Corey Balsam

Why we’re taking on the Jewish National Fund

A tree I planted as a kid could today be standing on the ruins of a depopulated Palestinian village, and this pains me
Beit Hakshatot / Arc House at Canada Park (File, CC BY-SA, Wikipedia-Hebrew)
Beit Hakshatot / Arc House at Canada Park (File, CC BY-SA, Wikipedia-Hebrew)

Like many kids growing up Jewish in the diaspora, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was a warm, familiar connection with Israel.

Every year at my Hebrew school, on the occasion of Tu Bishvat – the Jewish new year of trees– each of us would raise a small amount of money to donate to the JNF for a tree to be planted in our name. And throughout the year, I was encouraged to put coins in a JNF pushke – little blue charity boxes found in Jewish institutions and household around the world – as a token of tzedakah, Hebrew for “charity”. As a good Jewish boy who won the prestigious Hebrew School award of Mensch of the Month on several occasions, I was sure to contribute a substantial portion of my allowance to the cause.

I remember the immense sense of pride I felt. Not only was I contributing toward the collective prosperity of my people through the development of our homeland, but in giving charity I was putting the strong values I was being taught into action. In giving tzedakah I was doing a mitzvah, or “good deed.” Or at least that’s what I thought.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started to find out more about the organization to which I sent so many nickels, pennies and dimes. I was working at the local Jewish Community Centre when a fellow employee revealed to me that JNF’s work is not all positive. My workmate told me that some of its funds go toward Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. My understanding of the situation in Israel-Palestine was rather limited at the time, but I knew enough to get that the settlements – and the occupation with it – were wrong and counterproductive to peace in the region.

What followed was my first act of disobedience against the Israeli occupation. I went home after work, grabbed a can-opener from the kitchen, opened up the JNF boxes we’d filled at home over the past years, and dumped the change on the counter. “If the JNF is supporting the occupation,” I told my mom, “they shouldn’t be getting our money.”

We didn’t realize it at the time, but even if we weren’t giving any more money directly to JNF by way of donations, as an organization with charitable status in Canada, we—along with all Canadians—were still subsidizing it through our taxes.

For that reason, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the organization I now work for, has facilitated the submission of an official complaint to the Canada Revenue Agency. We’re calling for JNF Canada’s tax-deductible status to be revoked.

The evidence of the JNF’s activities detailed in the complaint is damning. As an exposé recently published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reveals, JNF Canada has been working in violation of various domestic laws governing charities in Canada. A charity is not allowed to finance projects intended to benefit a foreign military, which it has done with the IDF. Its charitable activities should not discriminate or cause harm, which the JNF’s activities have and do by expropriating Palestinian land and reserving it for exclusive Jewish benefit. Its work should not run contrary to Canadian public policy, which it has by helping to build West Bank settlements.

The problem with the JNF is perhaps epitomized by JNF Canada’s flagship project, Canada Park, the subject of a CBC documentary, which was built on the ruins and lands of three Palestinian villages depopulated and demolished in 1967. As with 87 other Palestinian villages that once stood before 1948, JNF parks and forests serve to conceal their remains and erase any remnant of Palestinian life.

70 years after Israel’s establishment, very little has changed. In certain instances, it’s just gotten worse. As though covering up villages with forests wasn’t egregious enough, the JNF is now working with the Israeli government to entirely replace the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran with a new Jewish-only town—Hiran. And in East Jerusalem, the JNF-owned subsidiary Himnuta is working to evict a Palestinian family in Silwan and hand over their property to Israeli settlers.

The thought that a tree I planted as a kid could today be standing on the ruins of a depopulated Palestinian village pains me, as does the thought that millions in tax-deductible funds continue to flow to the JNF today. We were never told about all this, and I suspect that most JNF donors weren’t either.

Now that we know, it’s time we stopped the JNF.

About the Author
Corey Balsam is the National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.