Friday, December 9, 2011

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: The Untold Story of the Jewish National Fund, by Uri Blau, in Haaretz

"A Jew purchased an apartment in Carmiel, on Jewish National Fund ‏(JNF‏) land. No problem. Twenty years go by and Mohammed who lives in Dir al-Assad ... comes to buy an apartment.”

This may sound like the some sort of ethnic joke, but that’s how JNF world chairman, Effie Stenzler, a member of the Labor Party, chose to speak recently before the members of his board.

"The Jew sells him the apartment for a tidy sum,” Stenzler continues. “He goes to the Israel Lands Administration ‏(ILA‏) and says, ‘I’m Mohammed. I want you to register this apartment in the Tabu [Government Lands Registry Office] in my name.’ They say to him, ‘Wait a minute − you’re an Arab, we can’t do that because it’s written that JNF doesn’t sell to Arabs, doesn’t lease to Arabs.’ And then there was the trick that worked until 2004, and according to this trick the ILA, without telling anyone ... took land registered in the name of JNF, transferred it to another building and then registered that building in JNF’s name ... But then an Arab came to that building and then they had to do it again ...”

The tale of “Mohammed and the Apartment” is quoted from the minutes of the JNF board meeting in July. The organization claims that the quote “is part of a description of a very complicated bureaucratic problem created by the ILA in regard to the registration of apartments. After discussions with the attorney general and the court, the solution to the problem was found and JNF has been acting accordingly.”

Thus, JNF transfers to the ILA property on which there are buildings where Arabs have purchased apartments, and receive other land in return. Specifically, the records of that July meeting show that each year, three or four such property exchanges are carried out, and that some 25 have been made since the arrangement was formulated in 2008.
Lately, JNF has been busy dealing with numerous legal and personal disputes.

Founded 110 years ago following a decision by the fifth Zionist Congress, with the aim of acquiring lands for Jews in Palestine, the organization has in recent times been identified more with forests and forestation − to the point where many see it as a “green” organization.

Hundreds of pages of court records, a flood of correspondence between lawyers and arguments involving JNF board members have been devoted in the last two years to deciding who will control this body, which oversees 13 percent of state lands ‏(2.5 million dunams, or 625,000 acres‏) and is not subject to oversight by the state comptroller or the treasury.

Battling over ‘treasure’

Following a delay that was agreed upon last Thursday among all parties involved, the JNF General Assembly ‏(whose composition is identical to that of the Zionist General Council, with 192 members‏) will on January 4, 2012 elect 37 members of the organization’s board, from which the chairman will be selected. After that, perhaps, the legal sagas that have overshadowed JNF’s operations for the past year and a half will come to an end, and it will become clear whether chairman Stenzler ‏(who has served for the past five and a half years‏) will be reelected or if he will be replaced by former Laborite Prof. Shimon Sheetrit, now affiliated with Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut faction.

In an earlier legal round between the two in October, Stenzler earned a victory − on points, at least − when Judge Avraham Yaakov of the Petah Tikva District Court ruled that Sheetrit and other Atzmaut representatives, including Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon, had to resign from their faction-related positions in the World Zionist Congress ‏(the body above JNF‏) because they had originally been appointed to these positions as representatives of Labor.

For his part, Sheetrit has been concerned that Stenzler’s reelection as JNF chair is assured, and that he, Sheetrit, will not be eligible to run at all.

In any event, to understand what sort of “treasure” this battle has revolved around, it is instructive to return to the July 2010 and February 2011 JNF board meetings, at which David Lazarus, director of the organization’s financial division, spoke of JNF’s general financial situation. In recent years, JNF has had an annual budget of NIS 650 million; half of that is designated to pay salaries, administrative expenses and so on, and the rest is for other activities. The data indicate that even though in 2009 there was a decrease in donations to JNF ‏(NIS 96 million, compared to NIS 112 million the previous year‏), its financial situation was excellent, since its income far exceeds its expenditures.

Thus, for instance, in 2009, JNF had income totaling NIS 1.133 billion, the vast majority from land holdings, compared to NIS 972 million in 2008 − meaning a surplus in the organization’s coffers of hundreds of millions of shekels per year. The total value of JNF lands is estimated at NIS 6.2 billion; the ILA administers more than half of these properties; its subsidiary, Himanuta, administers the rest.

