Mr. Harper’s surprising environmental award should prompt Canada’s opposition leaders to take a closer look at the activities of the “Jewish National Fund”
Mr. Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the Opposition
Mr. Justin Trudeau, Leader, Liberal Party of Canada
M. Andre Bellavance, Leader, Bloc Quebecois
Ms. Elizabeth May, Leader, Green Party of Canada
The announcement that the Jewish National Fund is honouring Prime Minister Harper at its Negev dinner on December 1st in Toronto and is raising money for a “Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary” in Israel, should raise some eyebrows in Canada.
What is the “Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary”? While its name sounds laudable, is it really an environmental project that Canadians should support? Some voices in Israel question whether this is really an environmental project at all. At the very least, prudence is in order.
The archeological record shows that the Hula Valley, located north of the Sea of Galilee, has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Its natural wetness made it an area of significant agricultural potential, and also placed it on an important north south bird migration path. In 1948 there were several small Palestinian villages eking out a poor living in the malaria infested marshy valley by fishing and weaving papyrus mats.
In the 1950’s, Israel and the JNF drained the valley to rid the area of malaria and reclaim the land for farming by Jewish immigrants. The local Palestinians were forced to leave and their land was turned over to several newly created Kibbutz.
The land reclamation project was a failure and most of the valley has subsequently returned to its natural state. But the Palestinian villagers have not been allowed to return to their land as Israel has now defined the area a “bird sanctuary”. The Wikipedia entry would certainly seem to urge caution before calling this an environmental project. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hula_Valley)
Mr. Harper’s attendance at the Toronto dinner will no doubt be a very effective fundraising tool for the JNF which last year raised $12 million. Because donations to JNF are tax deductible, Canadian taxpayers appear to be giving an annual subsidy in the neighbourhood of $3 million per year to a highly political organization essentially dedicated to funding projects in Israel.
In recent years a number of questions have been raised about the nature of many JNF projects. As long ago as 1998 a United Nations Human Rights Council report found that the JNF systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population. In 2005, Israel’s high court came to a similar conclusion. In responding to a legal challenge, the court found that the JNF systematically excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel from leasing its property (“A racist Jewish state,” Haaretz, 20 July 2007). And last year the US State Department’s “Country Report on Human Rights Practices” also noted a similar pattern of “institutional discrimination” by the JNF in Israel.
In the interests of probity and defending the interests of the Canadian tax payer, Opposition leaders should call for an all party review of the grounds on which the JNF is awarded “charitable status” in Canada.
According to the JNF’s own website (www.jnf.ca), the “Jewish National Fund” was originally founded at the 5th Zionist congress in Basel in 1901. Its mandate was explicit: to buy land in Palestine, then under Ottoman occupation, for Jews. By 1947, on the eve of the creation of the State of Israel, the JNF had acquired nearly 7% of the land of Palestine, and thousands of European Jews had immigrated there.
However, with the creation of Israel in 1948, the nature of the JNF appears to have changed significantly. After 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes and villages, the State of Israel confiscated thousands of acres of their lands and turned them over to the JNF to manage. As a result, the JNF quickly became one of Israel’s biggest landowners, controlling 13% of Israel’s land “exclusively for Jewish use”.
The JNF now emphasizes its “environmental” aspect and is best known in Canada for planting trees in Israel. However, what trees are planted, where they are planted and why they are planted in those specific places, are widely criticized. Some observers argue that under the cover of environmentalism, the JNF is mainly focused on furthering its original mandate: to consolidate Jewish control over the land by aiding in the eviction of Palestinians from their own lands.
Here are some other “environmental” projects of the JNF which deserve careful attention:
1. The Bedouin village of El Arakib in the Negev. For over sixty years Israel has publicly declared its intent to “Judaize” the Negev desert. This involves forcing the local Bedouin population off the land, while attracting Jewish settlers with subsidies. The JNF is actively involved in this process, often tearing up olive trees cultivated by Bedouins and planting eucalyptus trees which have no economic value. The ambassadors of several European countries have visited El Arakib and protested the practice, although it does not appear that Canada’s ambassador has followed their lead.
2. Canada Park. The JNF funded the creation of a park on the site of 3 Palestinian villages in the West Bank destroyed by Israel in 1967. JNF funds were then used to “reclaim” the area as a public park, planting many pine trees, and today virtually no trace of these centuries old Palestinian villages is visible. A few of the villagers eventually became Canadian citizens. They have repeatedly claimed that the Canadian government should not support the JNF. Canada Park was the subject of a CBC documentary called “A Park with no Peace”
3. City of David. In East Jerusalem, JNF funds are being used to create a tourist attraction known as the “City of David”. The site, located in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem, is alleged to be where the ancient Jewish King David held court. The archaeological evidence to support this claim is very dubious and highly contested, and Canada does not recognize Israel’s jurisdiction over East Jerusalem. What is not contested, however, is that JNF funds are being used to displace thousands of Palestinian families for this project.
Criticisms of these projects, and many others, have been made repeatedly by enough respectable sources that some people are taking a second look at the JNF. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron withdrew his patronage, becoming the first UK Prime Minister in over a century not to be an official patron of JNF(UK).
Prudence and due diligence would seem to be in order when Canada is providing taxpayer funds to support projects in a foreign country. If a review establishes that charges of discrimination (and even racism) against the JNF are without foundation, then no action is required. If, however, any of the allegations turn out to be true, or even substantially true, it is difficult to see how Canada could continue to award charitable status to the organization.
In the interests of fairness and probity, Canada’s opposition leaders should call for a review of the activities of the JNF and its charitable status.