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JNF honours undermine university support of diversity and tolerance

| May 2, 2012
University of Ontario professors Michael Lynk, David Heap, Rebecca Coulter and Randa Farah. Photo: Richard Gilmore

The University of Western Ontario announced that university president Paul Davenport would be the 2008 honouree at the Jewish National Fund's Negev dinner. This is not an isolated case. At least two other Canadian university presidents -- at McGill and McMaster -- have accepted similar "honours" from the JNF in recent years. But is the JNF an organization which universities should publicly endorse?

Let us state at the outset that we are all supportive of a campus, a community and a world that is tolerant, embraces diversity and advances justice and social equity. Many organizations do so, and are worthy of support and endorsement. The JNF is not one of them. It promotes exclusion, dispossession and institutionalized discrimination, a point which has been made by the United Nations and by human rights organizations representing Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories. Even the attorney general of Israel has expressed the view that the JNF's discriminatory land practices would not stand up to a legal challenge in court.

Four points need to be made.

First, the JNF holds 13 per cent of the land in Israel, and it is reserved by law for exclusive benefit and use by Jews worldwide. Palestinians, who formed a majority in Mandatory Palestine before the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and today constitute 20 per cent of Israel's population, are forbidden by the JNF covenant from leasing these lands.

As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe observes, the JNF also acts as the "custodian" responsible for guarding the "Jewishness" of other lands in Israel that it doesn't own. It does this by playing an influential role in the directorship of the Israel Lands Authority, a state body that manages another 80 per cent of the lands in Israel. Together, these two interlocking institutions control almost all of the land in Israel, which -- with a few short-lease exceptions -- is not available to Palestinian citizens of the country.

Much of the land originally belonged to externally displaced Palestinians who were expelled or fled under threat in 1948 and had their properties expropriated by Israel. Other property holdings owned by Palestinian refugees inside Israel (classified by the Jewish state as "present absentees"), who left their homes, even if for a short time during the conflict and subsequently, were confiscated under the Absentees Property Law of 1950.

A series of legislative measures allows the JNF and the ILA to act as agents for a disguised state policy of dispossession. In the words of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, "this discriminatory policy contributes to the institutionalization of racially-segregated towns and villages throughout the state."

These discriminatory practices -- reserving in law almost all of the nation's lands for the Jewish majority, to the detriment of the dispossessed Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel -- are contrary to the values of a modern liberal and democratic state. In 2000, the Supreme Court of Israel issued a ruling (the Qa'dan case) that challenged the JNF's exclusionary policies and practices.

In July 2007, the Israeli Knesset passed the first reading of the Jewish National Fund Bill, which seeks to undo the 2000 Supreme Court ruling. The proposed statute states that: "leasing of Jewish National Fund's lands for the purposes of the settlement of Jews on these lands will not be seen as improper discrimination." The bill was denounced as "racist" legislation in an editorial published last July in Ha'aretz, one of Israel's most influential newspapers, which noted "The Jewish National Fund's land policy counters the interests of the state and cannot discriminate by law against the minority living in Israel."

Second, the discriminatory policies and practices of the Jewish National Fund have been criticized by a number of respected bodies.

In 1998, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reported that the "large-scale and systematic confiscation of Palestinian land and property by the State and the transfer of that property to these agencies constitute an institutionalized form of discrimination because these agencies by definition would deny the use of these properties by non-Jews. Thus, these practices constitute a breach of Israel's obligations under the (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)."

In 2005, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz suggested the Israel Land Authority should cut its ties with the JNF because the JNF excludes Palestinian citizens of Israel from leasing its property. Two Israeli civil-rights organizations had appealed to the Supreme Court claiming the exclusion of Arab Israelis from JNF properties was racist and violated the principle of equality.

The Land Authority noted that JNF properties are "intended for the development of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel," and that "all the funds of the JNF are from Jewish donors."

According to an article that appeared March 18, 2005 in the Jewish Daily Forward, Mazuz declined to defend the case, concluding the authority's claim would not hold up in court. The justices had ruled in an earlier case that "Jews-only" clauses were illegal.

Third, JNF-Canada is the sponsoring organization of Canada Park, which has been built in the occupied Palestinian territories on the ruins of three Palestinian villages (Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba). The villages were deliberately destroyed by Israel in 1967. The destruction of the Palestinian villages, and the denial of the villagers' right to return to their homes, are grave violations of the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949.

