JNF severs ties in tiff with UK branch

Exclusive: Claims financial impropriety, deception of donors lead to 'dead end.'

jnf uk 88 298 (photo credit: courtesy of JNF - UK website)
jnf uk 88 298
(photo credit: courtesy of JNF - UK website)
The Jewish National Fund is severing ties with its British counterpart, JNF-UK, claiming that its name is being used in a deceptive and immoral manner to channel money away from the JNF and toward other projects in Israel. A lengthy letter to the British body from lawyers representing the 104-year-old Zionist organization, obtained by The Jerusalem Post, outlines those claims. The letter states, for example, that JNF-UK has transferred to the Jewish National Fund only some 110,000 so far this year - less than 5 percent of its estimated income after expenses and less than 3% of the funds it transferred 10 years ago. By comparison, the letter notes, the Australian branch of the JNF last year sent the equivalent of more than 2.2 million, or 84% of its income after expenses. "It is clear that [JNF-UK] is no longer committed to the raising of funds to achieve the charitable objectives that [JNF] stands for," the letter states. It adds that JNF-UK has, since 2002, broken a commitment to disclose the destination of the funds it has distributed in Israel. The British organization's donations to charitable projects not related to the JNF's mandate increased significantly over the same period. In JNF-UK advertisements, the JNF appears now as but one of more than a dozen "partners" of the British organization. Almost all these "partners" are charities or groups that address issues outside the goals of the JNF, which have included since the early days of Jewish settlement in Palestine the purchase and maintenance of land, forestation and agricultural development, Jewish education, immigration absorption, strengthening of ties between Israel and the Diaspora, development of peripheral towns and ecological conservation. "The focus of [JNF-UK's] fund-raising is no longer to raise monies for the projects and activities that [JNF] undertakes," says the letter. In practice, it says, JNF-UK no longer works in partnership with the JNF. What the letter reveals is not only a deep financial crisis between the JNF and the JNF-UK, but a complete collapse in relations between them. "All kinds of things are being done [by JNF-UK] that we aren't even told about... I discover these things by accident," JNF world chairman Yehiel Leket said Thursday. "I get invited to events, for example, by mayors who say to me, 'Thank you very much for the donation that we received from the JNF in England for the sake of building an emergency room in our town.' Then, when I ask about this in England, [JNF-UK officials] deny them. They deceive us," he said. Leket, who helped mediate a reconciliation after a similar crisis six years ago, said it was no longer possible to tolerate the situation. The last straw, he said, was when the JNF-UK opened an additional charity to collect wills and estate pledges under the name KKL. Leket charged that the move was meant to confuse donors into thinking that their money will go toward projects of the JNF, which is also known as the KKL because of its Hebrew name, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael. "It's completely immoral!" he said. "There is a certain deception of the donors involved here, too. The JNF-UK takes our name - which represents goals that were set by the Jewish people - and uses it for other purposes. Now everyone in Israel knows that if JNF-UK asks them for something, they need to check with us in Jerusalem to make sure it's okay." Relations between the two organizations turned ugly in 1999, when the JNF-UK refused to admit emissaries from Israel. That came as questions were swirling about how forthcoming the British body had been about the amount of money it was turning over to the central organization in Jerusalem. Former JNF world chairman Shlomo Gravetz demanded then that JNF-UK stop using the Jewish National Fund name. But a memorandum of understanding signed by both sides preserved the partnership and was supposed to have solved the differences. In that memo, the JNF-UK: • recognized the activities of the JNF and its Jerusalem office as the center of all affiliated offices throughout the world; • committed to allow the JNF transparent access to its budget and accounts; • committed to remit to the JNF "all funds raised in the UK... apart from costs." That the JNF-UK has since breached these understandings is insignificant, according to JNF-UK president Gail Seal. "That's just a piece of paper that we signed in 1999, when we tried to make shalom... it is not legally binding. We are absolutely not bound by it," Seal told the Post on Thursday. Seal even stood the JNF's complaints on their head, claiming that it was the JNF that had been following the lead of the JNF-UK for decades. According to Seal, the JNF was established in the 1950s, whereas the JNF-UK was founded in the 1930s. The KKL/JNF was actually created at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, and was meant to marshal funds from Jews throughout the Diaspora for the purchase of land in Palestine. It's branch in England was incorporated as a charitable organization 38 years later - while in Israel, the operations of the quasi-governmental Zionist body could be anchored in law only after the founding of the state. In any case, Seal said her organization's diminishing contributions to the JNF over the past few years were related to a change in priorities away from environmental concerns and toward helping terrorism victims and alleviating poverty. "Planting trees just isn't for us anymore. We've gone in another direction," Seal said. "Jews in Britain want to give for other things. If you want to stay ahead of the game, you have to find the projects that people want to give to. They [the JNF] haven't got the projects that we want to support." Leket said the JNF could accept that other charitable causes in Israel would be supported - just not under the auspices of the JNF. "When a Jew makes any kind of contribution to Israel, that contribution is important in our eyes. When someone donates to a university, he contributes to our future; when he donates to a hospital, it's a very important contribution," Leket said. "But the JNF has no mandate, and was never intended, to collect money for hospitals or universities, or firefighters, or cancer research, etc. Likewise, we don't expect universities to collect money for forestation and the creation of water reservoirs." A JNF-UK spokesman suggested that the organization had decided to direct its funds elsewhere because it had been put off by a series of charges of misconduct within the JNF, including complaints against Leket's management and exorbitant operating costs. Indeed, the JNF has suffered in recent years from a number of scandals - most notably, fraudulent tree plantings, legal disputes over contested lands and a scheme by a former JNF official to illegally sell land in the West Bank. Leket said, however, that the divorce of the Jerusalem and London offices had nothing to do with any of that. "This is a matter of principle," Leket said. "What the JNF-UK has done is creating chaos in the Jewish world. We are fighting for the sake of order in Jewish fund-raising, nothing less."