Bringing openness to JNF

American Jews have historical, idealistic views of Zionist institutions. And the Jewish National Fund is no exception. For many, JNF conjures up the warm images of placing coins in blue pushkes, planting trees in Israel and generally making the land of Israel bloom. It is this image that has sustained support of the organization for generations.

But the JNF also has a major say in Israel’s land policy. It owns 13 percent of the regulated land in Israel and reportedly holds more than $1.1 billion in liquid capital — most of it raised through the sale of that land in deals that are not open to public review.

Despite its large public role — which includes the power to expropriate Israeli land — JNF is not a public institution, and there is no public scrutiny of its records or operations. Not until last week, that is. On May 5, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein changed JNF’s status to a public corporation, effective in 60 days. The move, which will force JNF to file annual financial statements, was opposed by the organization, which argued that as a governmental body it could lose its tax-exempt status in several countries.

The JNF issue has moved concurrently along political and legal tracks. On the political side, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for a committee to study the issue, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni proposed a bill to allow the state comptroller to audit JNF and to publicize its transactions, operations and financial records. On May 4, the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation struck down the bill by a narrow margin.

The next day, Attorney General Weinstein, operating on the legal track, changed JNF’s status and put the company under his supervision. He based his action on an opinion by his deputy, who wrote, “The JNF wields great power. This power requires balance and supervision, and therefore, from a practical standpoint as well, it’s appropriate to apply the higher standard of conduct that the legislator stipulated for a public benefit corporation.”

Critics of the change worry that as a public company, JNF could become a politician’s plaything. But supporters say that already is the case, with widespread political appointments being made in the shadows. Such behind-the-scene deals are far from the image of the blue-and-white pushke, a reality JNF unintendedly experienced when it recently issued new coin boxes whose image of Israel seemed to negate the possibility of a future Palestinian state.

As its name implies, JNF belongs to all Jews. That’s good. And if its workings are now going to be made transparent to all Jews, that’s even better.

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