“The income and moderate expenses have created what JNF calls a ‘budget reserve.’ The reserve should amount to something like NIS 2 billion,” said Avraham Duvdevani, then co-chairman and currently chairman of the WZO, said in September 2010. “This is a well-kept secret,” he told the members of the JNF board, “and it must be preserved with maximum secrecy, otherwise the government will covet this money and we have experience with this already from the past.” ‏(The secret leaked out shortly afterward nonetheless, and was reported upon by Shuki Sadeh in a January 2011 report in TheMarker‏).

Board member Moshe Yogev proposed at that meeting that JNF “take [the reserve], before it’s taken from us, to build the fence with Egypt.”

Among the organization’s fears were the ability to fulfill future financial commitments: In 2008, these commitments totaled NIS 1.971 billion, and a year later they had crossed the NIS 2-billion mark. Stenzler sought to reassure the board and promised to guard the coffers.

“The subject of the reserve is something that needs to be closely watched, that’s true,” he said, “but we also must remember that we promised employees their pension rights with what we called a ‘floating charge’ ‏(shi’abud tzaf‏). This ensures both the JNF’s future and the future of the workers’ pensions, because this is insured and secure money.”

Indeed, it appears that JNF has trouble parting with funds that have accumulated in its coffers, even if these are assets that belong to Holocaust victims and their descendants.

JNF foot-dragging’

“I am writing to request that you personally intervene immediately and put an end to JNF’s foot-dragging in regard to complying with the directives of the Law on Holocaust Victims’ Assets.”

These words were written by Yaron Jacobs, head of the Company for the Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets ‏(known by the Hebrew name Hashava‏), in January to Stenzler, whose organization holds tens of millions of shekels worth of such assets. Later in the letter, Jacobs’ language was more pointed: Since 2006, he wrote, “Hashava has systematically maintained contact with JNF on various matters with the aim of upholding the law and obtaining the Holocaust victims’ assets currently held by JNF ... Unfortunately, despite the pleasant atmosphere at most of the meetings ... satisfactory progress was not made in solving these problems and in returning all of the assets to the company.”

Jacobs stressed also that “JNF is holding a lot of funds that belong to victims, in a manner that runs counter to the law’s instructions. This situation is intolerable and requires an immediate solution.”

Unfortunately, he added, “JNF is not in any hurry. The restoration of the assets is occurring very slowly, with various obstacles being placed in the company’s way, in an appropriate manner.”

By contrast, he explained, for the victims’ descendants, time is racing by, as many of them are elderly themselves. Jacobs also explained that assets for which descendants are not found are supposed to be used to help Holocaust survivors, and “if we are unable to obtain the assets in the near future, there will no longer be anyone to help.”
Jacobs was complaining about the failure to transfer NIS 67 million, equivalent to the value of 57 plots of land belonging to victims, which JNF transferred to the ILA in the past. He noted that some in the JNF wanted to transfer the value of the lands according to their worth at the time of purchase − i.e., before the founding of the state − and not according to their present value, which is 10 times higher. He said the company finds itself receiving from the JNF “offers that are low and inexplicable.”

Jacobs also wrote that the JNF had a debt of NIS 12 million to the company, and that “on this subject too all kinds of unworthy ‘compromise’ or bargaining proposals have been made.”

His letter said that JNF had been seeking to charge handling fees for the transferred funds, and to receive from the company and victims’ descendants a commitment not to sue JNF for assets that it would be transferring.

Stenzler reported on the letter at the JNF board meeting in February, according to the minutes. “So far, JNF has transferred NIS 99 million to Hashava,” he said. “In addition, JNF has transferred another 141 plots of land to the company.”

Stenzler noted that Hashava had a new director general at that time, and that the latter had sent a letter “in which he says that JNF still has to transfer funds and so on, in a tone that I didn’t like very much, to put it mildly, because JNF, the members of the board − we were the first ones to say that the funds should be transferred. Moreover, all of the directors general who dealt with him always noted the fact that JNF was ready to go above and beyond the letter of the law with them ... Therefore I did not like the style of this letter.”

The fact that only about half of JNF’s annual budget is designated for its activities did not deter board member Nissan Chilik from cynically remarking, “We have to understand [Hashava]: They need the money because they waste four times as much in administration than they actually return.”

However, not everyone present liked this attitude. Board member Reuven Shalom proposed “making a distinction between what we need to give, and their [Hashava’s conduct. We need to give what the Holocaust survivors deserve, and they need to behave properly.”

Chilik: “But they should have used more delicate language.”

