The Jewish National Fund exercised damage control this week to head off repercussions from an Israeli newspaper’s charges that saplings planted by tourists at a JNF planting site in Jerusalem had been uprooted by staff to make room for other saplings planted by another group of tourists.
The organization’s parent body, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL), immediately appointed a committee, which verified the charges that appeared in the June 29 Maariv daily. Three staff members at the site and their boss then were promptly suspended.
Russell Robinson, executive vice president of JNF, said the committee was continuing its investigation to learn how something like this could have happened. He said the probe was expected to take about a week.
Robinson said the fact that KKL appointed a committee to look into the matter demonstrated that it “feels every donor and every person who participates in our fund — not just the million dollar donors — is precious to us.” He added that the “directive from our world chairman to the workers in our fields has always been never to pull out live trees.”
A JNF spokeswoman said the Maariv article “concentrated only on the Jerusalem site” and that the committee would be looking at KKL’s four other Plant-A-Tree sites “to make sure this is not happening there. We believe this is just an isolated incident, but we just want to be sure.”
The article showed a picture of tourists planting saplings near Hadassah-University Hospital, Ein Kerem, and another photo reportedly taken the next day of the same area — but stripped of the saplings. It quoted a JNF source who said groups of tourists are taken to the same sites each day to plant saplings.
Yechiel Leket, the chairman of JNF, said in a statement that the investigative committee found that “saplings had been pulled out by workers at the Plant-A-Tree center.” He called it a “local failure.”
Rabbi Joseph Sternstein, former president of JNF, said this “isolated incident” should not be allowed to overshadow the work of JNF since it was founded in 1901. Over the years it has planted 210 million trees in Israel.
“To plant a tree in the U.S. is a cinch,” he said. “To plant a tree in Israel is an accomplishment. JNF made the desert bloom. There is no attempt to defraud the public; there is no chicanery.”
But according to JNF co-chairman Shlomo Gravetz, the allegations have dealt “a severe blow” to the organization. “If there was indeed a case in which trees planted by donors were uprooted, this is an injury not only to the image but to the very mission of JNF,” he said.
Citing KKL statistics that 60 percent of the saplings planted in Jerusalem die before they are able to take root in the soil, Rabbi Sternstein said the area around Hadassah Hospital is very rocky and therefore difficult for planting.
Robinson said that area is “arid land and rough terrain, but in the other four Plant-A-Tree centers 95 percent of the saplings make it.” He said the Jerusalem site is maintained despite the difficult terrain because “people want to plant trees in convenient places, even though it may not be the most fertile land.”
“Not all trees planted lived,” Robinson said, “but we didn’t stop planting. And if you fly over the Middle East, you will see the green fingerprint of JNF in the land of Israel.”
He pointed out that each month, Americans pay $10 to plant 20,000 trees.
The KKL probe comes four years after an investigative reporter in the United States found evidence that JNF was a “top-heavy organization that ousts board members who seek accountability, hides behind its noble mission while fudging its financial records, … and does not meet the Better Business Bureau’s accountability standards for charitable organizations.”
The reporter, Yosef Abramowitz, found also that a couple who had donated $10,000 to JNF to purchase a grove of trees in their son’s memory later learned that the money went to dedicate mature, grown trees and not to plant saplings.
This led JNF officials to launch an internal investigation that exposed a host of management and fiscal problems. A 1996 audit found that only 21 percent of funds collected by JNF in the United States was sent to Israel.
That probe led to the ouster of the group’s executive director, Samuel Cohen, and a shakeup of its leadership. Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, was brought in as president and Robinson as executive director.
A JNF spokeswoman said that major changes have resulted, so that now 60 percent of every dollar raised in the United States is sent to Israel for KKL environmental programs. Another 30 percent is spent for fund raising, she said, with the rest for administrative expenses.
Jack Stein, a member of the investigative team four years ago, said the 60 percent figure shows the organization is “moving in the right direction.” He said the Maariv investigation “doesn’t undermine the integrity [of JNF]. What it may mean is that there must be a shift in the handling of that program, either in its supervision or in the need for a different plan.”