In 1986, a United Nations special committee reported to the secretary general it was deeply concerned "that these villagers have persistently been denied the right to return to their land on which Canada Park has been built by the Jewish National Fund of Canada and where the Israeli authorities are reportedly planning to plant a forest instead of allowing the reconstruction of the destroyed villages."

The tragedy of Canada Park has also been the subject of a critical investigative documentary that aired in 1991 on the CBC's The Fifth Estate. The documentary established that Canada Park in Israel was built entirely within the occupied territories, that Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba were intentionally destroyed in order to prevent the villagers from returning and that JNF-Canada is the principal funding body for the park.

In the documentary, former Israeli Knesset member Uri Avnery calls the destruction of the three Palestinian villages a "war crime under international law, and the endorsement of the naming of the park after the name of Canada as implicating Canada with giving a cover to war crimes."

Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization affiliated with the International Commission of Jurists, pointed out in a June 2007 legal brief that Canada Park "was funded by donations to the Jewish National Fund in Canada, which were subsidized as tax-deductible by the Canadian government. Thus Canada, far from fulfilling its obligation to put an end to the illegal situation created by Israel in this part of the occupied Palestinian territory, is responsible for breaching its duty of non-recognition and is complicit in the creation of facts which consolidate the illegal situation and prejudice the realization of the Palestinian right to self-determination."

Fourth, the JNF is currently promoting the settlement of significant numbers of Jews in Israel's Negev Desert to the detriment of the indigenous Bedouin Arab population. The Bedouins in southern Israel have had their traditional grazing lands confiscated by the Israeli government, and many Bedouin villages are unrecognized by the government in order to justify Israeli policies that deny them basic services like running water, electricity, garbage collection, proper education and social services.

The JNF's project, "A Miracle in the Desert," is intended to settle half a million Jews on land once owned by Bedouins in 25 low-density housing communities over the next decade. This project is being challenged legally and politically by Bedouins wanting to reclaim their land.

Like indigenous peoples in other countries, the Palestinian population, including the Bedouins in the Negev, have been and continue to be dispossessed of their land, their resources and their livelihood for the near exclusive benefit of the occupying population.

While countries like Canada move slowly towards reconciliation with aboriginal peoples through land settlements and compensation, the Bedouins instead face further dispossession, which is materially aided and abetted by the JNF. Funds raised at events, such as the dinners at which university presidents are honoured, contribute to projects which serve to further dispossess the Bedouins and other Palestinians.

Unfortunately, the discriminatory and exclusionary features of the JNF's practices and policies in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are not well known in North America. And it is important to note that the JNF's discriminatory record stands in sharp contrast to that of other Israeli organizations that promote equality and nondiscrimination between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah, Zochrot and B'Tselem.

When a university president chooses to accept an invitation to be a JNF honouree, this amounts to a statement endorsing its work and is thus contrary to the mission of a modern university in a diverse and tolerant society. Public endorsements are not given to other organizations which discriminate against indigenous, ethnic or racialized groups. They should not be given to the JNF.

Michael Lynk (law), Rebecca Coulter (education), David Heap (French studies) and Randa Farah (anthropology) are faculty members at the University of Western Ontario. Correspondence between 36 concerned faculty members and the president of UWO can be found here along with several related letters and links to background documentation.

This article first appeared in the March 2008 edition of the CAUT Bulletin. Reprinted with permission.

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Since this article was published in the March 2008 issue of the Bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the JNF has been active in "honouring" prominent Canadians, including Belinda Stronach (2009), former President and CEO of BMO Financial group Tony Comper (2009), Sandra Pupatello, former Ontario cabinet minister (2010), former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader John Tory (2011), Manitoba cabinet minister Christine Melnick (2011), Stockwell Day (2011), former London Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best (2011), and St. Clair College president John Strasser (2011). The 2012 JNF Canada dinners will "honour" among others Minister of Censorship and Deportation Jason Kenney on June 24 in London, Ontario.

Meanwhile, the U.K. campaign to Stop the JNF reports that the Jewish National Fund UK was "in retreat" by late 2011, when the organization's 110th anniversary events were held at a secret location to avoid protests. In May 2011, British Prime Minister resigned his Honorary Patronage of the JNF (the first time a sitting British Prime Minister has foregone this "honour" in over 100 years) while Nick Clegg (Liberal-Democrat leader and Deputy PM) and Ed Miliband (Labour Party leader) have also broken with their parties' traditions and declined JNF Honorary Patronages.

(Updated by David Heap.)

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