JNF USA fundraiser performer calls upon JNF USA to save the Sumarin family

I want to open with the call of Ethan Herschenfeld, the comedian, actor and opera singer who is scheduled to participate this Sunday in the Jewish National Fund – USA’s (JNF-USA) mega fundraiser billed as “The greatest day in fundraising history.” He addresses what the JNF USA must do to prevent the unjust eviction of the Sumarin family from their home in Silwan, East Jerusalem, and calls upon his fellow performers and supporters of JNF USA to join him in this call. I am very moved by his act of conscience, as a supporter of  Israel and  JNF USA. Ethan’s call is followed by an additional statement by our coalition. Afterwards, I explain why the  responsibility of the JNF USA, and all of us, to act on behalf of the Sumarin family is connected to the Torah portion and haftarah we read this Shabbat in Israel.

Ethan writes:

On Sunday June 14, 2020 I will share the virtual stage with a group of world class entertainers to help the JNF-USA raise funds to carry out their important work which includes ecological, environmental, and educational projects aimed at lifting up the people of Israel. While I support JNF-USA in their ecological work of maintaining forests, and addressing water shortages, among other projects, I condemn the efforts of the JNF-USA’s sister organization KKL and their subsidiary Himnuta to misuse the Absentee Property Law to evict the Sumarin family from their home in Silwan, East Jerusalem where they have lived for generations. The Absentee Property Law, as the name makes clear, was formulated to deal with land and houses owned by people who had moved far away. I’m a comedian and an actor, and I don’t pretend to be a lawyer, but it’s obvious on its face that the law has no bearing on a house that was built by a man with his own hands, and has been dwelled in by his family since it was built. The Israeli government itself has acknowledged that the law was misused in cases like the Sumarin’s.

Nevertheless, KKL and it’s affiliate organizations have pressed on for almost 30 years in their campaign to evict the family. Let the Sumarin family live in peace and security in their home. The JNF-USA abjures responsibility in this case because they are a separate organization from KKL. But the two organizations share a name, a history, and a mission, and worked together during the years when the campaign to remove the family from their house was launched.

I had the honor of playing the role of Rabbi Joachim Prinz recently in a TV series. Rabbi Prinz said that in the face of discrimination and injustice “The most urgent…the most tragic problem is silence.” I am asking the JNF-USA to heed the words of Rabbi Prinz, and break their silence on this issue. I am calling on the JNF-USA– their administration, board, employees, and supporters– to do everything in their power to pressure KKL and Himnuta to put an end to the efforts to evict the Sumarin family and to return legal ownership of the property to the family.

Several steps could be taken by the JNF-USA. They could issue a public statement distancing themselves from the efforts to evict the Sumarin family. They could withhold funds from KKL unless the case is dropped. They could earmark funds that are raised, even this Sunday, to settle the case and keep the family in their home. At this moment of increasing insecurity, worldwide suffering, and abuses of power, we all understand how vital it is to our physical and mental well-being to have a refuge from the world where we can feel safe. It is indefensible to apply the law in a specious manner for the benefit of the powerful and to the detriment of the powerless. It is unjust and inhumane to evict the Sumarin family. I appeal to my fellow performers in the JNF fundraising event to join me in urging the JNF-USA to do the right thing by putting a stop to this injustice and focusing on their mission of lifting up the people of Israel.

And here is the call by the Sumarin Family Coalition:

JNF USA – You are responsible for the imminent Sumarin home eviction!

JNF USA is trying to come up with excuses and deny their responsibility for the unethical attempts to evict the Sumarin family from their home in Silwan, East Jerusalem. They claim that they are a separate entity from the JNF-KKL in Israel, but the truth is that they were closely affiliated in the 1980’s when the JNF-KKL induced the Israeli government to seize the home. They were funding the JNF-KKL during the long years the JNF-KKL relentlessly pursued eviction efforts. They worked hand in glove when the JNF-KKL took over additional properties, and then transferred them to radical settler organizations dedicated to “Judaizing” East Jerusalem. Today, JNF USA projects in Israel are carried out in coordination with the JNF-KKL.

JNF USA must take responsibility for their actions by making sure the family stays in its home. They have the power to prevent the eighteen family members spanning three generations from being thrown into the street. They must act now, because what may be the family’s last appeal is to be heard on June 30th.

Firstly, JNF USA is obligated to publicly and privately call on the JNF-KK in Israel  to cease eviction efforts and relinquish the “ownership” of the home they were unjustly given through an abuse of the “Absentee Property Law” the Israeli government itself later acknowledged was wrong, but didn’t correct. The family were never absentees. 

