Where does JNF’s money go?

But It Might Not Be End­ing Up Where You’d Think

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Be­fore the found­ing of the State of Israel, Amer­i­can Jews dropped their nick­els and dimes into the blue char­ity boxes of the Jewish Na­tional Fund to help Zion­ist set­tlers make a Jewish home­land in Pales­tine.

Their coins bought the land and founded the set­tle­ments on which the mod­ern state of Israel was built.

A cen­tury later, Amer­i­can Jews re­main loyal to JNF and its blue boxes, giv­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars a year to the his­toric Zion­ist in­sti­tu­tion.

But the For­ward has learned that the Amer­i­can char­ity op­er­at­ing un­der the JNF name has ef­fec­tively stopped fund­ing the Is­raeli or­ga­ni­za­tion it was set up to sup­port, mak­ing just 1% of its grants to the Is­raeli JNF in 2015.

For most Amer­i­can Jews, the two groups are in­dis­tin­guish­able, shar­ing a name and a his­tory. The Amer­i­can JNF never an­nounced pub­licly that it had es­sen­tially stopped send­ing money to the Is­raeli group. It con­tin­ues to claim the legacy of the Is­raeli JNF, stat­ing on the side of the lat­est edi­tion of its blue char­ity boxes, on the his­tory page of its own web­site and even in its tax fil­ings that it was founded in 1901 — the year the group that be­came the Is­raeli JNF was founded. The Amer­i­can JNF was not set up un­til the 1920s.

The rev­e­la­tion that the Amer­i­can JNF now sends just a small frac­tion of its grants to the Is­raeli JNF raises ques­tions about the iden­tity of the his­toric Zion­ist group at a time when the Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tion is rais­ing more money than ever be­fore.

The Amer­i­can JNF’s course away from its his­toric ben­e­fi­ciary, and to­ward projects picked by wealthy donors, tracks with broader trends in Jewish phi­lan­thropy.

“Donors want to be more in­volved, want to be more aware of what’s go­ing on,” said Hanna Shaul Bar Nis­sim, a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Co­hen Cen­ter at Bran­deis Uni­ver­sity. “These donors speak He­brew, they fly here once a month, they’re more in­formed of the is­sue and dilem­mas of Is­raeli so­ci­ety than many Is­raelis.”

To­day, the Amer­i­can JNF funds its own projects: build­ing new com­mu­ni­ties in the Negev desert, buy­ing equip­ment for Is­raeli fire­fight­ers and sup­port­ing a vis­i­tor’s cen­ter at a West Bank set­tle­ment, among oth­ers.

In a 2016 email ob­tained by the For­ward, the CEO of the Amer­i­can JNF, Rus­sell Robin­son, ac­knowl­edged that his or­ga­ni­za­tion no longer pro­vides any gen­eral sup­port to the Is­raeli JNF. The Amer­i­can JNF opened a new head­quar­ters of its own in Jerusalem in 2016.

“We fund spe­cific projects with de­tailed fi­nan­cials ap­proved” by our board of direc­tors, Robin­son wrote. “We have our own of­fice in Israel and sup­port our own donor-driven work.”

A spokesman for the Amer­i­can JNF, Adam Brill, would not ac­knowl­edge any change in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two groups. He said that two or­ga­ni­za­tions have “been sep­a­rate en­ti­ties since 1926,” but he would not re­spond to ques­tions about the near-ces­sa­tion of fund­ing for the Is­raeli JNF.

In 2015, the only Is­raeli JNF projects that the Amer­i­can JNF re­ported sup­port­ing in its fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sures were $293,000 for tree-plant­ing and $50,000 for bike trails.

Is­raeli JNF world chair­man Danny Atar said in a state­ment to the For­ward that the Is­raeli and Amer­i­can

groups con­tin­ued to col­lab­o­rate on projects. “The re­la­tion­ship be­tween these two bod­ies is not mea­sured by the amount of money that passes through [the Is­raeli JNF], since there are many projects that take place in full co­or­di­na­tion with [the Is­raeli JNF], with costs reach­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of NIS,” Atar said.

Atar said that the joint ef­forts in­cluded wa­ter projects and ef­forts to strengthen Arab and Be­douin com­mu­ni­ties.

Ties be­tween the Amer­i­can and Is­raeli JNF be­gan to erode in the late 1990s. A sharp break ap­pears to have hap­pened much more re­cently. As re­cently as 2008, the Amer­i­can JNF sent 60% of its grants to the Is­raeli JNF.

“I see it as a dan­ger­ous prece­dent in terms of other JNF branches around the world,” said Mike Nitzan, a vice chair of the Is­raeli JNF. “There were nu­mer­ous at­tempts to... try and iron those things out. The [Amer­i­can JNF] reached the con­clu­sion that they could best serve their donors by run­ning an in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Based in a land­marked 1920s man­sion on an ex­clu­sive block on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per East Side, the Amer­i­can JNF has emerged since 2015 as among the rich­est or­ga­ni­za­tions in the Jewish com­mu­nal fir­ma­ment.

The Amer­i­can JNF’s as­sets topped $300 mil­lion that year, with a record­break­ing be­quest push­ing its rev­enue that year over $200 mil­lion, more than all but the largest Jewish fed­er­a­tions.

The group has spent mil­lions in re­cent years on what its pres­i­dent called “house­keep­ing projects.” Its man­sion head­quar­ters re­ceived a $16 mil­lion facelift com­pleted in 2016.

