The Jewish National Fund took a first step toward transparency Tuesday, for the first time in its history releasing details of its financial records and admitting to holding lands in Israel worth a reported $2 billion.
The move by the generally secretive organization appears aimed at quelling criticism over its unique status as a quasi-governmental entity, not officially subject to direct oversight or to state comptroller audits.
According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the JNF report shows it has control of an estimated $2 billion worth of lands.
The JNF report says the organization generated some $567 million in revenues over the past year, with donations accounting for about 6.2 percent of the total amount ($35.2 million). Close to 57% of those donations, roughly $20.2 million worth of revenue, came from North America.
The organization has a strong tradition of fundraising in the Diaspora, with its ubiquitous blue collection boxes — now re-imagined in other hues — appearing in Jewish institutions, businesses and homes.
“The publication of the JNF financial report is a major step toward revealing the fund’s activities to the wider public and provides a final answer to the false and disingenuous claims about a lack of transparency,” the JNF said in a statement quoted by Haaretz.
“In contrast to the self-interested witch hunt being conducted against it, [the JNF] operates in accordance with the strictest standards, in contrast to most government and public bodies in Israel,” it said.
Though officially defined as a nonprofit, the JNF has a major say in public issues relating to land ownership in Israel today. The organization, which was originally founded in 1901 as a private company aimed at promoting Jewish settlement in pre-state Palestine, currently controls over 600,000 acres of land — nearly 13 percent of Israel’s total territory.
The organization, which manages its territory through the Israel Land Authority, has been involved in the development of thousands of parks and reservoirs across the country. The organization has also allocated land for agricultural purposes and has been involved in the establishment of several towns and cities. In 2014, the JNF paid the Israel Land Authority about $332 million to manage its lands, an amount equal to 60% of its revenues, according to Haaretz.
Other expenses included $114,325,148 in salaries to the JNF’s 950 employees, and a further $31,610,640 in pension payments. The JNF also allocated $21,337,182 for educational purposes. The organization gave $15,146,765 to the World Zionist Organization and $4,346,463 to Nefesh B’Nefesh. Another $5,268,440 were given out to other unnamed organizations, according to Haaretz.
Despite its major public role, the JNF’s financial records have for years been kept under wraps. Attempts have been made in the past to legally revise the JNF’s status and define it as a public-benefit corporation in order to force the body by law to make its records public. Nevertheless, last week, the Knesset rejected a bill aimed at increasing transparency in the organization, with 55 MKs voting against the motion and 35 voting in favor, the Marker business daily reported.