When a forest becomes a means of destruction: The Jewish National Fund, Greenwashing and COP26

Oct 3, 2021
JNF treest
Jewish National Fund trees planted in The Negev desert. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone)

In 1901, in Basel, Switzerland, a small group of Jewish men established an organisation which they named, portentously, the Jewish National Fund (JNF). 

Its purpose was and still is, to acquire land in Palestine/Israel, for the exclusive and enduring benefit of the Jewish people.

The story of the JNF has many interconnected threads, both historical and contemporary. As a child living in Sydney, my family, like countless other Jewish families in the diaspora, was encouraged to contribute “our pennies” to the JNF via what is known as the Blue Box.

We knew the money was going to Israel, even if we weren’t sure what it would be spent on. Planting trees to “green the desert” was what the Israeli government told us. Turns out, the JNF since the early 20th century, has been centrally involved in the Zionist project of acquiring and dispossessing Palestinians of their land, from before 1948 when Israel became a state, to this day.

As Palestinians were expelled from their towns and villages during the 1948–49 colonisation process, the JNF stepped in to “redeem the land of Zion”. More than 500 Palestinian villages were completely destroyed and pine and cypress forests and parks were established over many of them, making it impossible for Palestinians, if they could return, to rebuild their homes or re-farm their lands.

These acts deliberately hid evidence of Palestinians’ existence. Arboreal erasure. For example, the recent (August 2021) massive and out of control wildfire in the Jerusalem Hills, fuelled by the JNF’s mass planting of pines, has revealed bare Palestinian agricultural terraces, explicit evidence of the cover-up of Palestinian lives and livelihoods.

The ever-expanding forestry plantations were how the JNF gained its international environmental credentials. As well, the organisation is praised for stopping soil erosion, developing sustainable water solutions for dry countries and advising other similarly arid countries like Australia, and tackling climate change.

However, more and more evidence is coming to light that planting dense forests in a desert might not be such a good idea environmentally, and increasingly ecologists in Israel and elsewhere provide evidence that these forests have wiped out delicate desert ecosystems as well as the lands of the people living there. Thus the old Zionist slogan of “making the desert bloom” is increasingly acknowledged as double-edged, for environmental reasons as well as the fact that taking land for Jews only, inevitably means taking it away from the previous inhabitants.

Australia’s JNF, a charity since 2016, was established in the 1930s. (There are at least 22 other countries with JNF organisations with charitable status, largely in the West.)

Today, their “charitable focus” lies in the Negev/Naqab (in Arabic) desert, the southern flank of 1948 Israel.

It is here where the concept of greenwashing is particularly pertinent. The term refers to the actions of a company or organisation to promote itself with a “green, clean” image, disguising the fact that it is neither clean nor green. When Israel (with the JNF in charge) pushes through with a plan to plant trees across a significant portion of the Negev, and they call it “agricultural planting”, but it has the effect of denying Bedouin residents from accessing their lands, this is an example of greenwashing.

In the Negev/Naqab, there exists two starkly contradictory realities.

On the one hand, there are the Bedouin people, who have been steadfastly trying to maintain their lands, animals and livelihoods, since 1948. Many were expelled from this desert and are living impoverished and insecure existences in the West Bank.

Those that have remained, have either been “persuaded” to leave their lands and move to what Israel calls “development towns”. But about 90,000 have not wanted to leave the land which has supported their farming and herding for many years and instead have remained living on their lands in what are called the 51 Unrecognised Villages.

Here, they have no access to running water, electricity or other basic state infrastructure. They are under constant threat of their homes being demolished, often under the auspices of the JNF. In fact, when I visited one of these villages, Al Araqib, in 2016, I was told that it was the JNF and their ubiquitous planting of pine forests and eucalypts nearby that most threatened the people of this village.

On the other hand, there is the Jewish Israeli experience of living in the Negev/Naqab, an experience and “lifestyle” considerably enhanced by contributions of JNF donors.

One small example in the northern Negev/Naqab is the Jewish town of Yerucham, built in 1951. Currently, supported by the charity JNF Australia, is a Heritage Park for Yerucham, comprising a “heritage Museum, new groves of trees, shaded seating areas, an amphitheatre and a state-of-the-art playground”. Down the road, lies the small unrecognised Bedouin village of Rachme, devoid of basic facilities let alone a “state-of-the-art playground”.

The next 20 years are likely to exacerbate these stark differences. The current “Israel 2040” plan aims to increase the Jewish Israeli population in its “peripheries”, that is the Galilee and the Negev, by 1.5 million people, to create “a high-tech ecosystem … with the Israeli government and the world Jewish communities [aka, via the JNF], as major partners”.

One can only imagine what this will mean for the ecosystems of the Bedouin living there.

This year, as in previous years, the JNF-Israel will attend the United Nations COP26 (Conference of Parties) to be held in Glasgow in November, as part of Israel’s official delegation, to “share its expertise in dryland afforestation and combating desertification with other countries and international organisations in need”.

In the past year, Stop the JNF-UK has been campaigning with a network of Palestinian grassroots and environmental groups (Palestine COP26 Coalition) as well as a coalition of UK organisations who want to expose the greenwashing of the JNF and emphasise the importance of the Palestinian grassroots struggle in decolonising the climate emergency.

They are organising activities leading up to and during COP26, to expose the JNF and Israel’s environmental credentials which have successfully covered up a process of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their lands. These groups want to highlight the connections between climate change and the Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonisation.

Momentum is also building within Israel to expose the JNF. Recently, an extensive historically-based article asks the question: in 2021, why does the JNF still exist? As well, Zochrot (“remembering” in Hebrew), an Israeli not-for-profit dedicated to raising awareness of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), has begun a digital campaign against the JNF: “120 Years of Dispossession and Displacement.” Australians can participate in this campaign by amplifying Zochrot’s posts #ExposeJNF.

Opposition to JNF activities is not new.

But winds of change are gathering rapidly, with a powerful combination of forces pushing back: The need for climate justice, increasing global awareness of human rights violations against Palestinians and the impact of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

The need to expose the JNF’s greenwashing and its complicity in supporting the Israeli government’s many decades of land theft and dispossession of Palestinians, was never more critical.

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