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Interview: Shut Down JNF

From November 4th-6th, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) will host its 2022 national conference at the Omni Hotel in Boston. The JNF’s 2022 conference in Boston will feature JNF task force meetings including the JNF’s “Go North – East Task Force” (a reference to “Go West young man,” the phrase used to promote U.S. colonial frontierism in centuries past). In this interview, you will hear from a group of Boston area Palestinian community members and anti-racist allies who have called for a regional mobilization to Boston for a protest on Saturday November 5th starting at 2pm, to shut the JNF’s conference down!

1. For readers who may not be familiar with the JNF, can you give a background of what role this entity has played and continues to play in the dispossession of Palestinians and the transformation of the occupied Palestinian land?

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a “non-profit” organization which controls approximately 13% of the land in ’48 Palestine. The JNF is an overtly colonial organization which advances zionist settlement and violent displacement of Palestinians, often under “environmentalist” pretexts such as planting forests or water conservation.

Since its founding in 1901, the JNF has worked in tandem with the zionist state to expropriate Palestinian lands for Jewish settlement. Most notably, the JNF played an active role in the Nakba, gathering information on Palestinian lands and villages which were to be used by militias such as the Haganah to violently expel 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland, erase dozens of Palestinian villages, and massacre thousands of Palestinians. In fact, Yosef Weitz was both the director of the Land and Afforestation Department of the Jewish National Fund and a leading member of the “Transfer Committee” of Israel’s first government, which had the aim of expelling Palestinians from their lands and preventing their return. 

The JNF is also an overtly racist organization: The JNF’s charter states that the land it controls must be reserved for members of the “Jewish race” and their descendants, and the JNF has explicitly reaffirmed that it will only allow Jewish people to buy, mortgage, or lease the lands it controls. When Palestinian groups challenged this overtly racist practice in the zionist legal system, the JNF stated:

The JNF is not the trustee of the general public in Israel. Its loyalty is given to the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel … The JNF, in relation to being an owner of land, is not a public body that works for the benefit of all citizens of the state. The loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.

The JNF’s openly racist character stems from its fundamentally colonial mission: the JNF relies on racial classification in order to promote its objectives of violent dispossession of land from indigenous peoples for colonization by settlers.

2. Can you comment on the parallels between US colonialism, Indigenous American dispossession and the role of the JNF in occupied Palestine?

The United States was created through the violent takeover of Indigenous lands, including genocidal warfare to break Indigenous resistance. To this day, the US continues to colonially oppress Indigenous people—through further encroachments on land, pollution and destruction of land and water resources, systematic impoverishment, and more. This also describes the reality in Palestine, where the zionist state has often found inspiration in US history to carry out its colonial war against indigenous Palestinians.

The Jewish National Fund in particular plays a key role in the theft and destruction of Palestinian land, backed by the force of zionist military which kills, injures, and cages any Palestinians who try to resist. The JNF intentionally disrupts and destroys Palestinian food and ecosystems, covering much of the lands it has expropriated with massive pine tree forests (the JNF boasts it has planted 250 million trees to date), forests which make it illegal and impossible for Palestinians to return to cultivate olive trees and the other sources of food and income which have sustained their communities for centuries. Like the US-backed pipelines which spill oil into Indigenous water sources on this continent, the JNF’s tree-planting efforts are horribly damaging to local ecosystems in Palestine: The Northern European pine tree forests the JNF has planted across al-Naqab Desert, for example, fare incredibly poorly in the desert climate and catch fire hundreds of times each year. 

3. How widespread is the JNF’s network in North America and beyond? Who are some of its biggest institutional and individual supporters?

The Jewish National Fund relies upon an extensive network of donors and supporters across North American, Europe, and beyond to raise the funds it needs to carry out its colonial and racist organizational objectives. Currently, JNF-USA’s Billion-Dollar Roadmap for the Next Decade campaign aims to raise $1 billion from US donors within a decade to fund the development of infrastructure projects needed to attract increased Jewish settlement in al-Naqab Desert and al-Jalil. This campaign has raised over $856 million dollars to date from JNF supporters across the United States. 

