No answers to questions on JNF funds

By Leon Symons, February 26, 2009
Atzmona, whose residents went to the Negev kibbutz Shomriya, which expected JNF UK support

Atzmona, whose residents went to the Negev kibbutz Shomriya, which expected JNF UK support

A row has broken out between JNF UK, some of its donors and a charity in Israel, over $1 million (£687,778) in donations.

Project Or, a non-governmental organisation founded nine years ago to build and develop new communities in the Negev and Galilee, has claimed that JNF has not passed on the money, which was pledged at a dinner at Claridges in January 2007.

Some who said they would donate over a five-year period have also expressed concern. Businessman Cyril Stein sent a letter — seen by the JC — to the dinner donors telling them to suspend payments until he had received clarification from JNF about whether or not money had been sent.

He said that only “two small amounts” had been forwarded and he was unable to get confirmation from JNF about whether another £255,533 had been passed on.

This week JNF defended its position and gave the JC access to a report ordered by chairman Samuel Hayek. The report accused Project Or of using as expenses £50,000 that was destined for Shomriya, a former Negev kibbutz used to provide a home for 100 families displaced from Atzmona, in Gaza, when Israel left in 2005.

The report, compiled by four JNF personnel led by JNF Charitable Trust director Elan Gorji, said that of a total of £683,040 raised from the dinner, so far £321,255 had been transferred to Or “for projects they have recommended”.

It said that there had been difficulty tracking down payments “due to the fact that information was missing and due to the way entries had been misallocated or miscoded in the JNF systems by former employees”.

JNF had received £100,000 for Shomriya from separate donations, half of which was sent to Or “for Shomriya”, though it does not say why. Mr Gorji continued: “Following a number of e-mails I have had from the representatives of Or, they have decided to use this money for their expenses and refused to reimburse the money to Shomriya.”

The JC understands that JNF’s board has just resolved to donate £400,000 to Shomriya for a school for the town.

Earlier this month, Mr Hayek wrote to the donors to assuage concerns about distribution of funds, telling them of the report and that JNF was still waiting for answers to some of its questions.

But Project Or co-founder and vice-president Ofir Fisher rejected JNF’s version of events, saying: “They say they are waiting for answers from us. It’s really untrue. We sent them all the details and gave them answers to all their questions before the year ended.

“There were reports on every dollar, where it went and what was done with it.

“They said all the time it was just the process and it would be okay. They said they had to check their books about what they got from the former leadership and that it was only a matter of time [before Or received the money].

“In November they said we would get it in December, in December it was January and so it has been going on”.

Mr Fisher complained: “The problem was the former leadership were involved with several projects with us for which funds were pledged and they didn’t have a chance to send the money. The projects are moving forward. We had $1 million of pledges from the former leadership that we have not had because the new leadership stopped sending funds.

“The ball has been in their court for the past three or four months. If JNF won’t provide the money we will find other ways of allowing British donors to donate.”

Project Or was started in 2000 by Mr Fisher and three former IDF soldiers. They moved their families from northern Israel to the Negev and set up Or to build and develop communities.

More than 2,000 families have relocated to the Negev and Galilee in that time, moving into new and existing communities, and Or has established a Negev visitor centre in Beersheva.

Mr Fisher said that Or worked closely with the former leadership of JNF on several projects such as developing promenades, parks, building a synagogue and “beautification of the towns, to attract more people to come into these communities to improve the quality of life.

“Then the new JNF leadership came in and we were assured it would be as successful but for some reason it has stalled. Since the new leadership came in, we have not seen a penny.

“We are the ones still waiting for answers.”

Last updated: 2:25pm, February 26 2009