Can the Reform Movement Stand Up to the Settler Right?

The movement’s leadership role in Israel’s Jewish National Fund puts it in charge of evicting a Palestinian family, whether it wants to or not.

Mari Cohen
October 19, 2020
Amal Sumarin, her sons, and their attorney arrive for a court hearing regarding JNF-KKL's appeal to evict them from their family home at the District Court in Jerusalem, June 30th, 2020. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

ON SEPTEMBER 16TH, more than 130 Reform rabbis from every corner of the US privately submitted a letter to the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), calling for the Reform movement to take bolder action to prevent the eviction of the Sumarins, a Palestinian family, from their home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Over the past three decades, the eviction case has become a major flashpoint in the struggle between settler organizations and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem—a product of the settlers’ attempts, often with the support of the Israeli government and para-state Zionist organizations like Israel’s Jewish National Fund (known as KKL-JNF), to take over Palestinian land. 

The Sumarin case exemplifies the Reform movement’s uncomfortable position within the machinery of the Israeli occupation. The organization is generally politically liberal—last year, it distinguished itself even among progressive organizations by passing a resolution calling for the US government to create proposals for reparations for Black Americans—and is explicitly opposed to Israeli settlement-building and home demolitions. Meanwhile, it also holds leadership positions within KKL-JNF, an institution designed to secure land for Jewish use only, which has long been involved in seizing Palestinian land, promoting settlements, and uprooting Bedouin villages. Every five years, leadership roles in major Zionist institutions like KKL-JNF and the Jewish Agency are apportioned according to worldwide elections to the World Zionist Congress (WZC). The Reform movement generally performs well in these elections, given its millions of North American members. Its coalition with other progressive groups, like the Israeli Labor Party, currently holds a slight majority on the KKL-JNF board, and since 2006 a representative from the Reform movement has chaired the board of Himnuta, the subsidiary of KKL-JNF that has been pushing to evict the Sumarin family for 30 years. 

It is not uncommon for Reform movement representatives to clash with right-wing, pro-settlement forces within KKL-JNF. Matityahu Sperber, the liberal Reform representative who has chaired Himnuta for the past five years, has written that his position puts him “in the trenches fighting the good fight in the halls and board rooms of the KKL/JNF.” 

While Reform movement leadership has, at times, spoken out against displacement of Palestinians, such as when the West Bank village of Susya faced demolition, it has said little publicly in support of the Sumarins. Lauren Theodore, a press representative for the URJ, said in an emailed statement that the URJ is trying to advocate for a “just and equitable solution to this complex and complicated issue” and that its “representatives will continue to act in the best interests of KKL-JNF and in keeping with our values.” (The URJ used similar language in a vague public statement posted to its website in August following an Israeli Supreme Court ruling on the case.) Theordore cited Sperber’s recent successes in softening the pressure on the Sumarins. In August, she wrote, he successfully lobbied the rest of the Himnuta board, none of them Reform movement representatives, to suspend the collection of rent and legal fees from the Sumarins while the board could consider “public policy and corporate governance issues” related to the eviction matter. 

To many in the Reform movement, and many in the broad coalition of anti-occupation and human rights groups supporting the Sumarins, these gestures are insufficient. “The JNF could stop all of these proceedings today if it chose to do so,” the Reform rabbis’ letter stated. They insisted that the “Reform movement is centrally positioned to bring about a just outcome.” But recent events call that premise into question. Himnuta’s connections with settler organizations are deep-rooted and difficult for an anti-settlement chairperson to nullify. According to documents obtained by +972 Magazine, the right-wing settler organization Elad and Himnuta have been cooperating on evictions in East Jerusalem since the 1980s. Sperber’s most recent attempts to advocate on behalf of the Sumarins were thwarted last week when Elad threatened legal action against Himnuta, claiming a freeze on the Sumarin eviction would violate a long-term agreement between Elad and Himnuta. 

At times, the Reform movement’s strategy of working within KKL-JNF to oppose the organization’s territorialist-maximalist agenda has paid off. In 2011, when eviction of the Sumarin family appeared imminent, a mass letter-writing and publicity campaign targeting JNF affiliates around the world pressured Himnuta to temporarily freeze its eviction plans; representatives from the Reform movement brokered the resulting deal. That year, a similar campaign targeted KKL-JNF over its efforts to plant a forest over the Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the Negev, which has faced consistent demolitions from the Israel Land Authority. Due to a combination of public pressure from the outside and Reform movement influence from the inside, KKL-JNF agreed to suspend plans to forest the area until legal proceedings over the land are resolved in court.

