Winter 2007-2008

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Winter 2007-2008

Dr. Stephen S. Wolnek

President's Column — Dr. Stephen S. Wolnek

Traditionally, quarterly board meetings are times for reports and updates on activities and general discussion, not formal resolutions. Thus, when the MERCAZ Board voted unanimously at its September 10th meeting "to affirm the right of the Jewish People to maintain the land purchased by the Keren Kayemeth Le'Israel-Jewish National Fund for the purposes of Jewish settlement," a word of explanation is in order.

Underlying this resolution is the current debate on the status of land holdings belonging to the Jewish National Fund, which was established by the Zionist Movement in 1901 as the vehicle for the Jewish People to make land purchases in Palestine.

In 1903, JNF made its first purchase, 50 acres in Hadera. At the same time, the Zionist Movement decided that the land acquired by the Jewish National Fund (in Hebrew, Keren Kayemet Le'Yisrael), would belong to the Jewish people as a whole, to be made available to Jewish settlers in renewable 49-year leases.

Fifty years later, KKL-JNF owned 13% of the land in the newly created State of Israel. These land parcels, located throughout Israel, became the sites on which kibbutzim and moshavim were established; they also became home to new neighborhoods in Israel's cities and towns.

In 1961, in order to simplify the process for offering land parcels, the Israeli government established the Israel Lands Authority (ILA). In exchange for turning over to the ILA the responsibility for marketing its holdings, KKL-JNF signed a charter with the government formally limiting KKL-JNF parcels to Jewish lessees.

However, since the ILA would be an official state agency that could not discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, the conditions of the 1961 charter were "translated" in reality as requiring land compensation should a particular KKL-JNF parcel be included in an ILA offering leased to a non-Jew. As a result, the Jewish People's 13% land ownership in the State of Israel would be preserved.

This system of land swaps remained in effect until just a few years ago when, for a variety of reasons, the system broke down. As a result, the Israeli Supreme Court was petitioned to strike down the terms of the 1961 charter and, in response, a private bill was introduced in the Knesset to formalize the limitations on KKL-JNF lands.

Much public debate has taken place since the Knesset bill was introduced. Many critics have portrayed the issue as a conflict between democracy and Judaism and have concluded that in such a situation, Jewish values must take a back seat.

Yet, those who challenge the limitations on KKL-JNF land fail to recognize that democracy does not merely mean respect for the rights of the minority but also respect for the rights of the majority to maintain and advance its national identity and values. Many world democracies give special status to a national language, religious tradition or set of cultural norms.

Israeli democracy similarly accords all its citizens the right to participate equally in the civic life of the country, while, at the same time, recognizing the national rights of the Jewish People, as with the Law of Return. Similarly, it respects the desire of the Muslim community to restrict the sale of Waqf Land. Preserving the right of the Jewish People to maintain their direct ownership of 13% of the land is not inconsistent with democratic values.

In addition to affirming the special status of KKL-JNF land, the MERCAZ Board called "upon all parties to the current legal dispute, in keeping with the 2005 recommendation of Israel's Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, to restore the status quo ante by which land compensation will allow KKL-JNF to remain true to its promise while enabling the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) to fulfill its mandate in accordance with the Jewish and democratic values of the State of Israel."

I am thus happy to report that a couple of weeks ago, KKL-JNF and the ILA agreed to restore the land-swap agreement that had been in effect since 1961 and, as a result, the proposed Knesset legislation has been withdrawn.


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