ethnic exclusivism inscribed in the JNF’s charter, that proved useful even after the Israeli state was established. Israel had gained control of Palestinian land mainly through military force, but in order to win international acceptance in its independence declaration it professed a commitment to democratic rights to all people under its rule and to abide by international laws. This stood in contradiction, however, with the Zionist objective of building a Jewish state, which could only be realised by discriminating against Palestinians. The state tasked the JNF, therefore, with redistributing Palestinian land to Israel’s Jewish citizens while paying lip service to the democratic principles it professed to uphold. The deceit was useful not only for Israel but also for its Western allies. The “only democracy in the Middle East” tag was eminently more defensible than the reality of it being an imperial outpost.
For all the pretence of being a-political and charitable, there can be little doubt that the JNF is an extension of the Israeli state and instrumental in consolidating its apartheid. It administers 13 percent of the land over which Israel claims ownership and it also nominates 50 per cent of the board members of the Israeli Land Authority, which controls a further 80 percent of the land within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
The Israeli state’s subterfuge in outsourcing activities that may provoke international criticism continues in the JNF current practice. Thus JNF-KKL (the Israeli JNF) has tried to distance itself from illegal land and property grabs that it funds in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by operating through a proxy company called Himanuta. It has been also revealed to secretly fund Elad, a settler organisation that is seizing Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem on the pretext of recovering land for reconstructing the ‘City of David,’ which no self-respecting archaeologists credit as ever having existed there, if at all. The JNF’s UK branch, whenever challenged over funding projects that violate international laws and/or charity regulations, claim to operate completely independently of the JNF-KKL, notwithstanding a legally binding collaboration between them since 2008 and countless on-line funding appeals vaunting their close collaborative relationship.
JNF funded projects are closely aligned with the Israeli state’s plan to break up the last remaining, significant concentrations of Palestinians, which are in the Galilee, East Jerusalem and the Naqab (Negev). The JNF’s pretence to be a charitable organisation is belied by its history and current practice. Palestinians resisting eviction in East Jerusalem and the Naqab are calling out the JNF’s role in their ethnic cleansing. At last Amnesty International, too, has called out its role in Israel’s apartheid. This chameleon has run out of colours to disguise itself.