Zionist Actions and Developments Special Interview with Pinhas Sapir
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Zionist Actions and Developments Special Interview with Pinhas Sapir

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One morning recently, shortly after dawn, a large and portly man was to be seen striding around a new housing project in a Jerusalem suburb, shouting, gesticulating, stamping, looking, asking, examining, and in general asserting himself to the obvious discomfiture of those around him. “I put the fear of God into those officials,” Pinhas Sapir mused quietly and thoughtfully this week as he recalled the incident. “I slaughtered them….”

Sapir, chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization Executives and until recently Israel’s all-powerful Finance Minister, cited his dawn descent on the housing site as part of his ongoing effort to slash through red tape in Agency and government handling of new immigrants. A delegation of residents of the housing estate, most of them olim from the United States, had come to see him the day before, wearied by the myriad problems of absorption and by banging their collective head to no avail upon the wall of bureaucracy.

Israel was by no means the only country on earth plagued by bureaucracy, Sapir pointed out in our special Jewish Telegraphic Agency interview several days ago, dealing with Zionist actions and developments (ZAD), but he agreed it was well up in the league. There would always be bureaucratic snarl-ups, “but we shall fight them unto extirpation,” he declared, crashing his fist ominously on the desk.


Sapir’s unique reputation as a “bittiest”–a man who gets things done–coupled with his phenomenally energetic work schedule, give good ground for the belief that he will indeed succeed in injecting new vigor and new efficiency into the Jewish Agency and into the absorption process as a whole. One of his first acts as chairman was to initiate the long overdue concentration of immigrant absorption services under one roof: to save the newcomers the unnecessary and unpleasant foot-slogging from office to office to get himself processed. housed, employed, medically insured, etc.

The first all-purpose absorption processing center opened in Netanya, and by Nov., says Sapir, there will be centers in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashdod, with others in Jerusalem and Ashkelon planned. With an upsurge in Soviet aliya now widely anticipated in view of the negotiations between the White House and Sen. Henry M. Jackson and between the U.S. and USSR, questions are inevitably arising in Israel as to the country’s absorptive capacity at this time of economic and political strain, when so much of the country’s resources is devoted to the defense effort.


Sapir draws support for his own faith from the facts and figures of aliya absorption in the State’s early years which he produces from his famous “little black book,” a pocket diary out of which, it used to be whispered, he was won’t to run the country’s economy. Between 1949 and 1952 a Jewish population of 750,000 had absorbed an equal number of newcomers, many of them penniless and without skills. Conditions were bad, immeasurably worse than anything which could be contemplated today, and yet all were absorbed.

“Absorptive capacity” is not a static concept, Sapir believes. Immigrants in effect bring their absorption with them. One newcomer can, for example, set up a new factory which could give employment to one thousand others.

For Sapir, the future of aliya to Israel is a question of historic proportions not only for Israel but for the diaspora, too. Having recently spent a month in South America. Sapir, says baldly and sadly: “If there is no large-scale aliya from there and if the level of Jewish education remains as at present then the Jewish communities of South America are effectively doomed.”


“I am very pessimistic about their future,” he said, citing the rising intermarriage rates. Even marriages in which the gentile partner is converted to Judaism beforehand–even by Orthodox conversion–offer little hope of Jewish continuity into the future generations. Sapir said, recalling the experience of his own large family of cousins and second cousins living in North and South America. The children of such marriages are generally lost to Judaism.

He recalled the bleak picture he had seen of Jewish education in South America, with the Jewish schools there often producing pupils ignorant of the most basic fundamentals of Jewish knowledge. “I spent thirty days and nights trying to convince their leaders of the sorry state of their situation. I spared no effort, meeting with everyone–children and adults, women and youth movements, professionals and businessmen.”

He found, he said, some interest in aliya, and a good deal of criticism of absorption difficulties which people hear of from their friends in Israel. Political and economic uncertainties make for this interest among the more sensitive and those with greater Jewish consciousness. There were prospects, he said, of 20,000 immigrants a year from Argentina alone, provided the potential newcomers could be persuaded that Israel has jobs and homes to offer them. He himself, said Sapir, had brought with him to South America concrete and specific job offers and vacancies, mainly for skilled professionals and scientists, in Israeli industry.

The free professions posed a greater problem. but here too Sapir reported progress, with job openings found in recent weeks in Israel for some 2000 university-trained immigrants and some 1000 university-trained immigrants who did not have the science-based qualifications sought by industry but were mostly arts and humanities graduates. Sapir had only praise for the work of the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Department “shlihim” in South America to whose credit he ascribed the thriving “aliya movements” on that continent.


He observed that the crisis of Jewish identity which manifests itself in soaring intermarriage rates is not confined to South America. In Switzerland for instance, Sapir stated, it is a “Simcha” if a son or daughter marries a Jewish partner because 50 percent marry “out.” The figures are similar elsewhere in Europe, Sapir added. Some of the most famous Jewish families in Europe will be lost to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion within a generation or two if the process of marrying “out” which is rife among them continues, he said.

When he speaks at public meetings or smaller gatherings abroad–he has been abroad six times in the past 12 months–he deliberately dwells on the intermarriage issue, in the knowledge that this personally grieves many among his audiences of Jewish leaders. “But when I leave I often think to myself: how many of them took note of what I said, and how many went home and forgot all about it?”


His six overseas visits since the Yom Kippur War–the first emergency visit to Europe and the U.S. began during the war. the seventh trip began two days after our interview when he left for New York–have taught him. Sapir noted, that the shock engendered by the war has had a permanently sobering effect upon the Jewish diaspora’s attitude to Israel. “The blind faith of the post-67 era has gone,” he said. “But this does not mean that the bonds have been weakened. Israel remains central to the social and communal life of Jews around the world.”

Sapir said he noticed that while the effects of the war trauma have assumed a permanence! the searching questions which the war at first gave rise to are now muted. On his early trips he had often been asked why Israel’s mood was so despondent and how long the nation could hold out in the face of Arab enmity. Now there was a sober resignation to the long struggle still lying ahead, he said.

He had been challenged, too, as to why Israel had not done more between the wars to bring about a political settlement. “I, the arch-dove, assured them that we had sought every opening, even the slightest crack in the wall of hostility… and I argued that now, perhaps, we were after all closer to peace. I explained too that we had won a great victory in October, despite the surprise attack. I explained that we were within range of Damascus, that we had the Egyptian army beaten…but I could see–the Jews were less sure of us now.”

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