Secondly, actions speak louder than words. The JNF USA must cut its remaining financial ties with the JNF-KKL in Israel, until this injustice is corrected. If this is not sufficient to persuade the JNF- KKL to act humanely and honestly,  JNF USA should “buy back” the home that never should have been seized, and return it to the family.

JNF USA – take responsibility and right this wrong you made.

You can click here for more background information and/or to send your own message to the KKL-JNF, JNF USA and other affiliates around the world.

You can also learn more by joining a virtual meeting with the Sumarin family  and experts on the case that will take place at the same time as the JNF USA fundraiser (Hebrew, with English subtitles)

In Israel we are reading Parashat Shelakh-Lekha.  I posted a dvar Torah on annexation for B’ha’alotkah last week. That is what is being read outside of Israel.

This week’s portion and haftarah address one of my favorite topics in several ways –second chances. God is about to wipe out the entire people of Israel because most of the people believe the evil report about the Land of Israel supported by ten of the twelve spies, are ready to rebel against Moses and Aaron, and threaten to stone the two spies with a positive report.  Using God’s “Thirteen Attributes revealed to him after the sin of the golden calf, Moses persuades God to pardon the people and give them another chance. Not everybody appreciates this. Dismayed that God decrees the current generation will die out in the desert before the Israelites will enter the Land they were ready to spurn, some decide that they will “repent” by disobeying God yet again, and enter in any case.  It doesn’t end well for them.

Some have commented that the haftarah’s story of how Joshua sends just two selected spies reflects how Joshua learns from the mistake in the Torah portion of sending 12 tribal leaders.  Learning from the past, he takes advantage of the chance to do it right.

As we know, the two are taken in and saved by the prostitute Rahab. They tell her that her family will be protected when the Israelites conquer Jericho, if she brings them into her home and places the crimson cord they give her in the window.  I am reminded of the Gozlan family in Silwan. Although they have a thank you letter from the Yemenite community that once lived in Silwan for saving them during the 1929 riots, it was of no use when the Keren Kayemet-Jewish National Fund evicted them, claiming that they had purchased the home. If there is potentially something to the JNF’s ownership argument in this case, just as one could argue that God had delivered all of Jericho into Israelite hands, there was certainly a lack of repaying decency with decency.

However, the countless other methodologies used in collusion between the Israeli government, the JNF USA funded KKL-JNF and settler organizations dedicated to “Judaizing” East Jerusalem were even more clearly unjust. The calls for one law to be applied to the ger and the citizen in our Torah portion seem to be referring to the convert to Judaism. Recall Ibn Ezra’s rule that when the Torah mentions the ger in regards to ritual commandments it is the convert, and it is the non-Jew living among us when the reference is to ethical treatment.  I nevertheless reflect here how the laws and violations of the law designed to Judaize East Jerusalem have been as far from “one law for all” as one could get.

Among the many examples of discrimination and injustice, the Sumarin case stands out. As I have written in several divrei Torah in the past few weeks, a broad coalition of organizations have come together on behalf of the Sumarin family. Their home was seized in 1989 by falsely claiming that the family was absent because the three sons of the deceased father were out of the country, even though the nephew and his family were living in the home.  The Israeli government acknowledged that the Absentee Property Law had been abused, and promised not to use it again in that way. The Absentee Property Law, to the best of my knowledge, has never been used to take a Jewish owned home.

So far, JNF USA has done just what Rabbi Prinz warns against—they have decided that the best defense is to maintain silence.  Or, they say, “we are not the KKL-JNF in Israel.” However, they could look at this as an opportunity for a second chance—for “teshuvah.”  JNF USA, so deeply involved in the funding of the KKL-JNF in Israel during the years in which this injustice was hatched and set into motion—so deeply responsible for the fact that a generation of the family has grown up knowing fear, and now sees that same fear in their children’s eyes—can now set things right.  They can and must speak out. They can and must use their immense financial power to influence the KKL-JNF. Even the relatively miniscule amount of money they still transfer to the KKL-JNF could be withheld. This Sunday, the JNF USA could announce that one of their projects is going to be raising the funds necessary to “buy back” the home stolen from the family.  They wouldn’t just be redeeming the home. They would be redeeming themselves.

And finally, let’s get back to Rahab. Rahab sought to protect her home and her family, just as the Sumarins are trying to protect their home and family. Just as Rahab was filled with dread at what she realized was the coming destruction, the Sumarin family are filled with dread as the noose of eviction draws around their necks. In the haftarah, the two spies offer protection. I ask, who will provide a crimson thread to the Sumarins.  Will it be the KKL-JNF? Will it be JNF USA? Will it be us?

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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