KKL-JNF: A director’s take – Warts and all

In 2011 I was elected as a Director of KKL (Jewish National Fund), having been nominated by the World Union of Jewish Students. Last week I was re-elected to serve a second term. I intend on using this privilege to help promote transparency within the organisation and in particular to provide a window for non-Hebrew speakers into arguably Israel’s most powerful non-governmental organisation. This is my first post offering a behind the scenes look into how the body, and other Zionist institutions, function, and while some believe in not airing one’s dirty laundry, I intend on quite the opposite, showing the positive and negative.

Why proper governance of KKL matters

While known among diaspora Jews for its famous blue boxes, KKL is in fact an incredibly powerful quasi-governmental body in Israel with enormous financial clout. While many know of KKL’s significant land ownership (approximately 13% of all land in Israel) and its work in building hundreds of reservoirs and developing thousands of parks, few properly understand the continuing role it plays in administering Israel. In reality the organisation controls an annual budget of over a billion shekels, and yields enormous political influence.

KKL has a reputation for its lack of transparency within the Israeli public and political echelons. I won’t go into that now but Google ‘KKL transparency’ and you’ll find ample results. For this reason and more, there are disagreements within Israel’s leadership at the best way to manage KKL, with the Attorney General believing it needs to massively improve its accountability and transparency, and Yair Lapid going further, believing it should be absorbed into the government completely. While few doubt the undeniably incredible work that KKL does making Israel a better, greener, safer country for all its citizens, questions have dogged the way in which its run for decades.

How KKL’s leadership is chosen

For all intents and purposes, the Chairmanship and Directors of KKL (as with all the major Zionist institutions) are decided by negotiation, not by election. Every Zionist party (including those railing against corruption in Israel) participated in these negotiations, and Yesh Atid was the only party that refused to sign on the coalition agreement. While an ostensible vote is held, it’s essentially the rubber stamping of a prior negotiation in which all major positions within the Zionist institutions are given out. While most of these positions get divvied out to failed politicians on the way down, an exception is the Chairmanship of KKL which due to its importance is seen as a promotion to around the level of a government minister.

While all the positions within the Zionist institutions carry hefty salaries and the ability to bring plenty of staff, the leadership of KKL carries by a long way the most influence and power. Due to convention, the Chairmanship of KKL belongs to Avoda (don’t worry, the other parties get plenty). So while (now former) MK Daniel Atar was ‘elected’ Chairman of KKL, the only democratic part of this election came internally when Atar beat our fierce competition from within his own party.

This Thursday, the General Assembly of KKL was held in Jerusalem (the WZO’s Congress in which all non-KKL positions were ‘voted’ upon was already held at the beginning of the month). The key issue, the ‘election’ of the new board, was a formality, with the number of seats granted to each faction having been previously decided. While named Directors had not been negotiated upon, the numbers of seats given out to the factions (comprised of political parties and major Israeli and Jewish organizations), had. My faction (WUJS) had one of 37 seats allocated to it which Chairperson Andi Gergely requested I take in order to provide continuity. The backgrounds of the other 36 members were diverse, from current and former MKs (Daniel Atar, Uzi Landau), Mayors and Vice-Mayors, political staffers, senior NGO staff and others. Each of those factions was free to select whom they want to take those seats with a show of hands rubber stamping the election. While thoroughly undemocratic, it does at least produce a balanced board with Shas, Likud, Avoda and others sitting at one table.

My effort to bring transparency

While these events generate media coverage in Israel, the coverage within the English speaking Israeli and Jewish media is negligible (though TOI did run a couple of articles). What receives no coverage at all are the board meetings of KKL in which enormous decisions are made on behalf of the Israeli tax payer and foreign Jewish contributors. Bearing in mind KKL’s formation as a body to buy land in Israel using the funds of diaspora Jewry, it’s wrong and unsatisfactory that decisions are being made on behalf of the Jewish people under the cloak of secrecy and behind closed doors, and thus from hereon in I will be openly publishing, in English, the internal decisions and happenings of KKL (and the other Zionist institutions) as and when they happen. I’ll explain the decisions I made and the way I voted, as well as giving a context and explanation about internal goings on and decisions being made by the leadership.

Creditably, Daniel Atar has already agreed to greater transparency going forward, including in negotiations with the Attorney General and Government. Board meetings should be the same, and nothing taking place with public funds should be secret.

The first board meeting

To that end, the first board meeting of KKL focused on two major issues;

1. The election of the Chairpersons, co-Chairpersons and vice-chairpersons from within the board, and; 2. Two budgetary issues affirming support to the WZO for around $31m.

The first issue was a vote for the senior positions, but as with the previous elections, it wasn’t really an election (you’re probably getting the drift). Board members were expected to vote along the lines of the prior negotiations. The voting went 36-1 in which the only vote against approving the nominations came from the representative of Yesh Atid, Naama Shultz. From my own perspective, it was a difficult decision and I consulted with my faction before ultimately deciding not to dissent. Though we had deep reservations about the system, political differences with some of those seven positions, and a grave disappointment that every single position was taken by a man, our decision was made on two principles:

1. That we participated in the process of which the board was selected and we considered it to be hypocritical to have refrained from taking a stand before the election while symbolically voting against it immediately after. We will bring the issue of electoral reform to the table over this term (it will be defeated).

2. That for better or worse, these would be leaders of KKL for the next five years and they deserve the benefit of the doubt and our support at the outset. Though whether increased transparency will happen remains to be seen, we wanted to vote in a way that assumes good intention until proven otherwise. Although we don’t agree with every one of those elected (which would be impossible as they came from different platforms), we recognised that among them were distinguished and accomplished leaders.

The second vote was split into two separate budgetary requests from the World Zionist Organization totalling $31m. This vote finished 35-2 with myself and Yesh Atid being the only two dissenters. I’m disappointed at the manner in which this decision was taken with extremely limited information available, concerning a significant amount of public money. This being Chairman Atar’s first meeting, he did note that in the future this lack of information would not be repeated, however I did not see sufficient urgency to pass this amount onto the WZO without more information. I’ll further note that the WZO is from my experience an extremely poorly run organization, lacking in efficiency, with massive top heavy expenditure and limited value for money, and it would take exceptional circumstances for me to vote in favour or any transfer of funds to the organization over this term.

Moving forward

So while the direction this leadership will take remains to be seen, I can state one certainty at this early stage:

Seven out of 37 elected board members were women. This is completely unacceptable and I will push for better inclusion in subsequent elections, and will request that my seat is filled by a woman at the end of my term. Apart from that I will continue supporting increased transparency and openness within KKL as well as the continuation of the incredible projects the organisation continues to fulfil on behalf of the Jewish people and all citizens of the State of Israel.

About the Author
Oliver is a director of KKL-JNF, and works as an international media and communications consultant for political and business figures. He has served as Chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students and is co-founder of Urban Recruits, Israel's biggest recruiter of foreign language speakers.
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