One on one: Seeing the forest for the trees

"One could say that the KKL-JNF, through the help of Diaspora Jews, determined the borders of the state of Israel."

efi stenzler 88 (photo credit:)
efi stenzler 88
(photo credit: )
The fifth Keren Kayemet Leyisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) World Leadership Conference is under way, with more than 150 delegates from the Diaspora having gathered here to celebrate Independence Day, tour the country and discuss past, present and future Holy Land endeavors. These include water purification, farm development and global warming research - issues they not only hold dear, but on the basis of which they fill their till - literally and figuratively - by passing around the little blue box that has been their trademark for more than a century. In an hour-long interview at his Jerusalem office on the eve of the conference, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler waxes poetic about the 200-or-so projects in the works "from Metulla to Eilat," among them a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bicycle path his organization intends to give Israel as a gift on Rosh Hashana. On April 15, the KKL-JNF and the Antiquities Authority presented Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a gift for the state's 60th birthday, in the form of the Adulam Park in the Eila Valley. Why, then, a mere three weeks later, are you holding an international conference here? Since everything we do for Israel, we do through our donors - we don't receive a single shekel from the state - every two years, we hold a conference for KKL-JNF people from 33 countries worldwide to update one another about what's going on in Israel, and discuss the agenda, programs for the future, fund-raising methods, etc. These conferences are traditionally held in February or March. But this year, I requested that we have the conference in May, because of Independence Day, to give participants the opportunity both to experience the special festive atmosphere and to see the country during the spring, when the weather is good. You mention fund-raising. Is the traditional "blue-box" method still in use at all? Yes, there are countries in which collection in the blue boxes is still in effect. Is it still a recognizable symbol with which Jews identify? Well, the question is often raised as to whether it's better to raise $100,000 from a single donor, from many donors or from blue boxes. And we reached the conclusion that the answer is all of the above. While on the subject, it's important to state that we want to widen the scope of our contributors' awareness of KKL-JNF activities, not only to increase the number of donors abroad, but to encourage the younger generation to continue to feel that connection to the KKL-JNF and to Israel - by donating a tree or a forest or a reservoir or a park. After the Second War in Lebanon, you conducted a large-scale operation to restore the forests in the North that had burned down as a result of Katyusha fire. Is it easier for you to raise funds during times of crisis? There is no doubt that war is a unifying event, within Israel as well. So, yes, the war in Lebanon led to increased donations to KKL-JNF. This doesn't mean, however, that we are only able to operate during wartime. KKL has been around for more than 100 years. Since its establishment in 1901 - with the purchase of the first 200 dunams [in pre-state Palestine] - Jews bought land. By 1948, there were about a million dunams of land in the hands of Jews in this country, from which 360 yishuvim [settlement communities] were built. Indeed, one could say that the KKL-JNF, through the help of Diaspora Jews, determined the borders of the State of Israel. If we hadn't had the land, we wouldn't have been able to establish communities, moshavim, kibbutzim and cities. It wouldn't have been possible to settle the Jews here. Today, the KKL-JNF has more than 2 million dunams, a large portion of which are for agriculture, the most developed in the world. The point is that the Jews of the Diaspora have risen to the plate through thick and thin. Speaking of land, what is going on with the petition to the High Court of Justice filed by Adallah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) regarding KKL-JNF policy of only selling land to Jews? First of all, the KKL-JNF doesn't sell land; it leases it. The body that handles the 2 million dunams of KKL-JNF land is the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), in accordance with an agreement that was signed between the government and the KKL-JNF in 1961. From then and until 2004, if a non-Jew wanted to lease land owned by the KKL-JNF, the ILA would lease it to him, and in exchange, the KKL-JNF would receive the equivalent amount of land in another location in the country. For reasons independent of the KKL-JNF, in 2004, the ILA stopped operating this way. The result was that Adallah petitioned the courts. Do you mean that the ILA stopped "reimbursing" the KKL-JNF, or that it stopped leasing land to non-Jews altogether? It's more complicated than that. It's connected to the Gadish Committee [headed by the late Ya'acov Gadish, that was established in May 2004 by Olmert, when he was minister of industry, trade and labor, to "define the main operational aims of the ILA with regard to its structure and modes of operation." The principal recommendations included the transfer of urban residential land ownership rights to