Yet the strength of right-wing forces and KKL-JNF’s commitment to Jewish settlement means that such interventions can fall short. In recent years, KKL-JNF has found ways to pursue pro-settlement activity behind the backs of its Reform stakeholders. Last year, the Reform movement learned that KKL-JNF was still buying land in the occupied West Bank, and was hiding it from Reform representatives to the board—a move that resulted in the URJ publicly denouncing KKL-JNF and removing the group as a sponsor of the URJ biennial conference. Sperber also told +972 Magazine that he was not aware of the extent of the relationship between Himnuta and Elad until earlier this year. That much of KKL-JNF’s land acquisition takes place in the dark, without government oversight or requirements for financial transparency, only makes efforts at accountability more difficult. The exact balance of power within KKL-JNF and Himnuta is opaque to the public—positions are determined based on backroom negotiations at the WZC, the substance of which are rarely broadcast to the Reform movement’s several million members in North America. 

Though Sperber’s current efforts show that the Reform movement is now fighting on behalf of the Sumarins, Arik Ascherman, a Reform rabbi and executive director of the Israeli human rights group Torat Tzedek, feels this effort may have come too late. “The directorship of Himnuta and we as the Reform movement will be directly responsible for evicting a family from their home,” he said. “Shouldn’t [you] we be putting at least as much effort into that as you showed you could do on the acquisitions over the Green Line?” 

The movement will soon have even less leverage within KKL-JNF, after the WZC convenes from October 20th to October 22nd. After a surge in turnout from right-wing and Orthodox voters earlier this year, the Reform movement still holds a plurality among the seats allocated to US groups on the WZC, but it lost 17 seats; a new, right-wing, pro-settlement slate, Eretz HaKodesh, won 25 new spots. Right-wing groups are now planning to use their new seats to stage a full takeover of the WZC’s organizations, a strategy that centrist and liberal groups are scrambling to oppose, Haaretz reported. “We are watching the clock,” said Rabbi Andrew Vogel, a Reform rabbi at Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA, who was one of the letter’s first signatories and who has helped spearhead signature-gathering. “We’re very aware that the influence of the Reform movement has an expiration date.”  

KKL-JNF FORMED in 1901 to purchase and develop land for Jewish people in Palestine. Today it mostly brands itself as an environmental organization, focused on forestation, water management, community development, environmental education, and tourism. However, from its early days, the organization’s mission of securing land for Jews has come at the expense of Palestinians. The organization, which controls 13% of Israel’s land, only leases to Jews, excluding the country’s Palestinian citizens. Many of KKL-JNF’s forests cover the remains of Palestinian villages. Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, KKL-JNF has continually contributed to Jewish settlement there. The Israeli human rights group Peace Now says KKL-JNF has acquired at least 65,000 dunams (about 16,000 acres) of land in the West Bank since 1967, and that they invested 15 million shekels in settlement infrastructure projects between 2002 and 2013. 

Himnuta was established as a subsidiary of KKL-JNF in 1938, for the purpose of carrying out activities that KKL-JNF is prohibited from doing itself, such as selling land (KKL-JNF’s statutes explicitly state that land acquired by the Fund should never be sold). Himnuta is registered as an independent company, which makes it even less transparent than the notoriously opaque KKL-JNF, but KKL-JNF owns 99% of its shares. This additional layer of obscurity means that the organization is KKL-JNF’s main vehicle for buying land over the Green Line: “For years the company was the only Jewish group purchasing land in the territories,” Haaretz reporter Amiram Barakat wrote in 2005.

Himnuta also played a role in seizing a dozen properties from Palestinians in East Jerusalem through Israel’s Absentee Property Law. The law, passed after the country’s founding, transferred property left by Palestinian refugees fleeing to certain Arab countries or to nearby land not yet controlled by the state of Israel (such as the West Bank) into the hands of the Israeli government. A landmark 1992 report commissioned by Yitzhak Rabin’s government found that the previous Likud-led government had used the law to seize East Jerusalem properties that were not actually vacant and had sold them to Himnuta, which in turn transferred most of them to Elad. Now, the neighborhood is peppered with Jewish settlements—including the City of David, an archeological site run by Elad. 

