Tyler Levitan is the National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices, a small group of progressive Canadian Jews. IJV has been spearheading a campaign to get the Jewish National Fund of Canada (JNF) delisted as a tax deductible Canadian charity. JNF Canada annually collects over $10 million, mostly from Canadian Jews, for projects in Israel. I caught up with Tyler to ask him about the IJV campaign. Read the interview here:
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) – Hey Tyler, IJV has made a bit of a splash with its campaign against the JNF. What is the basis of the campaign?
Tyler Levitan (TL) – “IJV’s campaign against the JNF stems from a desire amongst our members to seek peace with justice in Israel and Palestine, and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The JNF claims to operate on behalf of “the Jewish people everywhere”, even though their activities would be strongly opposed by most Jews if they were exposed to the truth.”
CTIP – Is the JNF important in Canada? Why?
TL – “Our aim is to expose the JNF to the broader Canadian public, since as Canadians, were all implicated in the activities of the JNF by virtue of the fact that the JNF’s branch in Canada has charitable status with the CRA. We are therefore subsidizing the very unethical and illegal activities of this organization.”
“The JNF Canada’s flagship project is called ‘Canada Park’, and it sits over the ruins of the Palestinian villages of Yalu, Imwas and Deir Ayub, as well as on the lands of Beit Nuba. All of these villages were depopulated and demolished by the Israeli military in direct contravention of international law. Our reputation as Canadians is tarnished by the existence of this park on the ruins of people’s homes.”
CTIP – What are the objectives of your campaign?
TL – “Our ‘Expose the JNF’ campaign has three primary objectives:
1. To expose the JNF’s activities to Jewish and other Canadians through raising awareness about the issue.
2. To expose the hypocrisy of the Harper government and the Canada Revenue Agency in defunding, auditing and even criminalizing organizations that go against the destructive political agenda of the Conservatives, while singling out for exemption the JNF Canada.
3. To have the Canada Revenue Agency determine that the JNF Canada’s activities are not charitable under Canadian law, and that their registered status should therefore be revoked.”
CTIP – Why do you think that JNF should lose its tax free charitable status?
TL – “The JNF Canada should lose its charitable status because its funds go towards the institutional discrimination of Palestinians at the hands of the JNF in Israel and Occupied Palestine. As Canadians, we should not be subsidizing the JNF’s projects, that aim to dispossess the native inhabitants of the land—the Palestinians—and to cover up the displacement of Palestinian villages with forests and Jewish-only settlements.
The JNF’s mandate is to reserve land for the exclusive use and benefit of Jews in Israel, even though 20% of Israel’s citizenry is made up of Palestinians. The JNF owns 13% of the land in Israel and controls an additional 80%. Palestinians are barred from leasing or purchasing the JNF’s lands, on the sole basis of their ethnic and religious background. It is illegal in Canada to restrict the ownership of land to one ethnic or religious group. The JNF Canada’s activities violate the Canada Revenue Agency guidelines for what is considered charitable, in addition to contravening Canadian public policy and numerous conventions under international law.”
CTIP – Are there any other Jewish voices in Canada that support this campaign? What is the position of other “progressive” Jewish organizations, like CFPN or New Israel Fund?
TL – “There is strong support for this campaign coming from members of the United Jewish Peoples Order, which is a Jewish social justice-oriented organization with a formidable presence in Toronto and Winnipeg. CFPN and the New Israel Fund have not taken positions on this issue. IJV has approached both organizations with the offer of working together, but neither organization has expressed any interest. That being said, the New Israel Fund supports projects in Israel that advocate towards Bedouin rights and resist the destructive activities of the JNF on Bedouin lands.”
CTIP – Apart from picketing outside JNF dinners, what are the other elements of the campaign?
TL – “The campaign consists mostly of public events such as film screenings, presentations and workshops that educate different groups about the JNF. In addition, we have worked with other Palestinian human rights groups and activists to protest outside of the JNF Canada’s fundraising galas, held annually in cities across the country. It also consists of raising the profile of this issue amongst journalists and Canadian politicians, which is a difficult task considering the enormous degree to which the JNF Canada has befriended media publishers and Canadian politicians coming from all the major parties.”
CTIP – How long do you expect the campaign to last? What would be a reasonable 12 month objective?
TL – “Our campaign will end when Canadians are no longer subsidizing, through our tax dollars, the JNF’s practises of institutional discrimination against Palestinians, and until the JNF changes its mandate to reflect the true values of Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition has not been one of blind ethnic nationalism that aims to erase the existence of an entire people. This is the aim of the JNF. So long as the JNF continues to operate on behalf of all of the people in the world of Jewish background, they will be opposed.
A reasonable 12 month objective would be to have mainstream media exposing this issue to the broader public, and obtaining meetings with the Minister of National Revenue and bureaucrats in the Canada Revenue Agency to work towards the revocation of the JNF Canada’s scandalous charitable status.”
CTIP – Should non-Jews in Canada fight the JNF? Wouldn’t this be seen as anti-Jewish (or even anti Semitic)?
TL – “Non-Jews in Canada should not feel intimidated into silence, since as Canadians, we are all implicated in the unethical activities of this organization. While certain Jewish organizations would likely aim to silence criticism of the JNF through baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, this position would be very difficult to defend. Individuals of conscience will not have a difficult time promoting the Canadian values of equality and justice, which would put Israel’s apologists on the defensive. It must be difficult to have to defend Israel’s racist policies towards Palestinians. With the support of IJV, non-Jews should feel empowered to voice their concerns about the JNF and know that any accusations of anti-Semitism will hold no water.”
CTIP – Thank you Tyler and good luck!