Head of union calls on KKL-JNF to roll back plans to fire minority employees

The layoff of some 60 laborers, many of them Arab-Israeli or Palestinian forest workers, has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely, after a recent report by The Times of Israel

Chief investigative reporter for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel's sister Hebrew website

Yisrael Goldstein, head of the KKL-JNF national workers' union. (Facebook)
Yisrael Goldstein, head of the KKL-JNF national workers' union. (Facebook)

The head of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) national workers’ union, Yisrael Goldstein, has called on the organization’s management to cancel the impending dismissal of dozens of longtime workers.

The layoffs, it was revealed by The Times of Israel last week, would mostly affect workers who belong to minority populations and are classified by KKL-JNF as temporary employees regardless of their tenure.

While the workers’ union does not formally represent the temporary workers, after an outcry within the organization, it decided to take a stand on behalf of those facing dismissal.

“The organization froze the dismissals of the temporary workers at our demand, and they will reconsider it. I believe [the firings] will be called off indefinitely,” Goldstein said.

KKL-JNF officials were critical of the management’s layoff scheme following last week’s report. High-ranking personnel speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions described the decision as “pure racism and discrimination.”

They also expressed concern that the temporary Arab workers would be gradually replaced with Jewish workers from HaShomer HaChadash, a grassroots organization established a decade ago and financially supported by KKL-JNF since 2011, whose main purpose is to “safeguard the land” of ranchers in the Negev and Galilee from “thieves and raiders.” Members of the organization are already doing a variety of forest maintenance work for KKL-JNF in northern Israel.

While KKL-JNF officials rejected as “baseless” the accusations of having such a plan, they refused to say who would do the work of forestry, firefighting, and maintenance going forward, if the layoffs go into effect.

KKL-JNF officials have also refused to divulge the precise number of employees included in the original plan, or how long the current freeze on their intended dismissals would last.

Illustrative: The Jewish National Fund, together with volunteers from the Czech Republic, worked to reforest and revive Masrik Forest in northern Israel, marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, on October 25, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

But The Times of Israel was told that the number of workers the KKL-JNF planned to lay off is greater than previously estimated, affecting some 60 workers, most of them Arab Israelis, as well as other minority Israeli citizens. Some Palestinians who have been working for KKL-JNF for decades as temporary workers are also facing dismissal.

Three workers who had already been dismissed from KKL-JNF — Palestinians from the Hebron region who had been employed in the Yatir district for more than 30 years — were notified on Thursday night that their dismissals had been frozen. They were also given verbal notification that their term of employment at KKL-JNF might be extended until September.

Mor Stoler, an attorney for the three workers, said she only received official notification from KKL-JNF about the freeze in their dismissals as of March 14, five days after The Times of Israel was told about it. Stoler accused the KKL-JNF of keeping vital information from her and her clients.

Mor Stoler. (Facebook)

“They provided no explanation as to why employees doing permanent work for decades were classified as temporary employees,” Stoler also said.

“KKL-JNF officials refuse to answer this and other questions. For example, why were Arab workers the only ones to be employed in such a manner?” she asked.  “Who is supposed to replace them, and why? Why were individual notifications of a hearing [without a final decision] and individual notifications of dismissal given to these longstanding workers, while nobody bothered to send them a letter explaining their status — and all this as the threat of dismissal loomed over them?”

Goldstein said his union does not represent the temporary Arab workers, and that a January 2018 agreement between the employee union and KKL-JNF obligates the management to lay off temporary workers all over Israel. The agreement was aimed at restoring order to what sources throughout the organization called a chaotic and unaccountable infrastructure.

“I have no say in any issue regarding temporary workers,” Goldstein said. “That is not a union matter.”

But he rejected the claim of racism in the organization. “There is no racist background here,” Goldstein said. “The opposite is true. As soon as the management learned that most of the workers set to be laid off are Arabs, they acceded to our request. They didn’t even know it. But there is nothing we can do about the fact that more than 90 percent of the temporary workers are Arabs.”

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