It has also been gen­er­ous to its lead­er­ship. As the For­ward re­vealed in late July, the Amer­i­can JNF made over $700,000 in loans to Robin­son and its chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer in 2015, ap­par­ently breaking New York char­ity law in the process. Fol­low­ing the For­ward’s re­port, both Robin­son and the CFO agreed to re­pay their loans.

The Amer­i­can JNF’s fi­nan­cial health rep­re­sents a re­mark­able comeback for an or­ga­ni­za­tion that, in 1996, was wracked by a fi­nan­cial scan­dal. Me­dia re­ports at the time forced the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s board to con­duct an in­ter­nal au­dit that found that while it had claimed to send 70% of its ex­pen­di­tures it Israel, it in fact sent only 21%.

Fol­low­ing the re­port, the Amer­i­can JNF brought on new se­nior staff, in­clud­ing Robin­son. Per­fume heir and phi­lan­thropist Ron­ald Lauder be­came pres­i­dent of the board of direc­tors. Lauder, a con­fi­dant of Pres­i­dent Trump, re­mains the board’s chair­man.

Lauder “brought on a lot of heavy hit­ters and peo­ple who had not been in­volved with JNF,” said Alon Tal, a pro­fes­sor at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­sity who served on the board of the Is­raeli JNF for over a decade. “Their at­ti­tude was dif­fer­ent.”

While pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can JNF lead­er­ship had been happy to fork over checks to the Is­raeli JNF with­out ask­ing ques­tions, Lauder and his al­lies wanted con­trol over the projects they funded. Tal said that the chair­man of the Is­raeli JNF at the time, Yechiel Leket, ob­jected to the wealthy Amer­i­cans’ ef­forts to ex­ert con­trol over the Is­raeli or­ga­ni­za­tion.

A for­mer mem­ber of the board of the Amer­i­can JNF, James Schiller, said that his group had been frus­trated by the slow pace of the Is­raeli or­ga­ni­za­tion’s work. “It wasn’t re­spon­sive to our donors,” Schiller said of the Is­raeli JNF. “That’s when [the Amer­i­can JNF] started to branch out and do things more on their own.”

Nitzan said that the grow­ing in­de­pen­dence had frus­trated the lead­er­ship of the Is­raeli JNF. “Early on when it hap­pened I think the re­sent­ment was very high,” he said.

The con­flict came to a head in 2005, as the Amer­i­can JNF be­gan to make grants to other char­i­ties in Israel. An Is­raeli JNF of­fi­cial told the For­ward in March of that year that the do­na­tions rep­re­sented “to­tal dis­loy­alty to the orig­i­nal course of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Is­raeli JNF lead­ers were an­gry that the Amer­i­can JNF was us­ing its name and sym­bols, in­clud­ing the fa­mous blue box, while send­ing some of its money to other causes. Tal said that some lead­ers on the Is­raeli JNF’s board wanted

JNF has ef­fec­tively stopped fund­ing the Is­raeli or­ga­ni­za­tion it was set up to sup­port.

to sue the Amer­i­can JNF over the use of the name. In­stead, in 2008, the two sides agreed that the Amer­i­can JNF could con­tinue to use the name “Jewish Na­tional Fund” and the blue char­ity boxes, even if it was rais­ing some money for other causes.

The deal, Nitzan said, “more or less set the prece­dent for the [Amer­i­can] JNF be­com­ing an in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

At the time, the Amer­i­can JNF was still giv­ing sig­nif­i­cant funds to the Is­raeli group. In the fis­cal year end­ing in Septem­ber 2008, the Amer­i­can JNF made $21.7 mil­lion in grants, with $12.8 mil­lion of that money go­ing to the Is­raeli JNF.

In the in­ter­ven­ing years, changes in rules for Amer­i­can char­i­ties meant that the Amer­i­can JNF was no longer re­quired to iden­tify the re­cip­i­ents of its over­seas grants. It only restarted iden­ti­fy­ing its over­seas grantees for the tax year end­ing in Septem­ber 2015, fol­low­ing a pres­sure cam­paign from the rab­bini­cal hu­man rights group T’ruah.

As such, it’s not clear ex­actly when the Amer­i­can JNF turned off the spigot. But in 2015, the Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ported mak­ing $29.7 mil­lion in grants, with only $343,000 go­ing to the Is­raeli JNF.

The Is­raeli JNF it­self has grown more con­tro­ver­sial. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has faced scan­dals in re­cent years, along with heavy crit­i­cism for its role in the de­mo­li­tion of Be­douin vil­lages.

“81% of JNF-USA’s funds are spent on pro­grams and projects, the ma­jor­ity of which is ear­marked by our donors for the spe­cific projects they want to sup­port,” Brill wrote. “While we work closely with KKL-JNF in Israel, we have full con­fi­dence in our Board, and the many mem­bers in lay lead­er­ship roles, as the best fi­nan­cial stew­ards of their donor dol­lars.”

Nitzan said that among the lead­er­ship of the Is­raeli JNF, some mem­bers are seek­ing rap­proche­ment with its es­tranged Amer­i­can cousin. Some board mem­bers, he said, are “a lit­tle bit more re­sent­ful.”

Oth­ers are “try­ing to reach a mid­dle ground and to bring the [Amer­i­can JNF] back into the fold.”

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