Religion & Beliefs

What’s Wrong With That Little Blue Pushke?

Any Jewish boy or girl who's ever attended Hebrew school knows about the blue Jewish National Fund (JNF) pushke (or charity box), into which parents and teachers encouraged us to throw our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. They taught us … Read More

By / July 30, 2007

Any Jewish boy or girl who's ever attended Hebrew school knows about the blue Jewish National Fund (JNF) pushke (or charity box), into which parents and teachers encouraged us to throw our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. They taught us to perform a mitzvah by giving tzedakah to support the building of the Jewish homeland. Thus, the Jewish National Fund was the Red Cross of Jewish life, a "mom and apple pie" charity doing nothing but good for our people.

How times change! Last week, the Israeli Knesset passed, on first (of three) readings, the Jewish National Fund bill which allows the JNF, owning 13% of Israel's land, to refuse to lease to Arab citizens (and all non-Jews). Many American Jews and Israelis are incensed at what they perceive as the betrayal of Israel's democratic values and are hoping the Knesset buries the bill in committee or defeats it on next reading. A group of Israeli-American and American Jewish bloggers have created an online petition asking the Knesset to refuse to accede to such blatant discriminatory practices and embrace true democratic values. You may sign the petition here.

The JNF is a charity established in the early 20th century to raise funds to purchase land for Jewish settlement within Israel. As such, its land has historically been restricted to Jewish use. In 1950, Israel had a problem on its hands. 700,000 Israeli Arabs had fled during the War of Independence. The State had absorbed this land but was worried that the former owners might seek to reclaim it. The government came up with a legal sleight of hand: it transferred it to the JNF because it was a quasi-private charity which by charter could not transfer land to non-Jews. Presto-chango, problem solved–or so they thought.

But the Israeli supreme court, in a landmark ruling, said that the JNF can no longer discriminate against the non-Jews. The Court maintained that such a ban defies the norms of a democratic state and must be ended. This left the government in a new pickle. It wanted to restore the status quo which allowed the JNF to refuse access to Arabs. That's how the chief sponsor of the bill, a member of the ruling Kadima party, came up with this proposal.

And lest you think that such racism flourishes only in the dim, dark recesses of Israel, the bill passed 64-16 on first reading and was supported by a good number of Labor party MKs including Ami Ayalon, who ran for party leader last month has made a hallmark of working for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The JNF has not distinguished itself in its response to the bill. In yesterday's Jerusalem Post, its U.S. director pooh-poohed the notion of Israel as a democratic state:

"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."

The problem with this statement is that it flatly contradicts Israel's Declaration of Independence which states:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will…foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.

In truth, the notion of Israel as a Jewish homeland has always co-existed rather uncomfortably with the notion of Israel as a democracy. As the Jewish State, it currently discriminates in many ways in favour of its Jewish citizens. But as a democracy it includes a sizable minority of Arab citizens and accords them various rights and privileges (though they are generally inferior to Jewish ones). While polls of Israeli Jewish attitudes indicate a high level of prejudice against Israeli Arabs, social developments – which include the High Court ruling – have been very gradually eroding some of the more odious discriminatory regulations.

This legislative attempt to restore to the JNF its right to discriminate in favour of Jews may be seen as a rump effort by the Israeli right to take back its prerogatives and return to the era when Jews predominated and there was never a doubt that Arabs were second-class citizens. Is it too much to expect a majority of the Knesset to see this and put down this attempt to enshrine Jewish dominance into the law of a state otherwise proud to call itself a democracy?