By Yves Engler
The campaign to revoke the Jewish National Fund of Canada’s charitable status is growing. In recent weeks it has gained an important political endorsement, a high profile intellectual backing and has raised funds for a legal challenge.
Recently, Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, joined 28 other party members in sponsoring a resolution to the Party’s August convention calling on the Canada Revenue Agency to revoke the JNF’s charitable status. The motion describes the JNF’s “discrimination against non-Jews in Israel through its bylaws which prohibit the lease or sale of its lands to non-Jews.” It also criticizes the JNF Canada financed Ayalon Canada Park, which covers three Palestinian villages conquered and depopulated during the 1967 war. The resolution calls on the Green Party to press “the Canada Revenue Agency to revoke the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund for contravening public policy against discrimination and for its failure to comply with international human rights law.”
Fearing the precedent-setting impact of this resolution, the JNF, B’nai B’rith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs have rallied their supporters to email the Green Party. Pro-Israel commentators have also condemned the resolution. One labeled it “bizarre”, saying the Greens would target “one of the world’s leading environmental charities” while another noted, “the JNF focuses primarily on environmental stewardship and cultivating forests, which seems an odd thing for the grassroots of the Green party, of all people, to oppose.”
To push back against the media backlash, resolution supporters would do well to cite Naomi Klein’s recent criticism of the JNF, which raised $29 million in Canada in 2014. During a talk linking Edward Said’s thinking to environmentalism the high profile author discussed her own connection with this pillar of “green colonialism”.
Klein noted: “The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos. And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads. It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green’, boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region. In publicity materials, the JNF bills itself as just another green NGO, concerned with forest and water management, parks and recreation. It also happens to be the largest private landowner in the state of Israel, and despite a number of complicated legal challenges, it still refuses to lease or sell land to non-Jews.
“I grew up in a Jewish community where every occasion – births and deaths, Mother’s Day, bar mitzvahs – was marked with the proud purchase of a JNF tree in the person’s honour. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to understand that those feel-good faraway conifers, certificates for which papered the walls of my Montreal elementary school, were not benign – not just something to plant and later hug. In fact these trees are among the most glaring symbols of Israel’s system of official discrimination – the one that must be dismantled if peaceful co-existence is to become possible. The JNF is an extreme and recent example of what some call ‘green colonialism’.”
Klein and the Green Party’s interventions on the subject take place in the context of Independent Jewish Voices’ growing campaign to revoke the JNF’s charitable status. In April, IJV organized a tour titled Uncovering “Canada Park” Dispossessed Palestinians Speak Out. Heidar Abu Ghosh spoke in eight cities across the country about JNF Canada’s role in turning his town of Imwas into an Israeli-only park. The tour raised funds to launch a legal challenge of the JNF’s charitable status.
Beyond winning the specific demand, the campaign to revoke the JNF’s charitable status serves an important educational purpose. Drawing attention to the organization is a way of discussing the racism intrinsic to Zionism and it also exposes the progressive language that has masked Israeli colonialism. Additionally, the JNF campaign highlights Canada’s contribution to Palestinian dispossession.
The campaign to revoke the JNF’s charitable status is simply a call for the Canadian state to stop subsidizing an explicitly racist, colonial, institution. How many Canadians could oppose that?
– Yves Engler’s latest book is Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation. He’s also the author of Canada and Israel: building apartheid. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.