Somewhere in my parents’ attic, there is a cardboard, moth-eaten box full of sharply angled crayon drawings and flecks of glitter. In that box, sticky with time and crumpled with the weight of preschool memories, is a pile of certificates – Jewish National Fund (JNF) donations in the amount of $18 each, commemorating trees planted in honor of a birthday, a newborn baby, a loved one recently lost. At three and four and five years old we counted pennies, and with our change clanking in those blue and white tin boxes, we bought trees. A desert, they told us – land deserted – that was up to us, to our pennies, to save, to make beautiful. And our tzedakah boxes filled and our small hearts overflowed with the knowledge that we were helping make the world a better place.
I was 20 years old before I saw a cactus in bloom, before I understood that the desert is as beautiful as it is sharp. I remembered the neat rows of saplings pictured on the JNF videos we saw as children, the narrator commenting on the advanced irrigation system, the arrival of life.
I began to wonder about the consequences of planting a forest in a desert.
The JNF forests are not the sprawling, fruiting cactus of a desert. They are not the short and stubbily desert grass that flowers white blooms sharp as a cactus’s spike. The JNF forests are not olive groves, do not offer hope of an income to future generations of desert families.
JNF forests are made up of invasive, rapidly growing tree species. These forests are planted soon after homes are destroyed, ostensibly covering the tracks of bulldozers and the evidence that here, a community once grew. The JNF, although generally known as an environmental organization, is destructive to the natural ecosystem it purports to enhance.
But the biggest misconception of all is the belief that the JNF is a non-profit organization – that making charitable donations is philanthropy – when in fact, the JNF has been formally a part of the Israeli government since 1961. As such, the JNF is the official landowner of all Palestinian land acquired by the state of Israel. The organization is charged with transferring these blocks of land from private (Palestinian) ownership to collective ownership of the (Jewish) citizens of the state of Israel, and thus creating parcels of land throughout the country that are effectively a combination national park, socialist illusion, and segregation-era country club.
The once satisfying rattle of that blue and white pushke echoes in my ears, the sound of ignorance, denial, myth: “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
The JNF, as collaborator with the Israeli government and in the interests of the United States, has created a refugee crisis that has lasted more than 60 years. Yet public criticism of the JNF continues to be met with glares, accusations, and anger.
That is, until a few weeks ago.
In March, the JNF’s Atlanta office announced this year’s recipient of its “Tree of Life” award. The winner? The well-known, sometimes infamous Southern Baptist minister known for broadcasting his sermons on TV, homophobia, and blindly evangelical support for the state of Israel – Charles Stanley.
After decades of playing an active role in the displacement of 1,500,000 Palestinian refugees to 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza, Atlanta’s progressive Jews are finally expressing collective outrage at the JNF’s behavior: How dare the JNF honor this virulently homophobic pastor???
To those who are upset and hurt, I ask: Why do you expect this organization, which has destroyed so many homes, livelihoods, and human lives, to make an ethical selection in its choice of honoree?
Moreover, to those who have spoken out on social media, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and via formal complaint to the JNF, How can we live this experience of hurt and disappointment and use it to further develop our empathy for all people who have been harmed by the JNF’s practices?
Last week, Jewish communities observed the holiday of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust remembrance day. Across the world, there were vigils, prayers, and memorials for the victims of Hitler’s terrible regime, as well as shared stories of the strength of survivors and the resilience of our tradition, pushed further into diaspora but not into disappearance.
As a child, I was taught that we remember the Holocaust so that we will never again fall victim to its horrors. Yet my work as a teacher of refugees and my habit of listening to the NPR news remind me that holocausts happen again and again, in every corner of the world. We are a people who have a holy day dedicated to the remembrance and prevention of genocide, but we refuse to acknowledge that those coins, rattling around in the blue and white tin box, have been used as weapons against another ethnic minority.
It doesn’t matter if the JNF rescinds its honor of Charles Stanley or if – as is most likely – it proceeds with its awards ceremony this week as planned. What matters is that the rest of the world know where we, progressive Jews, stand on issues of human rights. What matters is that we, progressive Jews, hold the JNF as accountable for contributing to the destruction of Israel’s Palestinian communities as we are for this casually lobbed insult to Atlanta’s liberals.