To cultivate support from US donors, JNF-USA also runs 17 task forces, including its “Central Negev Task Force,” “Gaza Envelope Task Force,” “Go North West Task Force,” and “Go North East Task Force” (the later two making reference to “Go West, young man,” language used to promote US colonial frontierism in centuries past). JNF supporters in the United States contribute thousands of dollars annually to the JNF in order to become formally associated with these JNF task forces, contributions that can be made tax-free due to JNF-USA status as a charitable entity in the US.

Locally, contributions from New England donors accounted for the single largest regional donation to JNF-USA’s Billion-Dollar Roadmap campaign last year, with New England donors contributing $11.4 million to the campaign in 2021 alone. In the Boston area in particular, individual and institutional supporters of the JNF include:

  • Dar Nadler, who is the KKL-JNF Israel Emissary of the JNF’s New England office. Nadler is also one of the two main contacts for JNF-USA’s “Go North West Task Force,” the self-stated goal of which is “is to attract and retain 300,000 new residents to the Galilee, strengthen the economic and social life of the region, relieve the congestion in the center of Israel and, together with Blueprint Negev, transform Northern and Southern Israel into co-equal centers of Israeli society.”
  • Nixon Peabody LLC, which has hosted the “JNF Lawyers for Israel Society” breakfast at its Boston headquarters, while Lawrence B. Cohen who is Partner at Nixon Peabody’s Boston office serves as President of the Boston Board of Directors of JNF-USA’s New England Region.
  • Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which contributed $1,793,864 to the JNF from fiscal years 2007-2020.
  • Fidelity Charitable, which contributed $3,024,286 to the JNF, in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 alone.
  • The Klarman Family Foundation, which has donated $43,500 to the JNF directly and made $350,000 in donations to the Jewish Funders Network (FY17-19) earmarked “To support the goals and mission of the JNF.”
  • The Ruderman Family Foundation, which contributed $726,838 to the JNF from fiscal years 2005-2018.
  • The Susan and Barry Tatelman Foundation, which contributed $477,000 to the JNF from fiscal years 2005-2018.

Looking at the Northeastern US broadly, New York-based multi-billionaire Ronald Lauder is also a notable supporter of the JNF. Lauder is a major donor to JNF, Chairman of the JNF-USA Board, and will be a speaker at the opening plenary of the JNF’s 2022 conference in Boston. Lauder is also a close friend and supporter of Donald Trump, and a major contributor to the Republican party and to anti-Muslim hate campaigns. He is also the President of the World Jewish Congress, and in this capacity regularly meets with heads of state, prime ministers, and government representatives to lobby them in support of zionism.

Moreover, countless Jewish places of worship and community organizations across the US raise funds for the JNF on a daily basis, by soliciting donations from their members using the JNF’s infamous blue donation boxes. The JNF promotes its blue box donation program to youth in particular as a beneficent opportunity to “plant a tree in Israel” (leaving out the fact that JNF trees are planted atop stolen land and ruins of villages). The JNF even attempts to hype up the program to youth through a traveling mascot, “Blue Box Bob.”

4. Are there collectives and individuals you want to highlight are who currently doing work to expose the JNF’s actions as well as its local and regional ties? And how?

First and foremost, we wish to center the Palestinian people who, at high personal and collective cost, are courageously fighting back to defend their homes and lands from expropriation by the Jewish National Fund and its military backers. In this context, it’s worth pointing out that after more than 100 years since the British militarily occupied Palestine and began giving active support to zionist colonization, and 74 years since the Nakba, zionists have still only managed to gain density of settlement in a narrow corridor of Palestine, with most of the settlers concentrated in a few coastal cities. Awareness of this fact is what fuels the JNF’s anxious attempts to recruit settlers for the north and south. It’s a testament to the resilience, courage, and steadfast resistance of the Palestinian people that they have managed to stay on their land. It’s this resistance, above all, that has exposed the actions of the JNF and other colonial agencies. Here in the Boston area, the Mapping Project has done important work to compile information on local individuals and institutions that support the JNF and sustain it financially.

5. What kinds of suppression have you and others in your community experienced due to your JNF resistance work? Is it possible to name institutions or groups who are responsible for this repression?

