News from February 8 to February 14

Jewish National Fund, Iran deal, and honorable mentions

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Jewish National Fund reportedly set to begin buying land in West Bank

What is the Jewish National Fund? The Jewish National Fund, or JNF, is an organization that raises money to buy and develop land in Israel. The JNF was founded at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901 to purchase land in Ottoman Palestine for a future Jewish country. By 1948, when Israel was founded, the JNF owned 12.5% of Israel’s land. Since then, the JNF has focused on developing the land by planting trees, building roads, and providing employment for new immigrants. Its most recent major initiative is to develop the Negev desert, which makes up a sizeable portion of Israel but is sparsely populated.

What happened? Since 1967, the JNF has avoided buying land in the West Bank due to the polarizing nature of settlement building. However, after a pro-settlement politician assumed leadership of the JNF last October, the organization has begun exploring options to support settlement construction in the West Bank. The JNF’s draft proposal suggests only buying land that is privately owned by Palestinians, adjacent to existing settlements, and only in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank (Area C). The JNF does not plan to build new settlements.

Why is this controversial? Jews around the world often have very polarized views on settlements. Some feel that settlements are inconsistent with international law and that Israel should refrain from building on land that could make up a future Palestinian state. Others believe that Jews have a right to build settlements in their ancestral homeland, regardless of the political ramifications. In deference to Jews who are uncomfortable funding settlement activity, many of whom are from outside Israel, the JNF has not purchased land in the West Bank. Thus, the JNF’s proposed policy change could substantially impact fundraising and support from abroad.

How have people reacted? 

Union of Reform Judaism: As the largest Jewish Movement in North America, we remain committed to a democratic and pluralistic Israel, and two states for two peoples. Accordingly, we emphatically and continually oppose all land acquisition by the Jewish National Fund (KKL) outside the sovereign borders of the State of Israel, known as the Green Line. The activity of the Zionist institutions must reflect and support a broad consensus of the Jewish people and Israeli society... Consequently, we have declined to accept a major sponsorship proposal from KKL for the upcoming URJ Biennial in Chicago in December, the largest gathering of Jews in North America. As a Movement, we will continue to be guided by our vision of a just and peaceful State of Israel.”

United States State Department: In response to a question about the JNF’s new policy, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said, “We believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.” He later added that the unilateral steps include “annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolition, incitement to violence [and] the provision of compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism.”

Jewish National Fund: “Throughout the years and till this very day, KKL-JNF has been operating in all parts of the land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the West Bank]. The preliminary discussion, that took place today revolved around general principals of action, based on a legal opinion that was requested and received during the previous management term. At this stage, there is no intention of opening up a new area in Judea and Samaria. Regardless, KKL-JNF’s policy remains that every contribution for every project in Israel is confirmed by and coordinated in advance with its donor, in accordance with the laws of the donor’s country.”

Further reading:

Iran deal update:

What happened? As you may recall, President Joe Biden hopes to return to the initial parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran deal. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, oppose returning the agreement as it stands because they believe it is fundamentally flawed and will ultimately help Iran develop nuclear weapons. Unlike the Obama administration during the initial JCPOA negotiations, the Biden administration plans to update and coordinate with Israel as negotiations with Iran proceed. This week, American National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat held a meeting with other officials to discuss Iran. The meeting was their second in as many weeks, and it comes after Netanyahu reportedly named Ben-Shabbat Israel’s point person on Iran matters.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Source: Coca Cola Foundation.

Where do negotiations with Iran stand? The United States and Iran are currently playing a game of “who will blink first?” Ever since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and reinstated sanctions in 2018, Iran has steadily begun violating the deal’s terms by enriching higher grade Uranium and producing other materials necessary to make nuclear weapons. President Biden has said that he will only return the United States to the JCPOA if Iran returns to compliance first. Unsurprisingly, Iran believes that the United States should lift sanctions before it returns to the deal. This week, Iran threatened to halt International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of declared nuclear sites if Biden does not return to the agreement. However, Biden has not indicated he has any plans to lift sanctions until Iran ceases its violations.

Anything else? In case you missed it, the Biden Administration named Robert Malley its envoy for Iran. When he was named, many Republicans opposed the pick because they believed he was too dovish on Iran. In contrast, many human rights advocates and diplomats signed a letter in support of Malley. For a good profile of Malley, check out this recent New York Times piece

In other news, President Biden has not yet called Prime Minister Netanyahu. Some Israelis are not pleased with the delay; former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon tweeted his frustration to President Biden and included an old phone number for Netanyahu’s office. However, the White House indicated that a call would happen soon. 

Further reading:

Honorable Mentions:

First-ever virtual 'Israel Summit' launched by Harvard, Columbia University” by Sarah Chemla (JPost) (This was a really neat event that students put on with high profile names like Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan, Senator Mitt Romney, and former Canadian President Stephen Harper. You can watch the entire summit here.)

Why did Trump’s impeachment lawyer David Schoen keep putting his hand on his head?” by Laura E. Adkins and Ron Kampeas (JTA)

UK’s Karim Khan elected next ICC prosecutor, will replace controversial Bensouda” (TOI)

Israel's Netanyahu enters plea in court in corruption trial” (BBC)

Nikki Haley broke with Trump. It could make her a Jewish GOP favorite in 2024.” by Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Israel makes top 10 (again) in ranking of world’s most innovative countries” (JNS)

Director, Producer and Philanthropist Steven Spielberg Announced as the 2021 Genesis Prize Laureate” (The Genesis Prize Foundation)

Guardian columnist says he was fired because of ‘joke’ about US aid to Israel” by Cnaan Lipshiz

Sassy grandmas get real on new podcast ‘Call Your Grandmother’” by Doree Lewack (NY Post) (The podcast is amazing!)

‘Scary,’ ‘spunky,’ ‘wackadoodle’: How Jewish constituents of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert describe their new congresswomen” by Ben Sales (JTA)

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Zach Banner to lead panel with athletes about anti-Semitism” (JNS)

The Complicated Jewishness of Stan Lee” by Emily Burack (Hey Alma)

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