Protest against settler-friendly JNF expands, raises existential questions

Some of you may have been following the campaign to thwart the eviction of the Sumarin family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan by activists from Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity and Rabbis for Human Rights (both Israel and North America), reported on our site here.

As part of the effort to raise awareness, a group of activists staged a protest in front of the Jewish National Fund building in Jerusalem on Monday in order to send the message that the JNF is being “held captive by the settlers,” as they put it, since it continues to work to acquire and repossess land in East Jerusalem from Palestinians for transfer to Jews.


Their efforts have for the time being paid off, as Himnuta, the subsidiary of JNF responsible for this specific case, has postponed the eviction. Furthermore, the resignation of Seth Morrison, a member of the JNF US board, on December 13 sends a clear message that there are those in both Israel and the US who oppose JNF’s active involvement in the eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem for the benefit of Jewish contiguity throughout the “united” city.

In his resignation letter, Seth Morrision made clear that there are aspects of the JNF he respects, such as their environmental work, but that he cannot be part of an organization that “actively participates” in the “detstabalization of East Jerusalem” since it endangers “the very existence of the State of Israel as a democratic Jewish State.”

For an American board member to resign and openly state opposition to such a veteran Israeli institution that was paramount in the establishment of the state is a significant step in the willingness of American Jews to not only to make sure they are aware of the facts on the ground but to do something about it. The increasing awareness and activism regarding the JNF in Israel and the US, spearheaded by activists from the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement in Al Arakib and in East Jerusalem, poses a real challenge to a long-standing quasi-governmental institution whose founding mission is to acquire and market land exclusively for Jews.

Which is why I believe that while efforts such as Monday’s protest in front of the JNF offices are important and can indeed have an impact on policies, it is also necessary to question the motto of the protest: that the JNF is being “held captive” by a settlement agenda.

In my understanding, the very existence of the JNF (and by extension the State of Israel) – by definition a discriminatory organization, since it prioritizes real estate according to ethno-national affiliation – is a policy of Jewish settlement. So what does the JNF look like when it is NOT being “held captive” by a settler agenda? Is it OK for the JNF to repossess land for Jewish Israelis that is inside the Green Line (such as in the Negev town of Al Arakib) since this is not considered a direct affront to a two-state solution, whereas in East Jerusalem it is?

Or is it unacceptable to appropriate land for Jews no matter whether inside or outside the Green Line, if it means evicting a Palestinian family?  Are the activists working to stop the eviction of Palestinians like the Sumarin family from their homes in East Jerusalem also interested in the dozens of other homes that have been repossessed over many years by the JNF, whether inside the Green Line or outside of it?

These are important questions that need to be asked. The JNF is merely an elementary part of how the state was established and is still constructed, and touches on its very definition as a “Jewish and democratic” state – and thus must be addressed if there is to be any informed vision of how this place will function in the future.

In his resignation letter, Seth Morrison wrote:

I became a JNF supporter, and later joined the Washington DC Board because I was assured that JNF/KKL does not take political positions and does not own land outside of the Green Line.

While I appreciate his candor, it is beyond me how anyone could ever think that the JNF/KKL could possibly “not take political positions.” Jewish nation-building, like other forms of nation-building, has always and continues to be political, even if the consensus on which territories should or shouldn’t be built has changed. The important thing is to be honest about one’s political stances and aware of what consequences they have.

In the case of those actively campaigning against the JNF’s actions in East Jerusalem, it is not enough to oppose such policies by claiming that the JNF is precluding the chance for a two-state solution and the preservation of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”  I think one must also examine how the JNF has related to land since its establishment in 1901, and how it is part of the guiding values and principles that move Israeli policy. Are the principles of the JNF the types of principles that will lead to a better future for all those living here? Is JNF really being “held captive” by a settlement agenda or is it the entire mechanism upon which the state currently rests inherently an agenda of settlement?

These questions may be more difficult to deal with, but are necessary if one is to not only clear his own conscience of wrongdoing, but actually take part in an effort to re-imagine and redefine how Israelis are to find a way to exist democratically and securely in the long term.