Danny Atar is leaving his mark

Atar speaks proudly of his accomplishments during his tenure at CEO of KKL.

Danny Atar  (photo credit: HAIM VERSANO/KKL-JNF)
Danny Atar
(photo credit: HAIM VERSANO/KKL-JNF)
The familiar, gravelly voice at the other end of the line speaks with authority. Danny Atar, outgoing world chairman and CEO Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund since 2015, will soon be leaving office to make way for Avraham Duvdevani. Yet the 61-year-old Atar still retains his enthusiasm and passion, and speaks proudly of his accomplishments during his tenure.
Recounting the beginnings of the 119-year-old organization, Atar says, “The entire concept of KKL-JNF was a visionary approach that would help in the establishment of the State of Israel. When I took office, my job was to return to its original purpose and to shape a vision.” However, Atar explains, before fashioning KKL-JNF’s new vision, he had to make fundamental changes in its operation.
In 2014, one year before he took office, the organization’s legal status was changed from a private entity to become a public benefit company. Atar instituted several sweeping organizational changes in the transparency of KKL-JNF’s operations to make information accessible to the public at large.
“KKL-JNF belongs to all citizens of the state and to all Jews around the world,” he says. “In order to enable anyone to see the activities online, we needed to make the site accessible and to write out work practices and policies. All of our protocols are listed on the website. The budget is open and accessible to everyone. You can go online and see the budget. It shows how each shekel was spent and how we use the money to strengthen Israel and the Jewish people.” Atar also brought in an experienced legal adviser and an internal auditor to ensure that all practices were correctly followed. Once the company was set up for transparent operation, Atar and his team set out to determine the new vision of KKL-JNF.
“We decided to concentrate on the weaker areas of the State of Israel, including the Galil, the Negev, Jerusalem, the Golan, the Jordan Valley, the Arava and the Gaza Envelope.” In addition, KKL-JNF determined that it was essential to provide assistance to Israel’s youth movements and pre-military academies (mechinot), both of which, in his words, represent the future leadership of Israel.
Ultimately, KKL-JNF decided to focus its development efforts on the Galil and the Negev, and “Israel 2040” was born. Atar explains that many young people in Israel’s North and South cannot find work once they have graduated, and they end up moving to the center of Israel, where they find jobs.
“Ninety-three percent of hi-tech is in the Tel Aviv area, and just 7% is in the Galilee and Negev,” notes Atar. “This is simply not logical. There is no reason that the concept of the Start-Up Nation should not be country-wide.” In order to keep promising students in the North and South, KKL-JNF has opened centers of excellence for talented students in grades 10 through 12, and advanced technical centers through the IDF in the Golan and Beersheba. The organization has granted scholarships to students in these areas to study in the Galilee and the Negev, and is developing innovation centers and business hubs to create work opportunities so that they will remain in their home regions. Atar says that cities in the Galilee and Negev will initially reach populations of 50,000, with a final goal of having every city in the North and South numbering populations of 100,000.
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ATAR IS not only convinced that residents of the Galilee and Negev can be enticed to remain, but is confident that he can increase the population of these areas by encouraging Israelis from other regions of the country to move there.
“The Negev and Galilee have large open areas, beautiful views, and clean air. If you provide them with jobs, they will come.”
Atar acknowledges that Israel 2040, the ultimate goal of which is to bring one million residents to the Negev and half-a-million people to the Galilee, is an ambitious project.
“It’s one of the greatest projects of the State of Israel since its founding,” he says. He is optimistic that his plan to bring hi-tech centers to the Negev and Galilee will create jobs and increase the population. Israel 2040 is well underway, and by the year 2040, he suggests, the effects of the plan will be seen throughout Israel’s northern and southern regions.
Atar is encouraging investment among Jews in the Diaspora for Israel 2040 and calls it “economic Zionism.” He wants influential Jews worldwide to utilize the economic opportunities present in the Galilee and the Negev to invest, build factories, and fund innovation centers.
“There is a group of Jews from the United States that is making an investment fund for the Galilee and the Negev,” he says, “and there are tens of thousands of Jews who see it as a great opportunity.”
Atar adds that KKL-JNF has also invested heavily in Jerusalem, noting a 70-million shekel investment in the 20-hectare (50-acre) “Park Ha’asbestonim” in Kiryat Yovel and Kiryat Menachem, and the massive Binyenei Ha’uma project at the city’s entrance, which will comprise 15 towers of hotels and business centers, together with the largest convention center in the Middle East.
With all of the time and investment that has been devoted to Israel 2040, Atar notes that KKL-JNF has maintained and even increased its regular scope of existing activities, including tree planting, forest maintenance, creating open areas, and building bike paths throughout the country.
“We have built thousands of kilometers of bike paths used by tens of thousands of people, and millions of Israeli citizens visit KKL-JNF parks,” says Atar with satisfaction.
Some question the need for maintaining the Zionist institutions such as KKL-JNF years after the state was founded. Atar says, “KKL-JNF’s impact is felt everywhere – from planting trees, and parks, and investment in building kibbutzim, and the periphery, and innovation centers, museums – all of these things create a new reality. Without KKL-JNF, the new settlements would not have been built, and without KKL-JNF, the settlements in the Gaza envelope would not have remained.” Moreover, he adds, the World Zionist Congress gathers the entire Jewish people from around the world – not just those in Israel – and the congress invariably agrees on a “wall-to-wall” coalition agreement, with each group making compromises but reaching agreement.
“This proves that despite everything, the entire Jewish people – from Reform to ultra-Orthodox, from the political Left to the political Right, can come together and make decisions. For that reason alone, the national institutions are worthwhile.” What is Danny Atar planning next?
“I have spent my entire adult life working on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. I am certain that I will find a way to continue contributing.”
This article was written in cooperation with KKL-JNF.