The JNF, Apartheid and Settler Colonialism. (Spring 2024)

(First published in Al Majdal, Issue 61 – 2024)

In campaigns and conversations in the UK, one fact becomes obvious: not everyone grasps the centrality of para-statal agents of Zionism in general, and of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in particular. In the world outside Palestine, we do, indeed, need to get to know the JNF and its role in establishing Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism, issues which have been fully documented by Palestinian grassroots campaigners and human rights organisations for many years.

Western progressives are belatedly catching up with the Palestinian analysis. In 2022, Amnesty International denounced Israel as practising the crimes against humanity of Apartheid and Persecution against the Palestinian people.  Amnesty named the JNF in its meticulous documentation of Israeli offences from the river to the sea. Even before Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and many Palestinian human rights organizations had accused Israel of Apartheid. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) stated in December 2019 that the JNF and other para-statal bodies in Israel carry out material discrimination against non-Jewish persons.

The charge sheet against the JNF is long, yet it has branch offices across the globe, of which many have charitable status. Here in the UK, the JNF derives tax benefits from citizens, many of whom do not know what their money funds. A glance at some of the high-profile British patrons of the JNF offers one reason for this seeming impunity: the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown still act as patrons of the charity and illustrate the influence of the JNF – and Israel’s apologists – on senior figures within the establishment.

The primary bodies overseeing UK charities are the Charities Commission, [1] Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR),[2] and the Fundraising Regulator.[3] These bodies could potentially be used to question the charitable status of KKL (Scotland) and JNF UK. However, the UK’s regulatory system tends to protect organizations aligned with the state’s interests.

Several cases against the JNF have been mounted in the UK, through the regulatory channels. The first complaint to the Charities Commission was made by Stop the JNF as long ago as 2013.[4] Another case was submitted in 2018.[5] Both cases argued cogently against the JNF having charitable status, citing its supremacist ideology, its violations of international law and human rights, offering different case studies in each instance to illustrate JNF’s overtly Zionist political purposes, and, consequently, its failure to meet the standards required of charities. Both of these were rejected. The second, went to the first Tier Tribunal level where an appeal was lodged against the original decision.[6] The Tribunals rejected the appeal.

A complaint to the Fundraising Regulator (LINK) gave detailed examples of the ways in which the JNF UK violates the Fundraising Regulator’s Code.[7] These included the JNF’s website posting misleading information which would not enable a fair-minded person to make a balanced judgement and, by contrast, the deliberate omission of key elements of JNF UK projects which could not be deemed charitable e.g links with the occupation forces and settlement projects in the West Bank. The Fundraising Regulator conducted a superficial investigation and produced a report that took scant notice of the empirical evidence on the JNF’s activities.

In a sense, the regulatory narrative is profoundly depressing, but it is by looking at the JNF’s history that we begin to see how we have reached this position. In 1884, Prof Herman Shapira proposed a “body that would redeem the land of Israel from foreigners in order to turn it into a national acquisition that would not be for sale but would rather be for leasehold only”. In 1901 the JNF came into being, its “primary objective” being to acquire land “for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands” and establishing Jewish exclusivity, in perpetuity, on those lands.

In 1940 this drive to “redeem” Palestine from “foreigners”, (aka its indigenous Palestinian population) found more chilling expression in Yosef Weitz, a JNF leader of the time: “There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them… not one village must be left… for this goal funds will be found.” To this day, the JNF worldwide still channels funds to Israel which continues to drive Palestinians out of their homes and off their lands.

