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To save Israel’s environment, we must save the Jewish National Fund

The Zionist Congress is on course to reelect a JNF chair who disregards green voices. Progressive Jewish factions could still reverse the decree
The scene where a fire broke out near Misgav Am, northern Israel. October 9, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
The scene where a fire broke out near Misgav Am, northern Israel. October 9, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Israel’s environment faces numerous crises, chief among which is the loss of open spaces, biodiversity depletion and climate change. It is critical that everyone who cares about the health of the land of Israel recognize the severity of the situation and intervene for ecological conservation and restoration. No institution could do more to this end than the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael). Unfortunately, in recent years the organization has been increasingly less committed to these issues. Luckily, if we act quickly, we can avoid four more years of the same failed leadership and return the JNF to its role as an engine for environmental progress.

Next week, the Zionist Congress convenes in Jerusalem, as it does periodically. While there will surely be important ideological discussions, the political focus will be on electing the chair of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. This year, for the first time, Life and Environment, the umbrella organization for all Israeli green NGOs took the unprecedented step of expressing its opinion about the election. That’s because we recognize that the JNF is such a critical player for Israel’s ecological future and felt we had to take a stand.

For the past five years, we have been increasingly alarmed at the management of the JNF by Danny Atar. In retrospect, this should not come as a surprise. In 2009, Atar was suspected of election fraud, and as recently as this summer was personally fined for flouting planning and building laws and commandeering lands next to his home. But we were most concerned about the lack of an environmental commitment by Atar during his tenure in an organization that consistently claims to be the largest environmental group in Israel.

Rather than take a position against Atar, Life and Environment framed its involvement positively. All signs pointed to the Blue and White party (with the other progressive forces) being able to appoint the JNF chair at the Congress. That’s because of the strong presence of Reform and Conservative Judaism’s delegation there who merged this year into a single faction. Professor Alon Tal, among Israel’s leading environmental leaders (and a past chair of Life and Environment), was the natural candidate. Not only is Tal an activist in the local Israeli Conservative movement, but for thirty years he has been one of Israel’s leading environmental voices. During the twelve years that he served on the KKL board as a volunteer, he helped build it into a far more ecologically responsible and professional forestry and land management organization.

So, we were alarmed and disappointed to learn that the Reform and Conservative movements may be leaning to support Atar to return to the post. It was our expectation that these two important streams in Judaism, who decided to become engaged in the Congress to provide an independent voice, would be open to an environmental agenda. Both movements claim to care about Israel’s ecological challenges. Our representative met with them and conveyed the many reasons why we wanted a head of KKL who was an expert in forestry, who had a long record of defending environmental values and who had a clean public record.

We also explained that during the past several years, at Atar’s direction, the JNF has refused to cooperate with Israel’s environmental movement, seeking to undermine a long tradition of green representation in local planning commissions. The funding and support for forests and for preservation of open spaces at KKL has withered due to Atar’s alternative agendas.

But it is not too late. Israeli politics is dynamic. Calls like this one to the leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements may be able to change the course of events. Rather than accept the compromise of shoddy leadership at the JNF, together with the center-left block, they can yet decide to appoint a leader who can help Israel face the greatest environmental challenges of our day. In the spirit of the Zionist Congress: if you will it, it is no dream.

About the Author
Eran Ben Yemini founded the Green Course student organization, the Green Movement Party, and the Department of Environmental Education at Kibbutzim College of Education.
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