JNF Honors Canadian PM Amidst Protests Against Bedouin Expulsion

On Sunday, December 1st, hundreds protested in Toronto, Canada. The demonstrators gathered in freezing weather outside the Metro Toronto Convention Center where thousands attended the JNF honoring dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper has been one of the most fervent supporters of Israel. Under his leadership military and financial relations with Israel tightened. Meanwhile in Israel, a creative protest group created a parody of the Jewish National Fund, calling itself “The New JNF”, which vowed to stop erasing Palestinian history and displacing Bedouins in the Negev Desert. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky spoke to Noga Kadmon, an Israeli historian and the author of the renown book Erased From Space And Consciousness.

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Story Transcript

LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: On Sunday, December 1, hundreds protested in Toronto, Canada. The demonstrators gathered in freezing weather outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where thousands attended the JNF honoring dinner for Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister.

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PROTESTER: We’re here because we know that just behind these walls, Stephen Harper is supporting Israeli policies. And what we want Stephen Harper to know is that Palestine will be free! So Harper, Harper, you will see! Palestine will be free! Harper, Harper, you will see!

CROWD: Palestine will be free!

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TARACHANSKY: The mega fundraising event, organized by the Jewish National Fund, attracted Canadian public officials and major donors to Israel and the JNF. David Koschitzky, the chair of the Centre for Israel and the Jewish Affairs, said this was an opportunity to thank the prime minister for his steadfast friendship and support over the years.

A recorded message by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was screened at the dinner.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: You’ve chosen wisely. Stephen Harper has proved to be a real leader. And a real leader doesn’t follow the herd. A real leader doesn’t go by existing fashions. That’s not to lead. That’s to follow. But Stephen leads. And he has stood up for Israel and he’s stood up for the truth time and time again.

TARACHANSKY: At the luxurious dinner, where tables cost as high as $100,000, the JNF announced a bird sanctuary in northern Israel will be built and named after Stephen Harper.

In return, Harper performed his own surprise for the crowd.

STEPHEN HARPER, CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER (SINGING): Hey Jude, don’t make it bad.

TARACHANSKY: Harper has been one of the most fervent supporters of Israel. Under his leadership, military and financial ties with Israel tightened. His administration stood behind Israel on all diplomatic fronts as well. In the UN, Canada was one of only nine countries who stood against 138 others, when it refused to support the symbolic upgrade of the Palestinian Authority to the status of an observer state. More recently, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird announced Canada will not lift its sanctions on Iran, despite last week’s Geneva agreements.

The Jewish National Fund, or the JNF, is a registered charity in Canada known mostly for planting trees in Israel. While it positions itself as a green organization, it was started over 100 years ago for the purpose of purchasing land in historic Palestine for Jewish settlement. The JNF has played a vital role in Israeli politics, in the distribution of land after the state was created, and, as some claim, in the erasure of Palestinian history from its landscape.

NOGA KADMON, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The JNF has existed many years, even before the state, and has a part in the erasing of the [destroyed Palestinian] villages. It started, physically, when leaders in the JNF supported and tried to convince the government to demolish villages and erase their remains, and continued when the JNF planted groves, also on those village ruins, to hide the remains that survived.

TARACHANSKY: Noga Kadmon is a historian and the author of the renowned book Erased from Space and Consciousness, where she carefully documents the first years of the Israeli state following the 1948 War, during which two-thirds of the Palestinians were made refugees.

KADMON: Planting trees in Israel has many ramifications beyond greening and creating shaded spots. And in each place we must look at the history and what was there before and what the grove covers up and what it prevents, such as development for the people who live nearby or who owned the lands until [the destruction]. Of course, sometimes the JNF plants a grove and it benefits everyone, but in many places JNF plants groves on destroyed Arab villages or next to existing villages, thereby preventing their expansion.

TARACHANSKY: Protests against the JNF have led to a worldwide movement in recent years. In Israel, activists in a group calling itself the New JNF handed out flyers in central Tel Aviv last week. The group’s name is a parody and has no links to the actual organization. The activists claimed this New JNF has learned its lesson, and even decided to change his position, admitting its forests cover up some of the hundreds of villages destroyed in ’48.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Look for us under the forests! The New JNF is online and on Facebook.

MEMBER OF THE NEW JNF (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We are the New JNF. That’s our new logo.

People have never known the names. They know the new, Zionist names of these forests, but not what’s underneath them. So the New JNF is here to educate people about them.

TARACHANSKY: The fliers the activists gave out in Tel Aviv include a link to a fake blog, where Rafi Shtendel, claiming to be the chairperson of the New JNF, writes about the role the company has played in the erasure and destruction of Palestinian history. The author’s name is but a slight alteration of the JNF’s actual chairperson, Efi Stenzler. On this fake blog, Rafi writes: “Sixty-five years ago there was an entire culture here that we have destroyed to establish a Jewish State, whose ruins are covered by KKL [JNF] forests.” In the blog, Rafi documents several places where through signage and afforestation the JNF erased local Palestinian and Muslim history.

On the real JNF’s website, a different kind of letter, by its real chairperson, tells another story. Here Efi Stenzler writes, “Over the years, we have developed thousands of projects that have changed the face of the country. KKL-JNF forests are vital to Israel’s landscape and environment.” In its mandate, the JNF writes simply that its work is aimed at “the benefit of the Jewish people” and not all the citizens of Israel. But receiving millions of dunams of state lands give it the status of a semi-governmental body.

Even today, JNF forests are being used to dispossess the indigenous Bedouin in the Negev Desert, as the The Real News has documented in recent years. It is after this dispossession that the dinner in Toronto was named.

Despite The The Real News’s repeated attempts to solicit a response, the JNF refused to comment.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, the organizers of Sunday’s dinner called the protest an attempt to delegitimize Israel, saying the JNF and its supporters all over the world will continue to strengthen the state of Israel with all of its strength and will act fearlessly to reinforce it. Simultaneously, Stephen Harper announced he will visit Israel in January.

For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.