President’s National Fund

The Clinton-JNF-Peres issue should raise a number of questions regarding the conduct of public organizations.

Bill Clinton 311 (photo credit: Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)
Bill Clinton 311
(photo credit: Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)
An old Hasidic tale tells of a man who came to a tzaddik with a complaint. “All my life,” he said, “I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.”
The tzaddik replied: “The trouble is that while you do run away from fame, you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.”
Half a million dollars for a 45-minute speech, or about $11,000 per minute; the sum paid a year in advance to the fund of former US president, Bill Clinton ,for a speech he is supposed to deliver at an event in honor of President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday, to be held in two weeks at the Peres Academic Center.
An op-ed by former politician Yossi Sarid, in Haaretz, sparked a lively public debate after it claimed the event was organized and funded by the Jewish National Fund. After several conflicting statements by both organizations, it now seems the event was funded mutually by the JNF and the Peres Academic Center, even though it is not clear who was the main sponsor.
The JNF was established as an organization aimed to acquire lands for the Jewish people. Its founder Theodor Herzl has stated that “the fund shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole.” Lately, the fund focuses more on environment and sustainability. It is not clear what President Peres’ birthday has to do with JNF’s objectives.
The fund responded that their linkage to the event was the fact that during the same week the organization will be hosting its global conference. Moreover, it claimed the event was organized by the PAC.
However, they did not deny co-sponsoring the event, and stated that the JNF does not receive funds from the Israeli government.
Maybe so, but it still raises money on behalf of the Israeli people. Not to mention the fact that the JNF has a constant deficit, which according to the most recent forecasts is expected to reach NIS 1.7 billion in a few years.
It is important to note that Clinton did previously raise $2m. for a JNF project, but would that justify paying Clinton a “wage” equal to even a quarter of the raised amount? Another claim might be that the money goes to his foundation, not into his pocket. Of course, this is true, but does it mean that these two organizations may transfer money to charities around the world (as important as they may be) without any report or approval? At this point, we must raise the question of why the JNF should pay for what seems as the “panem et circenses” of the president? And are the JNF’s explanations sufficient? Two weeks from now, the cult of personality around the president will reach its peak at the event organized on his behalf. Mr. Peres is indeed a renowned personality whose contribution to Israel cannot be exaggerated.
However one cannot help but wondering why is he the only president in the western world to have an academic institution named after him while he’s still alive? The Clinton-JNF-Peres issue should raise a number of questions regarding the conduct of public organizations (such as the JNF) and what they do with public funds, allegedly on behalf of the public. The Israeli public and JNF’s donors deserve answers to those questions.
More importantly, the public has the right to know how public funds are being spent on behalf of Israel’s first citizen. Peres’ birthday is estimated to cost millions of dollars, most of which will come out of the taxpayers’ pocket (directly and indirectly).The issue of expenditures of public funds for private purposes by government officials, recently in the headlines in Israel, has not involved Peres so far. Hopefully, this time, the media and the organizations promoting good governance will not be able to turn a blind eye to those facts.
The writer is president of the Rotaract Club of Haifa.