Efi Stenzler: At the helm of Israel’s environmental ‘Iron Dome’

KKL-JNF’s world chairman tells ‘Post’ how the Jewish state’s largest green organization is working for future generations.

Interview with KKL-JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler
Efi Stenzler, the world chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, sat in his office at the Ariel Sharon Park on May 20, and reflected on what had been a busy week for him. He had just played host to some 400 members of KKL-JNF’s Solidarity Mission from 40 countries around the world, culminating in a festive celebration at the Beersheba River Park, attended by more than 4,000 people – Negev residents, local council heads, soldiers and students.
A day later, they assembled in Jerusalem for a farewell event.
“Global Jewry has always said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ Stenzler said, smiling. “This time, the participants, presidents and donors from KKL-JNF’s bureaus around the world came for a week to see the projects they fund, from the South of Israel, the Negev, to the North, the Galilee.
And we had a wonderful evening in Jerusalem together with the mayor, Nir Barkat, and former chief of staff Benny Gantz.”
Stenzler said the delegations that came from Australia to Asia had gathered “to say that we are together.”
“The blue box that started 140 years ago was the net that brought the Jews here and the Jews abroad to create the Jewish state,” Stenzler added.
Asked what message he had conveyed to these delegations, Stenzler said: “Our mission, our target, at KKL-JNF is to make Israel a better place, a green place, with a wonderful environment for the benefit of those who want to live in Israel.”
He said KKL-JNF’s initial mission when it was established as an NGO in 1901 was “to buy the land that belongs to the Jewish nation,” and today it owns over 13 percent of the land in Israel, serving as the trustee of the Jewish state as well as the Jewish people around the world. Its next task, following the advice of the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was to plant trees, and today there are some 245 million trees that it has planted across Israel.
“Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees in the 21st century than in the 20th century,” said Stenzler. “And this is thanks to Jews around the world who will continue to invest in Israel to make it a better place for the next generation.”
KKL-JNF is the only NGO in the world that implements the entire planting process on a national scale at its expense, without government participation, Stenzler said. KKL-JNF’s hundreds of forests and sites are also open to the entire Israeli public all year long, free of charge.
Asked how he sees KKL-JNF’s role today, Stenzler pointed to the huge development he had supervised in the Negev and along the Gaza border. “We are not a security organization, but we have planted trees all along the roads in the area near Gaza, so those who are from Gaza won’t be able to shoot missiles at our kibbutzim, moshavim and cities as well. We are not a water company, but we built more than 240 reservoirs that provide more than 70 percent of the water to agriculture. We are not a settlement company, but we have built just in the years that I have been chairman (since 2006) seven communities in the Negev. We are not a seed company, but we are involved in 50 percent of the R&D in Israel that produces fruits and vegetables. And we are not the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but we have KKL-JNF bureaus in 48 countries that are doing tremendous work.”
Stenzler recalled that KKL-JNF played a key role during Operation Protective Edge, the military conflict against Hamas last summer.
“Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, we have always been involved in making Israel strong,” Stenzler said.
“During this last operation, and I hope it will be the last, our donors around the world sent money for shelters, and we built almost 300 shelters in all those places that are in the range of the missiles. They provided immediate shelter to citizens, soldiers and media people.”
He said KKL-JNF’s Education Department also dispatched teachers all over the South to sit with children in shelters, teaching and playing with them. “Together with JNF USA, we built the biggest playground in the world in a shelter in Sderot, which was hit by more than 4,000 missiles over the years,” Stenzler said. “Of course, the teachers, children and parents were very happy to continue with their activities in that shelter without any fear of the missiles.”
Asked what his vision for the future is, Stenzler gave the Beersheba River Park as a prime example of what KKLJNF is doing. “You know the Beersheba River Park is largest park in Israel where no water has been flowing for 2,000 years but it will soon will be flowing all year long. It is twice the size of Central Park in New York, and JNF USA has given the money to build the Abraham Well there.”
In addition, KKL-JNF is starting construction on a lake that will be the second biggest in Israel (after Lake Kinneret), and it plans to be a partner in the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal approved by the government.
Asked for his response to the delegitimization campaign being waged against Israel and KKL-JNF around the world, Stenzler said: “It is not an easy question with an easy answer, but I want to say clearly: Those who demonstrate against KKL-JNF all over the world are part of the BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. It’s hard to demonstrate against Israel all the time, so they find some Zionist, Jewish organization that it is doing a lot for developing Israel.”
Such a campaign will not deter his organization, Stenzler stressed. “Our organization is committed to developing Israel and the Jewish nation, we are committed to continuing to do what we are doing, because we are sure that what we are doing is making Israel a better place.”
He noted that KKL-JNF projects were for the benefit of all the people of Israel. “What we doing is not only for Jews. We have cooperation with Beduin cities and villages in the Negev, and together with the New York Laboratory, we are creating an ecological farm that is the only one of its kind in the world. We also build forests and promenades in Beduin communities. And two years ago, we started environmental projects with cities in the North of Israel, where there are Arab Muslims and Christians.
I am sure that green cities are to the benefit of all citizens of Israel.”
Finally, Stenzler said it was important to stress that KKL-JNF did not keep its advanced agriculture knowledge to itself, but was sharing it with countries around the world.
JNF-KKL contributes from its vast knowledge in the fields of forestry, agriculture, research and food production to developing countries such as Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia, he said.
“In Ethiopia, our advisers have helped double their tomato growth in five years and we are very proud of it,” Stenzler said.
But it also has set its sights on other countries, the latest of which is China.
“I recently played host to a high-level Chinese delegation,” Stenzler said.
“The Chinese are very interested in learning from us, and in the end, we’ll probably learn from them.”
He invited all to see the myriad of KKL-JNF activities on display at the Universal Exposition – Expo 2015 in Milan, which is focusing on the innovations and breakthroughs the organization has in the field of food. The exhibition opened in May and will close at the end of October.