Shalom: “We are not a commercial body or something like that. We are a body of the Jewish people ... the approach has to be a ‘public’ one.”

Avraham Roth, a founder of Hashava and its chairman until 2008, says JNF was among the first to cooperate with the company, and he describes the transfer of funds and assets on its part since then as “reasonable.” When asked if its conduct went beyond the letter of the law, as Stenzler said, he says: “No, in accordance with it.”

Still, Roth adds, “The fact that things still aren’t settled with the JNF six years after the law was passed is quite unbelievable. It’s inconceivable that the JNF is still holding property of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. The survivors are dying, the heirs are getting to the end of their lives, and they have all the time in the world.”

A source that is knowledgeable about the issue says Jacobs’ letter in January appears to have “done the job,” because in recent months the parties have returned to negotiations and “significant progress toward a solution” has begun.

JNF says in response that, “As soon as the matter [concerning Hashava] reached the desk of the JNF chairman, Effie Stenzler personally got involved in handling it, in full cooperation with the company and with the company director general, Yaron Jacobs. JNF was a leader in this realm, and deserves a medal for the way it acted with the company ... when, for example, it transferred close to NIS 100 million in funds and property for survivors and over 100 assets worth a lot of money. This massive process is now nearing its end.”

On transparency

Stenzler declared firmly at the September 2010 meeting: “It is incumbent upon us for the organization to be completely transparent,”

However, it seems that when it comes to internal organizational affairs as well, this transparency is not always total. For example, at the February meeting, board member Yigal Yasinov, who is considered Stenzler’s rival, said: “I do not regularly receive emails ... [or regular] mail. I didn’t even receive an invitation to the last board meeting, I didn’t get the agenda for today’s meeting and I know there are other letters that didn’t go out ... I want to get all the material from the past four months, because I did not receive it. I did not receive protocols, or any other mail at all. Invitations to ceremonies I do receive ... I get only mail which is unimportant, all the junk mail.”

It seems that Stenzler himself is not always keen on media transparency − as regards, for example, one of the more sensitive JNF activities: planting trees on lands in the south, whose ownership is a matter of dispute with the Bedouin population. This mostly concerns land in the area of Al-Arakib, a village north of Be’er Sheva that has been destroyed numerous times in clashes with police and property inspectors, because its inhabitants refuse to be evicted and claim ownership of the land.

In May, after telling the board about the extensive media coverage of the affair abroad and the number of emails he receives as a result, Stenzler added: “I must thank the spokespeople, our media people, our public relations people, who are doing everything to see that this matter doesn’t develop in the local media ... In the media in Israel it hasn’t [yet] made any waves, thank goodness.”

About the matter itself, he said: “This is an area that we are taking so that others, neither Jews nor non-Jews, will take it − not Bedouin or anyone else.”

In August last year, according to minutes of a meeting, he explained: “We have learned from our experience in recent years that wherever there is a tree planted it is almost impossible to seize control of the land ... Not for nothing did the ILA agree to increase the budget, because it understands that JNF helps to keep property.”

At the same meeting, board member Yitzhak Krichevsky offered another idea for how to deal with the problem: “Go to Sinai and see how Egypt took over the Bedouin,” he suggested. “There is no democracy there. We’re playing in the courts, with democracy. Go to Sinai. You won’t see a single Bedouin around there.”

But there are other voices making themselves heard in JNF as well. At the meeting in May, board member Alon Tal said that the affair is “a very serious public relations failure by the JNF ... The pictures of JNF foresters and other pictures that were publicized of tractors demolishing buildings are what stick with people, and the JNF appears to be a partner to a crime. Our representatives abroad didn’t know how to answer these charges and lost the battle over our reputation in Australia, the United States and other places.”

Another member, Or Karsin, spoke in even stronger terms: “I will say what I think, even if it might sound like Don Quixote,” she said, explaining that she didn’t feel right that “people are being put up against trees ... Placing trees in a position of war versus an Israeli population, citizens of the State of Israel, is a very serious thing, and it is very difficult to see these pictures and hear these voices.”

JNF said in response that this article has been based on “a collection of partial documents and partial truths that present a distorted and false picture. In regard to Al-Arakib, JNF is acting solely in accordance with the court decisions, and what the chairman meant by his remarks is that it is good that the media in Israel is not influenced by the world campaign that is fed by lies against Israel and against JNF, and that the media in Israel is behaving responsibly, and sees and knows that not a single tree was planted in the area in question.”

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