Because this is the first action we have organized against the Jewish National Fund, we have not yet experienced repression as the result of our resistance against the JNF in particular. However, we have experienced repression as the result of our broader work in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. This repression has come from numerous sources. Local zionist organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of New England and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston have attempted to mobilize local police, the FBI, and the US Attorney for Massachusetts to punish Boston area activists for daring to expose and resist local actors that are supporting and profiting from the colonization of Palestine. Meanwhile, students on Boston area university campuses have faced condemnation and repression from their respective administrations as well as harassment (including death threats) spurred on by Zionist organizations such as “CAMERA on Campus” and “Stop Antisemitism.”

We recognize, however, that the repression we face here in Boston is small in comparison to the repression Palestinians face every day, just for existing, for refusing to leave their land, and for insisting upon liberation and return. While we must protect one another here in Boston when repression occurs, it is our duty to never back down in the face of this repression, to hold the line, and to keep fighting, even when doing so comes at a cost. Because the cost we face for resisting here is, ultimately, only a small fraction of the cost Palestinians face every single day on the ground in Palestine — and so, it is the least we can do.

6. Are there any outcomes from past conferences that readers should know about?

Simply put: Every time the JNF holds a conference — or any event for that matter — it mobilizes resources and collects funds which it uses to advance its objectives of expanded Jewish settlement on expropriated Palestinian lands.

7. What do you think is the goal of the upcoming conference and “task force”?

The JNF intends to use its 2022 national conference in Boston as a staging ground to raise more funds to support its overtly colonial and racist organizational objectives of expanded Jewish settlement on expropriated Palestinian lands. As noted earlier, JNF-USA’s current “Billion-Dollar Roadmap for the Next Decade” fundraising campaign hopes to fundraise $1 billion from US donors, funds which it will use to pay for the new infrastructure to attract increased Jewish settlement in al-Naqab Desert and al-Jalil. The JNF’s Billion-Dollar Roadmap campaign is itself part of a larger 20-year JNF plan called “Israel 2040,” which ultimately aims to move 1.5 million settlers to these regions and turn al-Naqab into a hub of tech, surveillance, military and weapons industries. The colonial settlement of “Be’er Sheva”—which hosts facilities for Elbit Systems, Lockheed Martin, and numerous “cybersecurity” companies—is one such target for rapid development of the zionist economy. The JNF aims to create economic incentives for further colonization.

JNF-USA runs 17 task forces, some of which explicitly promote this goal of expanded Jewish settlement in regions of ’48 Palestine which are, presently, less densely populated by settlers relative to the (so-called) Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Corridor. As the JNF puts it, “By motivating scores of Israelis in overcrowded cities—and thousands of Americans—to move to the Negev and Galilee, we are in the process of dramatically changing Israel’s landscape.” Many JNF-USA task forces will be holding meetings during the JNF’s 2022 national conference in Boston, to strategize how best to encourage more Jewish settlers to “Go North East,” “Go North West,” and the like.

The JNF conference is also set to host a number of sessions which indicate that it is strategically mobilizing in response to the increasing numbers of Jews (and non-Jews) in the United States who are questioning and rejecting zionism, especially youth. Plenaries such as “How Can One be Progressive, LGBTQ, a Person of Color, Left Wing and Pro-Israel? Easily”, “Being a Zionist on Campus Today”, and “From Zero to Hero: How to be a Social Media Warrior for Israel” show that this decline in support for zionism is a deep concern for the zionist movement and speaks to the successes and importance of pro-Palestine campus organizing.

8. What makes this year’s conference important and how can people get involved in your movement?

The JNF intends to use its 2022 national conference in Boston to cultivate support and mobilize funds for its racist and colonial work on the ground in Palestine. Zionism can only operate thanks to such supply lines of material 

sustenance, which flow from where we live to the zionist project. By disrupting the JNF’s 2022 national conference, we move towards narrowing the supply line of material 

sustenance flowing from where we live to the zionist project. In doing so, we can weaken the zionist project’s capacity to sustain itself materially over the long run.

We encourage anti-racist allies from across the Northeastern US to moblize to Boston on November 5th at 2:00pm to help us shut the JNF’s conference down. We encourage allies who cannot be with us in person to uplift our call to action, by sharing our flyer and social media posts widely in your networks. And we encourage everyone, wherever you live, to learn about JNF’s presence where you are, and to take actions of your own to shut down the JNF.