private owners of apartments and buildings, and the streamlining of the process surrounding land-ownership rights]. In other words, to minimize the bureaucracy involved in the relation between a citizen and the ILA, the state wanted to enable people with long-term leases to purchase their residences. It's important to note here that the cases of the ILA's leasing KKL-JNF land to non-Jews amounted to five-seven per year, out of tens of thousands of transactions. But, people who aren't familiar with the material took the opportunity to blow the whole issue out of proportion - particularly since, when this reached the court a few months ago, the government announced that it was willing to continue operating as it had been doing before. Are you saying the affair is over and done with? No. The petition filed by Adallah is still with the High Court of Justice, but we have already announced that we would be willing to continue operating as we had until 2004. How do you answer critics who accuse you of discrimination or racism for leasing land only to Jews? I would remind them that the ILA continues to lease our land to non-Jews, in spite of the fact that the land was purchased by Jews in the Diaspora with whose help the State of Israel was built. Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state, and the KKL-JNF is a Jewish, Zionist organization - though, of course, we also have to remember that we live in a democracy in which the citizens are not all Jews. Now to the water issue. Former president of American JNF Ron Lauder once said that Israel's water shortage could be solved easily through purification and desalination, if it weren't hindered by the monopoly of the country's national water company, Mekorot. Is this true? Mekorot is on the way to privatization, and therefore is no longer a government-owned company. This year, KKL-JNF is about to dedicate its 200th reservoir. Close to 40 percent of Israel's agriculture relies on the reservoirs built by the KKL-JNF from donations collected in the Diaspora. These reservoirs consist of recycled sewage water. Israel is greener as a result. As you know, Israel is a desert. And I estimate that future conflicts in the region will not be about land, but rather about water. Israel is extremely advanced when it comes to water technology, and we keep developing. In the future, Israel will be able to export purified water to other countries. Don't forget that water has no borders. And when there is pollution, it spreads. Israel, as you point out, is a desert. Is the KKL-JNF involved in enhancing the development and use of solar energy? We intend to get more involved in the field of alternative energy, particularly solar, which will be crucial in developing the Negev. In fact, we will not only be sponsoring single projects, but rather engaging in a wider program that would also put income back into the KKL-JNF. At this year's Herzliya Conference, the KKL-JNF made a presentation about the connection between trees and their effect on global warming. Can you elaborate on that? There is no doubt that the planet is heating up, for many reasons, some of them ecological. So, what we are doing, together with the Weizmann Institute, is conducting research about the effect of trees on global warming. This research is being carried out in the Yatir forest in the Negev, where eventually we will establish a visitors' center, where people can see the results of our research and learn about the whole topic. We do know, however, that trees lower temperatures. And since its establishment, the KKL-JNF has planted about 240 million trees in this country. As a result, Israel today is green - no longer the "barren hills" that Theodor Herzl saw while travelling by train from Jaffa to Jerusalem [in 1898]. So, we are fulfilling Herzl's dream. David Ben-Gurion, too, had a dream - that one day there would be a billion trees here. Well, we've got a ways to go before reaching a billion. But we are embarking on a campaign of "a tree for every resident." This is a shmita year [sabbatical during which nothing can be planted], but beginning on Tu Bishvat [the "new year" of the trees that falls in late January or early February], we are going to launch this campaign, in conjunction with the local and regional authorities and other bodies. Eventually, I want to have a campaign for "a tree for every Jew in the world" - where we will be able to create forests here for different [Jewish] communities all over the world. This is but one of many topics on the agenda of the current conference. Since the days of Ephraim Kishon's satire that was made into the 1960s film, Salah Shabbati (starring Haim Topol) - in which fun is poked at the alleged practice of replacing the plaques near trees supposedly planted in donors' names every time a different one came to visit a forest - has the attitude in this country towards the KKL-JNF changed? A poll that we conducted following a public service commercial about the KKL-JNF that appeared on TV a few weeks ago indicates that the Israeli public has been increasingly exposed to and aware of the organization, though not as much as we'd like. We have a lot of work ahead of us in that respect, and in strengthening the connection between donors in the Diaspora and the projects in Israel which they contribute to and are a part of. As for the methods supposedly employed in the days of Salah Shabbati - if they ever existed at all - they are definitely a thing of the past.