Israel’s democratically elected Knesset is right to be pushing forward with a bill reaffirming that all lands belonging to the Jewish National Fund should continue to be leased to Jews in accordance with terms of the organization’s charter.
Critics of the measure, which the Knesset recently approved 64 to16 in the bill’s first reading, misconceive the function and purpose of the JNF, a body funded by private donations to purchase and develop land for Jewish settlement. The critics do not seem to understand that JNF land is private land, not state-owned public land.
For more than 100 years, Jews from around the world put their small change and small bills into the well-known blue and white JNF boxes in homes, schools, and synagogues. Jews understood there was a sacred promise that their money would buy land in Eretz Yisrael for Jews to emigrate there and build a Jewish state in our ancient, biblical homeland where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived, and where King David and King Solomon once ruled. This was the contract, the promise, the covenant between JNF and the Jewish people.
During its century-long existence, from the time of Turkish and later British rule, the JNF has been involved in the legal purchase and reclamation of ‘50,000 acres of largely uninhabited, malaria-ridden swamp lands and desert that no one wanted or could live on. The JNF eliminated disease, rendered the land fit for habitation and agriculture, planted ”0 million trees, and built many reservoirs.
There is increasing pressure now to lease parts of this private land (constituting about 10 percent of Israel) to Israeli Arabs, although they already have the right to lease public Israeli state land (about 70 percent of Israel). Such a step would be wrong. No one would dream of telling private land owners like the Catholic Church or the Muslim Wakf to whom they can lease their land. Moreover, JTA reported on "some cases where Jews attempted to move into non-Jewish neighborhoods … that have been vigorously protested by non-Jews, saying they should be allowed to maintain ethnically and culturally distinct communities."
It seems clear that the JNF contract with Jewish donors must be respected — that’s why Israel’s democratically elected Knesset voted overwhelmingly to approve the first reading of a bill to reaffirm that all private JNF land continue to be leased to Jews in accordance with the JNF charter.
Additionally, there are many laws, institutions, and practices in Israel that we all support that promote and protect the Jewishness of the state, such as the immigration laws, the Jewish education in schools, the Jewish-starred flag, and the national anthem, Hatikvah, which speaks of the Jewish soul.
As Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, wrote in an editorial, "The land in question is not mere real estate. JNF property is the inheritance of the entire Jewish people." He added that "JNF policies should stand."
In the late 1800s, the Jews rejected settling in Uganda because it lacked any historical or religious connection to Jews. The Exponent’s editorial continued, "JNF’s task is building homes for a nation that has no other haven." Indeed, Holocaust survivors, former Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, Argentinean and French Jews, and Jews from Arab countries are among the millions of persecuted and oppressed Jewish immigrants who have come to Israel.
Those who say this Knesset law proves that Arabs suffer discrimination in Israel are speaking nonsense. Like Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs are members of the cabinet and Knesset and the law courts; they are consul generals and attend Israeli colleges and medical and law and graduate schools. They have full voting rights, citizenship, medical insurance, and pension plans. One of the few differences is that they are not required to perform military service, but that is hardly a case of discrimination; rather it shows great sensitivity to Israeli Arabs. In fact, if the blacks of South Africa had enjoyed the same rights as the Arabs in Israel, discrimination would never have been a serious issue there.
It is also surprising that those organizations opposed to this bill are not on record condemning genuine racism and discrimination in the practices of many Arab states. In Jordan and the Palestinian Authority and other Arab states, it is illegal to sell any land to Jews under punishment of death. Saudi Arabia, in addition to such practices, bans any expression of religion other than Wahhabi Islam — Saudi law does not permit churches or synagogues or even religious services in a hall, and women are prohibited from driving cars. Where are the critics when it comes to genuine human rights abuses in Arab states? Why, instead, do they seek to limit the rights of Jews to lease privately owned land in Israel purchased for that very purpose?
Ronald Lauder, president of the JNF, had it right when he said: "This Knesset decision reaffirms the vision and the dream of Theodor Herzl and the millions of Jews over the past 106 years who contributed and participated in the rebirth of a Jewish nation after ‘,000 years. The land of Israel is part of the very existence of the Jewish people from as far back as Abraham. We are a people linked to our land. Now and forever."
The Knesset bill is one step towards securing this precious legacy, and it deserves the support of all American Jewish organizations.
Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America and Irwin Hochberg is the vice-chairman of the board of ZOA, a past chairman of UJA-Federation of New York, and a past national campaign chairman of Israel Bonds.