The JNF: Planting Trees or Uprooting Families?

The Jewish National Fund was set up in 1901 to purchase land in the Land of Israel on behalf of the Jewish People. The JNF also has become Israel's forestry service. However, in addition to all of the important environmental work the JNF does, there is sadly a dark side.
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Remember dropping pennies into those blue JNF boxes in your synagogue and JCC growing up?

In a few days from now, on November 28th, the JNF, under the guise of "Himnuta," will use the pennies dropped into those blue boxes towards the expulsion of a Palestinian family, the Sumarin family, from their home in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

The Jewish National Fund was set up in 1901 to purchase land in the Land of Israel on behalf of the Jewish People. The JNF also has become Israel's forestry service, and is known for its ecological work. However, in addition to all of the important environmental work the JNF does, there is sadly a dark side.

Himnuta, JNF's shadowy subsidary company, is part of that dark side. Established in the 1930s "mainly to circumvent legal restrictions" on the JNF's land dealings, Himnuta has been active over the past few decades in obtaining Palestinian land over the green line, and transferring the land to the hands of Jewish settlers.

The JNF, a United Nations NGO that has a "4-star rating from Charity Navigator" and "earned the Better Business Bureau seal of approval," does not want to be perceived as an extremist, right wing organization responsible for the expulsion of Palestinian families in the some of the most sensitive areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, they carry out their more shady dealings through Himnuta.

Search the word "Himnuta" on the JNF's website and you will find zero results. Search the word Himnuta on Israel's Company Registrar, and you will find a company whose offices are located in the JNF's Jerusalem headquarters. You will see that out of Himnuta's 30,000,000 company shares, 30,000,000 of them are owned by the JNF. You will see that the head of Himnuta, David Lazarus, also serves as JNF-KKL's CFO.

Himnuta is part of the JNF.

And on November 28th, unless there is enough of an international outcry to convince the JNF to change its plans, the JNF/Himnuta will expel the Sumarin family from their house in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

Twelve members of the family currently live in the house, which was built by a member of their family prior to Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. The Sumarin family includes five children, a pregnant mother, and a grandfather on dialysis. The house is directly inside the City of David National Park, next to the visitor center run by ELAD, a powerful settler organization (with a budget larger than the seven largest Left Wing NGOs in Israel combined) whose purpose, according to their articles of incorporation, is Judaizing (ie. de-Arabizing) Silwan.

In the mid-1980s, the Israeli government took legal possession of the Sumarin home under what is known as the Absentee Property Law. In short, this law is used by Israel to take over land belonging to Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. If an owner is not physically present, the land can be given to the Custodian of Absentee Properties. The Custodian almost always either transfers the property to Jewish ownership or allows the State to use it for Jewish needs.

More specifically: The law includes a stipulation that if the owner of a house in East Jerusalem is residing in "an enemy country," the house may be transferred to the Custodian. The enactment of the law was possible in the case of the Sumarin family because the original owner of the house, Musa Sumarin, passed away in 1983. At the time of his death, all three of his sons- unilaterally declared as "heirs" of the house by the Israeli government- were out of the country (one in Jordan, two in Saudi Arabia). As such, the State declared that the property should be considered Absentee Property, and the Sumarin property was subsequently transferred to the Custodian for Absentee Properties.

Then, in 1991, the Custodian then transferred the Sumarin property directly to JNF-subsidiary Himnuta, along with seven other properties in Silwan.

As attorney and expert on Jerusalem Danny Seidemann wrote to in an email:

"Virtually all of the JNF/Himnuta lands in the Wadi Hilweh section of Silwan -- almost 1/3 of the total area -- have been handed over covertly to the settler organization ELAD. On May 5, 1998, senior JNF/Himnuta official Avraham Halleli testified before the Jerusalem District Court: "To the best of my knowledge, all of the JNF areas [in Silwan] were leased by the ILA to the ELAD is the lands policies of JNF... that [its lands] be leased to Jews for the purposes of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel."

So will the Sumarin house be transferred to ELAD? There seems to be an extremely good chance. But you can make your own assumptions.

The Sumarin family has been living in their house for decades and they have nowhere else to go. If they are expelled from their house, and ELAD takes over, that will set the tone for all of the houses in Silwan, which are in the scopes of the settlers. This is the first time in five years that there will be an expulsion in Silwan, which is a point of extreme tension, is close to the Old City and Al-Aqsa, and has been the site of violence and clashes in the past.

This expulsion could ignite dormant tensions in Silwan.

But more certainly that igniting violence, if this expulsion is carried out, it will be a sign to the settlers, to ELAD, to the government and, in this case, to the JNF/Himnuta, that they can expel Palestinian families from their houses in Silwan, near the City of David, without too much international outcry/pressure/opposition. And if they can, they will.

How can this expulsion be stopped?

By public outcry. Rabbis for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights-North America have both issued parallel public letter campaigns calling on the JNF not to expel the Sumarins.

Take action:

Support the campaign through Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel (in English).

Donations to both organizations are needed and welcomed.

Moreover, the Solidarity Movement, an Israeli group of activists that originally formed in response to similar injustices in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah a few years ago, is taking action on the ground. There will be a 24-hour vigil of Israeli and international activists present with the Sumarin family and Palestinian activists, starting the day before the potential eviction. To support the Solidarity Movement, click here.

Will this work?

It is impossible to say for sure, but if we make this loud enough, there is a good chance we could at least get the JNF to delay the expulsion, which would give all of us more time to figure out how to expand and strengthen our campaigns and efforts. Combined with the other channels running (potential direct action, legal efforts, Israeli media and awareness campaigns by Israeli and Palestinian partners), this could actually make an impact.

According to Hagit Ofran, "the eviction can be stopped: Himnuta can decide, instead of giving the property to settlers, to give it to the Palestinian family that has lived in it for years."

And according to Danny Seidemann, "In the 1990's Himnuta tried to evict the Gozlan family - which saved Jews in Silwan during the 1929 Palestinian uprising from their home in Silwan. On the other side of town, at Yad vaShem, families like this were being honored as righteous gentiles - here in Silwan they were evicted. A public campaign caused them to desist, and even Ariel Sharon (then Infrastructures Minister) instructed them not to evict the family. Ultimately they gave up - the exposure of the JNF/Himnuta scheme to displace the Gozlan family so sullied their public image that they turned the property to the government of Israel (the family was eventually forced out by the Israeli government in 2005). So there is a precedent allowing public opinion to compel them to act wisely and responsibly."

Influencing the JNF/Himunta is our best shot at stopping the expulsion.

There is a chance. We must act, for the sake of Jewish and humanistic values, and for the sake of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine and Jerusalem.

We have a few days.

A longer version of this post was originally published on the English language website of Rabbis for Human Rights.

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