Jonathan Tobin, THE JERUSALEM POST
For more than 100 years, that little blue box has been a mainstay of Jewish life. The coins that accumulated in the Jewish National Fund’s trademark pushkas helped purchase land that became the bridgehead for the Jewish state envisioned by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.
In the nearly 60 years since Israel’s founding, the fund has continued to serve, along with the Israel Land Authority, as the custodian of a large portion of the country. JNF also continues to support vital infrastructure projects, such as preserving the nation’s scarce water sources, and of course, planting trees in its forests.
But the organization has run into trouble lately – not because of any misdeeds on its part, but because it has stuck to its Zionist mission.
The problem is that its policy of settling only Jews on the land it owns is seen by some in Israel, as well many in the Diaspora, as discriminating against the Arab minority.
In 2005, Israel’s Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz ruled that restricting land leases to only Jews was illegal. JNF has responded that it accommodates Arabs who want land by arranging land swaps that allow it to maintain its tradition while giving any would-be buyer the property they want; its critics say that isn’t enough.
The Knesset has responded to this challenge by considering a special law that would let the JNF policy stand. But the progress of this bill toward passage has set off even louder cries of protest.
Luminaries across the Jewish spectrum, including the heads of both the Reform movement and the Anti-Defamation League, agree that the “Jews-only” policy must be scrapped.
These critics say that not only is it wrong for Israel to treat Jews and Arabs differently when it comes to land, they argue that the policy is poison for the state’s image. With Israel-bashers around the world maliciously promoting the false charge that it’s an “apartheid” state, now is no time for reaffirming the old model of settling only Jews on the land, insist foes of the policy. This point, especially, resonates with friends of Israel who are concerned over how such canards have worked their way from the margins of academia to more mainstream forums in recent years.
BUT THOUGH I share these concerns for Israel’s image, as well as respect the rights of its non-Jewish minorities, I cannot join the chorus of opposition.
It’s easy to view the JNF policy and the law being considered to uphold it solely through the prism of the American legal tradition. Everyone here ought to be, at least in principle, equal before the law.
Covenants that prohibit land sales to any group are rightly considered abhorrent. In the last century, such bias was freely applied against both Jews and African-Americans.
But it is simply wrong to think of the JNF case in that same light.
The land in question here is not mere real estate. JNF’s property is the inheritance of the entire Jewish people; its mission is the task of building homes for a nation that has no other haven.
Israel is, after all, not just another country. It is the world’s only Jewish state. Like the Law of Return that enables Diaspora Jews – and not anyone else – to come home to their ancestral homeland and obtain citizenship, the JNF rules are specifically crafted to solve the historic problem of Jewish homelessness, not the arbitration of abstract real estate disputes or the whims of home buyers who have a multitude of other options.
Those who would scrap JNF’s policies or force it to end its role as the custodian of our historic legacy may have good intentions and be focused on effective advocacy. But this is not the time for a politically correct course that effectively abandons the notion that certain Israeli land belongs to the Jewish people. Nor should we allow our fears of being seen as parochial allow us to buy into the notion that the State of Israel belongs solely to all of its current citizens, rather than being a trust for the Jewish people.
As much as it is appropriate for Diaspora Jews to defer to the Israelis who serve in its armed services and pay their country’s confiscatory tax rates on most issues, this basic issue is one on which world Jewry’s concerns deserve respect.
At times, Israel must walk a fine line in maintaining its status as a democracy, while also being faithful to its mission in the fulfillment of Zionism. Non-Jews living in Israel may chafe against this situation, but as much as we may wish them no harm and support their rights before the law, that cannot give them the right abrogate the basics of Israel’s Zionist purpose.
The question here is the legitimacy of Zionism, not discrimination. As difficult as it may be for high-minded friends of Israel to accept, JNF’s policies on the land should stand.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.