Jeffrey Levine, the new president of the Jewish National Fund, is a scotch drinker and a builder, a man who developed a tidy career for himself in New York real estate development long before assuming the helm of one of the most influential nonprofits in the Jewish world.
Last week he paid his first visit to Israel since taking over in September. Over drinks at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, he held an exclusive chat with The Times of Israel, talking about water issues, energy independence and what it is that drives this successful construction executive to believe he can build Israel’s periphery just as he built New York City’s five boroughs.
He was tired, having spent a nonstop week visiting JNF projects from the planned Negev community of Carmit, where the ribbon has just been cut on 2,700 new housing units, to the Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon, the Israeli high school campus for Diaspora students which JNF has recently absorbed under its umbrella. But Levine, a former president of the New York Board of JNF and one of the youngest presidents in his history, was also good-natured and honest, admitting there are areas of JNF’s portfolio he still needs to brush up on and declaring that he is genuinely optimistic that he can give the Israeli people a much-needed break in housing costs.
“The people of Israel cried out during the demonstrations of 2011 about the housing needs for working-class people, and this is an area where I have devoted my life,” says Levine, who is chairman of Levine Builders, a company that among its portfolio of glittering high-rises and swanky hotels has also overseen the construction of dozens of affordable housing complexes throughout New York City. Some of them have won awards.
Affordable housing is an area that Levine, the grandson of a taxi driver who grew up in a modest Brooklyn home and studied architecture not at an Ivy League school but at NYC’s public City College, takes seriously. He sits on the board of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing and is a member of the New York State Affordable Housing Coalition, as well as the Urban Land Institute, which promotes sustainable, responsible building in population-dense areas.
“Our mission is to populate the Negev,” he says. “And populating it doesn’t simply involve building houses. If they come, they obviously have to have homes, but they also have to have jobs. Schools. Amenities. And we have been involved in every aspect of that.”
Building up the Negev has been a battle cry of JNF since the founding of the State of Israel, but despite the fact that the area encompasses about 60 percent of the Jewish state’s land, it still holds less than 10 percent of its population.
“We’re dealing with that,” Levine says, touting a handful of JNF initiatives – like the tourist attraction of Abraham’s Well and the stunning Beersheba River Park and amphitheater – before returning to the success story of Carmit, an evolving planned community. Three hundred and sixty of the 2,700 planned lots have been purchased, piping for water and sewage is already in the ground and a JNF donor-funded synagogue has been erected.
“Carmit is a step in expanding the center,” Levine says. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t leapfrog from the triangle [a cluster of Arab towns in Israel’s north] to the center [the area including Tel Aviv and its outskirts, where the majority of Israelis live] down to Eilat. You have to build out concentrically, and projects like Carmit get Jewish population expanding out of the center.”
The Israelis who in 2011 erected tents along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard and packed into city squares by the tens of thousands were demanding more than just affordable housing, however. They were begging for a break in the inflated costs of every aspect of Israeli life, and in two of those key areas – water and energy — JNF wields incredible influence.
It was Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL), the Israeli wing of JNF, that in 2011 put the kibosh on a sweeping, ambitious plan to mine the world’s second-largest deposits of oil shale, which happen to sit deep beneath the soil of the Holy Land. KKL cited critical environmental concerns, but its move paralyzed an initiative that could have forever freed Israel from dependence on foreign oil and catapulted the tiny state overnight into the status of economic titan.
Asked about where that project now stands, Levine admits he is unfamiliar with the specifics, and defers to Russell Robinson, JNF’s CEO, who has joined us for the conversation but not yet chimed in.
“It wasn’t opposed,” Robinson says of KKL’s approach to the initiative, insisting that the decision to publicly thwart the move was meant only to stall it until its environmental impact could be further examined. “They didn’t have enough science and information and said, instead of dealing with this on an emotional level, let’s do the proper thing and check it out.”
A committee of professionals was established to further examine the environmental impact of oil shale drilling in Israel, Robinson says, and in 2014 they are still convening. A report, he says, can be expected in the next six months.
Robinson chimes in again when Levine is asked about the role JNF plays in Bedouin resettlement, and its support of the government’s controversial Prawer Plan to resolve Bedouin land claims.
“Where JNF is concerned, obviously we don’t displace Bedouins; we typically are working with projects that are of assistance to Bedouins,” Levine says, immediately citing Wadi Attir, a sustainable eco-village funded by JNF and touted as a model of co-existence and Bedouin economic growth, as an example.
Robinson jumps in to assist him, adding, “There is no organization, none, that has done more for the Bedouins than the KKL. So we may not do a lot of petitions and protests but we sure do a lot of great work for them.”
Robinson and Levine both toe the line that JNF’s work is apolitical, and despite the fact that issues of water, soil and land claims are perfect fodder for the pressure cooker that is Israeli-Arab relations, JNF prefers to defer rather then demur.
“It’s not our job ever to judge or dictate to Israel,” Levine says. “Just to assist in any way we can. “We’re working with the State of Israel, raising funds in America and we are doing projects within the Green Line, because we know that that’s an agenda that people are comfortable with in terms of contributing to and our goal is to raise funds in the USA to help the State of Israel.”
Robinson puts it a bit more succinctly.
“Israel is a country of 14.5 million people,” he says, “including 7.5 million Jews living in Israel.”