The JNF and the Reform Movement

On July 8, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) wrote about the perceived tension between Zionism and democracy:

Zionism’s purpose was to create a society that is “normal” socially and politically, but not ethically or religiously. More specifically, the Zionist founders were always clear that the Jewish state exists to promote the religion, civilization, and culture of the Jewish people and its dominant Jewish majority.

Does this mean that Israel’s Arab citizens must suffer certain disabilities? It does. They are a minority, and there is a price to be paid for minority status. Jews have paid that price for the last 2000 years, and nearly half of the Jewish people continue to pay it today….

But – and this is critical – Jews as a minority have always demanded that their host countries grant them full civil and political rights. The Jewish state, therefore, must do no less for its minority citizens. Yes, Israel’s majority culture should be aggressively Jewish, but there is no excuse for discrimination against individual Arab citizens in housing, employment, or education, and neither can discrimination in public funding for Arab municipalities be tolerated. — Eric Yoffie, Reform Reflections

Yoffie agrees with me in supporting the Jewish character of the state — the Jewish majority, its symbols, and — I presume — the Zionist goal of settling the Land (although he would probably qualify this by saying that this refers to the pre-1967 Land, perhaps with some minor adjustments).

Importantly, he does seem to be clear about the difference between civil rights and national aspirations. Arabs who live in Israel have the first, but must understand, as the Jews did for 2000 years, that they must look elsewhere for the second.

But he seems to be taking an antithetical position today:

America’s largest Jewish denomination is issuing calls for the Israeli Knesset to reverse course on a controversial piece of legislation declaring that Jewish National Fund lands can be leased only to Jews.

The legislation, introduced by three Israeli Knesset members, passed last week in a vote of 64-16 in its first reading. In order for the bill, which would bar JNF lands from falling into Arab hands, to officially become law, it needs to come before the Knesset two more times.

This week, the Reform Movement joined a growing chorus of calls from left-wing Jewish groups roundly condemning the bill as racist and undemocratic.

“It’s very hard to imagine any circumstance where a Jewish minority in any Diaspora country would accept with equanimity a bill that would forbid Jews from purchasing land,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Therefore it is essential that when the Jewish majority in Israel exercises power, it extend to others the rights it always demanded for itself when we were in the minority.” — Forward

On the face of it, this sounds highly undemocratic. How can you deny someone the right to purchase land on the grounds of ethnicity? Doesn’t this fall under the heading of civil rights?

Not exactly.

The JNF was founded in 1901 long before the state of Israel. Its function was to purchase land in Ottoman-controlled Palestine that would eventually become part of a Jewish state. The resolution passed in the Fifth Zionist Congress establishing the fund said that “the fund shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole”.

Jews around the world contributed to the JNF. My grandmother maintained a tin box in our kitchen, a pushke, into which extra change (and there wasn’t much in the 1940’s) was put — “for the Jews”, she said.

So the contents of this fund doesn’t belong to the state of Israel; it belongs to the Jewish people worldwide, who contributed to it on the grounds that it would help create a Jewish state, by making it possible for Jews to acquire land.

In 1962, however, the JNF made an agreement to allow the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) — part of the government of Israel — to manage JNF lands. And this led to demands that they be made available to any citizen of Israel, Jewish or not. And the bill that Rabbi Yoffie, et al, oppose is an attempt to prevent the abrogation of the understanding between the JNF and the generations of Zionists, like my grandmother, who gave money with the understanding that it would be used to create and develop a Jewish National Home.

The Reform leadership is not unaware of this history (they had grandmothers too). But here’s what Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) is reported as saying (if anyone can provide a more complete reference, I would be grateful):

“This is not the time for Israel to be looking at policies that differentiate between different cohorts of its citizenry.”

Though the JNF was entrusted with bringing a Jewish state into being, some institutions need to be “reevaluated,” said Davids.

“What we are seeing is the maturation of an Israeli democratic society, and some institutions need to be reevaluated with regards to the current demographics. Israel will never be a state exclusively for Jews,” he said.

I find this profoundly troubling, especially as it comes from a ‘Zionist’. Davids simply ‘reevaluates’ out of existence the very essence of the JNF, as it has historically been defined, and deliberately blurs the distinction between “a Jewish state”, which the proposed law supports, and “a state exclusively for Jews”, which the law does not in any way promote.

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One Response to “The JNF and the Reform Movement”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This piece is illuminating and convincing. There is a strange prejudice in regard to Israel’s Arab minority. Israel’s critics on the left, Jewish and non- Jewish alike never speak about the benefits it has received from being part of the Jewish state, or the obligations it has as citizens of that state. I often think of this in regard to the network of advanced medical facilities in Israel many of which have Diaspora Jewish funding behind them. I never see on any plaque indicating the names of benefactors of medical facilities an Arab name. I do see however thousands of Arabs benefiting from the contributions of world Jewry. However there is never anywhere from any Arab political representative any sign of gratitude for the great advances in medical treatment this community has known through the decades of Israel’s existence.