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The Lands of the Jewish National Fund

by YVES ENGLER

In 2010 the Auditor General apparently called on the Canada Revenue Agency to “investigate or revoke” the Jewish National Fund’s charitable status. But this request seems to have been ignored in deference to a “charity” that has long participated in the erasure of Palestinians’ presence from their historic homeland.

Through an Access to Information request Montreal-based activist Ron Saba recently received dozens of Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) documents concerning the Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Canada. In probably the most explosive revelation, the “2010 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada Chapter 7 – Registered Charities” includes a question to the CRA about revoking the charitable status of the JNF. “If a registered charity undertakes illegal activities abroad, what action will the CRA take? Will the CRA investigate or revoke the registered status of the Jewish National Fund?”

While the released documents provide little more detail, apparently the Auditor General questioned whether the registered charity’s exclusionary policies conform to Canadian policy.

Shutting out Palestinian citizens of Israel, JNF lands can only be leased by Jews. A 1998 United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found that the JNF systematically discriminated against Palestinian citizens of Israel, which make up about 20% of the country’s population. According to the UN report, JNF lands are “chartered to benefit Jews exclusively,” which has led to an “institutionalized form of discrimination.” In 2005, Israel’s high court came to similar conclusions. It found that the JNF, which owns 13 percent of the country’s land and has significant influence over most of the rest, systematically excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel from leasing its property. Even the most recent US State Department annual report on Israel notes: “Approximately 93 percent of land was in the public domain, including approximately 12.5 percent owned by the NGO Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.”

There is a strong case to be made that the JNF’s bylaws and operations violate Canadian policy and law. Discrimination in the provision of housing is illegal under the Canadian Human Rights Act and a September 2003 CRA Public Policy Statement titled “Registering Charities that Promote Racial Equality” is clear that racial equality is a stated aim of Canadian charitable policy. Registered charities that operate abroad are supposed to adhere to domestic policy or else lose their ability to provide donors with tax subsidies. “An organization is not charitable at law if its activities are contrary to Canadian public policy”, explains the CRA.

But, the CRA and politicians in Ottawa have shown little interest in applying the rules in the JNF’s case. They seem to have ignored the call to investigate whether the JNF’s practices contravene Canadian law. In particular, the CRA has not properly addressed the question of whether the JNF is a racist organization.

Instead of launching a proper investigation, CRA officials have prepared misleading responses to those calling on the agency to revoke the JNF’s charitable status. The internal documents suggest the CRA has spent hundreds of hours devising strategies to respond to complaints about the JNF and covering up what Ron Saba has dubbed “the Racist JNF Tax Fraud.”

This public relations strategy is spelled out explicitly in a document of “Media Lines” on the JNF prepared for use by the Canada Revenue Agency’s media handlers. It notes that Saba has been “questioning the legitimacy of the charitable status of the JNF” through a “wide distribution list, including members of Parliament, senators, Canadian and international media and human rights and social justice groups.” The document also expresses concerns that while “the JNF has not generated any mainstream media coverage” so far, “because of Mr. Saba’s wide distribution list, the potential for media interest remains.”

As part of the effort to protect the JNF from scrutiny, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Caitlin Workman emailed former colleagues at the CRA in 2011 suggesting they “monitor” an Independent Jewish Voices sponsored talk in Ottawa. Under the headline “Event you may want to monitor” Workman sent a May 13 communication stating “author of the Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Yves Engler, will give a talk on Canada and the Jewish National Fund”.

The tax agency’s protection should not be surprising as Conservative officials have strongly backed the JNF even though the internal documents show that since 2007 six different Conservative ministers have received documentation detailing the racist nature of JNF policies (at least two of the ministers circulated the information).

Over the past nine months immigration minister Jason Kenney and foreign minister John Baird have spoken at JNF galas while environment minister Peter Kent toured southern Israel with officials from the organization in December. At the end of the year prime minister Stephen Harper is set to be honoured at the JNF Negev Dinner in Toronto, which will be the first time a sitting Canadian prime minister has spoken to a JNF gala in the organization’s 100 year history.

Hopefully, thousands of protesters will greet Harper. While getting the prime minister to speak is obviously a boon for the JNF, it also provides a unique opportunity to draw attention to an institution that most people are unfamiliar with.

It’s time to turn Independent Jewish Voices’ nascent campaign to revoke the JNF’s charitable status into a major element of pro-Palestinian activism in Canada. Groups elsewhere have had successes on this front recently.

In 2011 Stop the JNF in England pushed Prime Minister, David Cameron, to withdraw his patron status from the JNF and since then 68 MPs have endorsed a bill to revoke the organization’s charitable status because “the JNF’s constitution is explicitly discriminatory by stating that land and property will never be rented, leased or sold to non-Jews.” In Scotland the Green Party and Friends of the Earth have endorsed the Stop the JNF campaign while last year legendary US folksinger Pete Seeger distanced himself from an event with the JNF and a board member of the US organization quit in protest over the JNF’s role in the eviction of a Palestinian family from East Jerusalem. At the start of this year Stop The JNF prompted the new owners of a major South African toy retailer, “Reggies”, to sever ties with the organization.

While the political climate is more difficult in this country, there’s no reason that a major campaign can’t bring successes. If made aware most Canadians would be uncomfortable with the idea that public money is supporting an openly racist institution. They would also be appalled by the JNF Canada’s direct (and documented) role in displacing Palestinians since the late 1920s.

While it’s hard to imagine the CRA under Stephen Harper revoking the JNF’s charitable status – at least without a lengthy and expensive legal battle – the campaign can play an important educational purpose. The organization is at the heart of Israeli apartheid and drawing attention to this institution is a way to discuss the racism intrinsic to Zionism.

Yves Engler’s latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. For more information visit yvesengler.com

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