Petition citing chairman's malpractice filed to annul vote

KKL-JNF board advances controversial $11.5 million purchase of West Bank land

Contentious decision passes by one vote after left-leaning members try to delay untill after election; purchase won’t go through until group decides its policy beyond Green Line

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

A sign attests that the small promenade was built by the Jewish National Fund, known by its Hebrew acronym KKL, near the Israeli West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut on Feb. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A sign attests that the small promenade was built by the Jewish National Fund, known by its Hebrew acronym KKL, near the Israeli West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut on Feb. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

In a contentious vote that passed Thursday by the slimmest of margins, the Jewish National Fund’s board of directors advanced the controversial allocation of NIS 38 million ($11.58 million) in order to purchase lands in the West Bank.

The board of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) will meet once again after the March 23 election to determine its policies beyond the Green Line and rule on whether to give final approval for the purchase itself.

Left-leaning groups represented on the KKL-JNF board, which includes international Jewish organizations and representatives from Israeli political parties, had been optimistic that they would be able to quash the measure, according to the Haaretz daily.

But they were taken by surprise when the representative of Hadassah abstained and the representatives of Na’amat and Maccabi both voted in favor. Na’amat is a Jewish women’s organization affiliated with the Labor Zionist Movement and Maccabi is the international Jewish sports organization.

The motion was then passed by a single vote.

The left-wing Meretz faction, which had been hoping to delay the vote until after the election, said afterward that it would be filing for a repeat vote given the close results.

A group of board members representing left-leaning factions subsequently filed a petition demanding that the vote be annulled. They cited malpractice by KKL-JNF chairman Avi Duvdevani, claiming he muted certain members on the Zoom meeting and prevented others from answering questions before rushing the vote. In addition, the petitioners claimed that legal opinions criticizing KKL-JNF’s covert conduct beyond the Green Line were hidden from board members.

A picture taken on October 13, 2020, shows new housing construction in the Nokdim settlement in the West Bank, south of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The question of KKL-JNF’s activity in the West Bank has sparked fierce debate, albeit mostly outside Israel, with liberal Diaspora Jewish groups more critical of the idea.

KKL-JNF has long relied on donations from abroad and Diaspora Jews have long associated the group with its little blue charity boxes and the planting of trees in Israel. But in the past two decades, KKL-JNF’s American branch has divorced itself almost entirely from the sister-Israeli organization and only goes by JNF, leading to a great deal of confusion among donors as to where their funds are being transferred, given that KKL-JNF’s activities beyond the Green Line have been more widespread. JNF also funds projects in the West Bank but only a limited number of them.

What was voted on Thursday would take operations beyond the Green Line to another level by allowing KKL-JNF to purchase lands for the purpose of expanding settlements.

A day before the vote, Blue and White’s representative on the board sent a letter to Duvdevani, urging him to postpone the matter to “avoid a national and international controversy at this sensitive time,” Haaretz reported.

Duvdevani took over in the fall of 2020 and has been promoting the policy change. Duvdevani is a part of the right’s gradual growing influence over Zionist organizations like KKL. The move came in response to a push from pro-settlement lobbyists and the organization tried to keep it low-key.

KKL-JNF chairman Avi Duvdevani (Amos Lozon/KKL-JNF)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in North America, says KKL-JNF’s shift stems from recent elections at the World Zionist Congress that brought to power right-wing leaders more closely aligned with the Israeli government.

His group and others that are opposed to settlements denounced the proposal. Jacobs is concerned the move could tar the KKL for many in the West or spark tensions with the new US administration, which is also opposed to settlement expansion.

KKL-JNF has operated in the West Bank in the past, but Jacobs noted that its activities dramatically dropped off over the last two decades before resuming and accelerating in secret in recent years.

KKL-JNF, established in 1901 to buy and develop land for Jewish settlement and best known for the hundreds of millions of trees it has planted throughout Israel, serves as the Jewish people’s custodian for some 15 percent of the land in the country, the management of which is carried out by the Israel Lands Authority.

A type of NGO officially registered as a company for the benefit of the public, KKL-JNF works in the fields of forestry, water, education, community development, tourism, and research and development. The World Zionist Organization is its parent body.

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