Why I worry about the JNF

Who is Samuel Hayek? And what is the JNF now doing?

By Geoffrey Alderman, February 12, 2009

The Jewish National Fund is almost as old as the Zionist movement. The Fund was established in 1901 to purchase and develop land in Turkish-controlled Palestine. The monies used for this purpose were derived partly from wealthy philanthropists and partly from the pennies collected in the famous “blue boxes” that graced the mantelpieces of even the poorest Jewish households.

But the JNF in Israel today is a very different body from that established by the World Zionist Organization 108 years ago. Currently, JNF-Israel (known as KKL) owns around 14 per cent of the land in the state. In 1960, the administration of much of this land was transferred to the then newly created Israel Land Administration — a government body controlling over 90 per cent of Israel’s land mass. Of the 22 directors of the ILA, JNF-Israel has the right to nominate ten. This gives it a great deal of political clout in the modern Jewish state. It also means that it has been sucked into the murky world of Israeli gravy trains.

KKL is not registered as a charity. It is a “quango” — a subsidiary of the Israeli government — and is run as a business. It employs a staff of several hundred, many of them drawing large salaries and enjoying lavish expense-account lifestyles.

An exposé published in Yediot Achronot last year claimed that senior employees received yearly bonuses equivalent to 6o per cent of their salaries.

Four years ago there was a much-publicised split between KKL and its long-standing British partner, JNF-UK. Under the leadership of Gail Seal, JNF-UK had decided that it really was time to call a halt to fundraising merely in order to support the salary budget, bonus payments and expense accounts of KKL and the lifestyles of its employees. Instead, JNF-UK would remit funds directly to worthy projects in the Jewish state.

So although JNF-UK continued to raise millions of pounds annually, less and less of this reached KKL. The then Israeli chairman, Yechiel Leket, made it clear that he was having none of this. He determined that his business would market itself independently in the UK, naturally using the JNF brand-name. Ronald Lauder, the billionaire president of JNF-America (subsequently, you may recall, brought in to clear up the mess left at the World Jewish Congress following the departure of Edgar Bronfman and his protégé Israel Singer) lent his weight to the arguments of Mrs Seal and her colleagues. A costly legal battle ensued.

Then, in January last year, peace seemed to have broken out. A Mr Samuel Hayek, whom KKL had appointed to head a break-away London office, became chairman of the JNF Charitable Trust. Waxing lyrical on the many virtues of Mrs Seal, Mr Hayek praised the “great things” she had achieved. The Trust would at once resume its payments to KKL. Together, Mrs Seal and Mr Hayek would “drive... on to greater heights.”

But this is not at all what actually happened. What actually happened was that Mr Hayek carried out what appears to have been a form of coup, which was certainly well executed and which one can reasonably assume had been carefully planned.

Mr Hayek now heads JNF-UK. Mrs Seal is out, and so are many of the staff who loyally served under her. Mr Hayek and his team are in.

But who — exactly — is Mr Hayek? He has been described to me as a “London businessman” who — it is said — once served in Israeli military intelligence. What I know and can tell you for certain is that I have just finished reading the transcript of a civil case heard before the District Court of Tel Aviv some nine years ago, in which Samuel Hayek was referred to by the judge in the most uncomplimentary and unflattering terms.

Last October Mr Hayek placed an advertisement in the JC assuring us that all was now well and that an ambitious project to develop the Negev was now back on track.

But I have yet to hear of the resumption of JNF fundraising activities in the UK. The organisation is without a chief executive. The positions of head of fundraising and head of education are also vacant. Land in Israel that was owned in trust by JNF-UK has — apparently — been sold.

As of now, it is impossible to discern either Mr Hayek’s intentions or those of the JNF in the UK. For so major a charity, that simply is not good enough.

Last updated: 11:33am, February 12 2009