US Jewish groups lobby against JNF bill

Say bill which prohibits leasing land to Arabs creates "apartheid" perception.

The Reform Movement and other liberal Jewish groups are urging the Knesset not to move forward with legislation that would prohibit Arab Israelis from leasing land owned by the Jewish National Fund. A preliminary reading of the bill, which was approved by a 64-16 margin last week, would allow the Israel Lands Authority to bar Israeli Arabs from leasing any land that it manages. The JNF owns 13 percent of the land in Israel, much of which was paid for by Diaspora Jews. In 1962, the JNF reached an agreement with the Israel Lands Authority, established in 1961, that allowed the ILA to manage JNF-owned land. The current bill is intended to bypass a decision by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz in support of a preliminary court ruling that said non-Jews could not be barred from leasing JNF lands. The reasoning behind the bill, according to the JNF, is that "the land purchased by the Jewish people for the Jewish people should remain in the hands of its rightful owners." "It's important for us who had a covenant with the donors, that we honor that covenant," said Russell Robinson, chief executive officer of JNF. "For 2000 years, I don't remember that we were praying and dreaming that we can't wait to establish a democratic state in the Middle East, but we did say that we can't wait to reestablish a Jewish homeland." Despite this, the bill has disappointed Israelis and Americans alike, and efforts to try and prevent the bill from moving forward are underway. A letter on behalf of the board of directors of Ameinu, the US affiliate of the World Zionist Movement, addressed to MK Ze'ev Elkin (Kadima), expressed "profound disappointment" with the recent vote. "At a time when Israel is trying to show the world that there is no contradiction between a Jewish state and a democratic one, every effort must be made to enforce the principle of equality and equal opportunity for all Israeli citizens," the letter states. Though Amienu recognizes the "complexities of the situation" at a time of tensions between Israel's Jewish and Arab populations, Israel should demonstrate that the Israeli Arabs "have a stake in the country's future," the letter states. "The bill is not only unfair to one fifth of Israel's population; it also reinforces the growing perception around the world that Israel is an 'apartheid' state," the letter states. The Reform Movement is in the process of drafting its own letter opposing the bill, to be sent to Knesset members this week. "We are quite concerned by the letter and spirit of law," said Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA.) "This is not the time for Israel to be looking at policies that differentiate between different cohorts of its citizenry." Though the JNF was entrusted with bringing a Jewish state into being, some institutions need to be "reevaluated," said Davids. "What we are seeing is the maturation of an Israeli democratic society, and some institutions need to be reevaluated with regards to the current demographics. Israel will never be a state exclusively for Jews," he said. The New Israel Fund also opposes the bill. Other Diaspora activists, however, support the bill. ZOA President Morton Klein said he was "very disappointed that Jewish groups would not understand the unique circumstances in Israel." "Israel is not America. It was created first as a Jewish state, where America was created first as [a] democracy," Klein said. Klein pointed out other Israeli laws that give Jews privileges not available to non-Jewish Israeli citizens, such as aliya. "Why don't they publicly complain that Jews can't purchase land anywhere in Jordan, our ally?" said Klein, arguing that in Jordan, selling land to a Jew is an offense punishable by death.