The pattern was set for the JNF by its leaders in those early years before the establishment of the state of Israel. Before the Nakba, JNF leaders promoted the doctrine of ethnic cleansing, via the Transfer Committee, influencing Ben Gurion’s Consulate in particular, and Zionist ideology in general. On the military level, the Village Files,[8] drafted by the JNF, offered detailed descriptions of Palestinian villages which aided the Zionist militias as they swept through Palestine from 1947-49, evicting 750,000 people and destroying their villages

Britain played a major role in the development of this trajectory. From the Balfour Declaration, through the Mandate, Britain’s establishment (with a few honourable exceptions) encouraged Zionism. It is worth recalling that approximately 200 Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias while Britain was the nominal power in Palestine between 1947 and the end of the Mandate in 1948. Not only that, but Britain also actively supported those militias by means of training and armaments. When Palestinians rebelled, it was British forces who repressed the uprising and set a template for Israel to build on: punitive home demolitions, extrajudicial assassinations, night raids, detention without trial. Britain even sent the notorious Black and Tans to Palestine, fresh from their brutal acts of repression in Ireland, to add to Palestinian suffering.  

After the Nakba, the JNF played a role in thwarting the UN Resolution 194  by taking swathes of Palestinian land and developing Forests and Parks. 46 of the 68 JNF Forests and Parks lie across stolen Palestinian land. In some cases, trees of European origin have been planted in them, both to prevent the return of those who historically owned and worked the land and to create a Europeanised landscape, more familiar to Jewish newcomers from eastern Europe.

The Forests and Parks are political constructs,[9] the purpose of which is to defy Palestinian return. These forests and parks also comprise acts of “memoricide”, erasing from collective Israeli memory the truth of Palestinian life and the horrors of the Nakba. In many acts of cynical deception, the JNF has tried to build a reputation as an environmental organisation on these Forests and Parks.

Himnuta, a shadowy proxy of the JNF, operates discreetly to acquire Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem and the West Bank through Israel’s discriminatory legal system. Recently, the JNF has become increasingly bold in its defiance of international law, openly declaring its intention to acquire land in the occupied territory”.[10]

In this audacious move, the JNF has shed its disguise and revealed its actions to the world, yet the global response has fallen short. Particularly concerning is the lack of substantial governmental consequences in Britain, highlighting the country’s complicity in the matter.

Today, public awareness in the West, on Israeli Apartheid, is incrementally growing and the Amnesty International report is likely to further increase that. However, grasping settler colonialism as a political framework takes the debate beyond Apartheid.

Emphasizing the intertwined concepts of apartheid and settler colonialism reveals the underlying logic in the Palestinian situation. Unlike traditional colonial models, settler colonialism, akin to the USA and Australia, seeks the erasure of indigenous populations in favour of settlers. UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese contends[11] that achieving Palestinian self-determination necessitates dismantling Israel’s settler-colonial occupation and apartheid practices. This perspective extends beyond the apartheid analysis and highlights the nature of the state. While apartheid carries legal leverage, focusing on settler colonialism provides a deeper understanding of Zionism’s objectives.

The settler colonial framing is the key to understanding the JNF. The JNF’s historic contributions to the ongoing Nakba, are obvious applications of the settler colonists’ eliminatory impulse, from its crudest manifestation in the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their land to the destruction of their villages, and then the obliteration of the historical evidence under forests, nature reserves and parks. But elimination also takes more subtle forms and the JNF embraces these too.  One illustration is the seemingly apolitical act of cartography, the map-maker’s work of ascribing  names to places, which can become a tool for achieving national goals.

The JNF’s naming of Parks and Forests acts to obliterate one bond (to the Arabic past) and create another (a bond of complicity between Zionism and the wider world). Thus, British Park seeks to flaunt the UK’s complicity with the JNF and ethnic cleansing, secure in the knowledge that the UK establishment stands with Israel, bringing to the surface the historic complicity of this country outlined earlier. The Coretta Scott King Forest attaches an anti-racist nuance to a place which witnessed the notorious Ayn al Zaytoun massacre.

In the words of Seamus Heaney, “Right names were the first foundation / For telling truth”: the JNF’s naming practices, which obliterate the Palestinian truth, build instead a web of deceit.

In conclusion, the JNF’s ideology and contribution to the development and sustenance of the state of Israel rightly draws to it the opprobrium of being an agent both of the settler colonial logic of elimination and of apartheid, in all their manifestations, from brutal and ongoing ethnic cleansing to the erasure of the truth in easily missed acts of re-naming.