One of the homes that ended up in Himnuta’s hands belonged to the Sumarins. Since 1990, when Himnuta obtained ownership of the house, the family has been embroiled in a legal fight with KKL-JNF and its subsidiary. Recent court documents reveal that, in 1991, Himnuta allegedly agreed to let Elad take over all responsibility for the Sumarin case’s legal proceedings and fees—indicating that Elad plans to possess the Sumarin land if the family is evicted. Like the near-dozen other East Jerusalem properties seized through the Absentee Property Law in the 1980s, the Sumarin home had never been vacant: Musa built the house in the 1950s and lived there with his nephew, Mohammed, who became the house’s owner after Musa died in 1983. Mohammed died in 2015, but his wife, Amal, still resides there, along with 18 other members of the extended Sumarin family.

In June, a Jerusalem district court ruled that the family had failed to prove its ownership of the property and must vacate, but in August the Israeli Supreme Court stayed the eviction order until it can hear an appeal next April. Ahmed Sumarin, the grandson of Musa’s nephew who currently lives in the house in Silwan, said in an interview through a translator that in addition to resulting in the expulsion of his family during a global pandemic, an eviction would set a worrisome precedent: “Today they’re coming for my house, but tomorrow they’ll come for my neighbor’s house.” He added, “They [Elad] keep growing and growing. They have a lot of money and the state is on their side. If they succeed in taking our home, it will be like a fire spreading or a door opening. It will affect all the families in Silwan.” 

At the Himnuta board meeting planned for last Monday, Sperber had hoped to advocate further for the Sumarins, citing the negative attention that the case had brought to KKL-JNF and to the Reform movement. As Nir Hasson reported in Haaretz, Sperber intended to introduce a resolution to freeze the legal proceedings against the Sumarins and to replace Himnuta’s lawyer, Ze’ev Scharf, as Scharf also represents Elad and has allegedly refused to show Sperber documents regarding the Sumarin case. In response, Elad co-founder David Be’eri threatened to sue Himnuta for breaching their decades-long agreement to give Elad control of the Sumarin proceedings; he also accused Sperber of being in cahoots with left-wing BDS activists. In support of Elad, right-wing Himnuta board member Nachi Eyal obtained an order from the Jerusalem District Court for the meeting to be further delayed until after the WZC conference and the likely appointment of a much more conservative KKL-JNF board.  

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the URJ’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism, believes the clear lesson is that more progressives need to vote in the WZC elections so that liberal forces can gain back ground. He said that with greater power, his movement could be more successful in advocating against evictions, demolitions, and settlement growth. “There are massive forces trying to use the platform and the institution [of KKL-JNF] to fund more settlements and they are successful sometimes,” he said.  To counter that, he said, he hopes that the large population of American Reform Jews will get invested in the problems created by KKL-JNF and turn out to vote. He stressed that it’s important for the Reform movement to stay involved in KKL-JNF and to fight within the organization. “I think the alternative is worse,” he said. 

Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish for Peace, disagrees. She said that groups who oppose the KKL’s pro-settlement agenda should push to dissolve the institution altogether. “It’s not reformable,” she said. She stressed that liberal groups like the Reform movement are ultimately implicated in the damage wrought by KKL-JNF, even—in fact, especially—if they try to fight back from within. “The work of the JNF has always been to subvert any remnants of a democratic political structure in Israel by being an extra-governmental organization that in turn can be exclusionary and segregationist,” she said. “Those that participate in this illusion of reform are just as culpable for the violence and the harm these institutions do because they’re allowing those institutions to have a progressive veneer. This is an institution of perpetual harm for Palestinians. If there are people inside the JNF that have a different vision, they need to leave.”  

Ascherman says that many Reform rabbis are questioning whether they have a place in what he calls “very problematic” organizations like KKL-JNF: “Some say you’ve got to go into the mud. But even if you think you’re doing good from the inside, is it the right thing for a religious movement with our values to be working from the inside of an organization with such a dark side?”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.