Behind the Headlines: on Eve of Assembly, Jewish Agency Finds Itself in Whirlwind of Change

No accounting expertise was required to understand the role of Project Renewal in last year’s voluminous Proposed Budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

It was isolated at the very end of the official tally, set apart with a heading in red typeface, and it represented little more than a conventional “money in, money out” summary.

This year, a renamed Project Renewal and Development budget takes center stage in the 1988-89 Jewish Agency Proposed Budget, occupying a strategic slice of the budgetary pie and commanding no less than $90 million in income and services.

The change, a fundamental conceptual shifting of gears, says a lot about the spirit of the Jewish Agency today. Overseas Jewish communities are no longer content to simply funnel contributions into innumerable bureaucratic pigeonholes in Israel.

Project Renewal is but one example of a concerted effort to bring constructive, orderly change to the fund-distribution process. Similar changes are taking place in many other spheres of Jewish Agency operations.

These changes will be manifest at next week’s Jewish Agency Assembly, when 800 world Jewish leaders will gather in Israel’s capital to make important decisions about the future direction of the agency.

Aside from examining agency priorities, assembly delegates are likely to discuss a number of timely controversies that have made headlines of late.

DEBATE OVER ‘DROPOUT’ RATE

Already, major players in the Jewish Agency have joined the debate over Israel’s efforts to curb a 92 percent dropout rate of Jews leaving the Soviet Union on Israeli visas. The Israeli Cabinet has proposed direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv to prevent the vast majority of Jewish emigrants from opting to live in countries other than Israel.

At a news conference in Jerusalem this week, WZO-Jewish Agency Executive Chairman Simcha Dinitz and Jewish Agency Board of Governors Chairman Mendel Kaplan shared their fervent disapproval of the escalating “dropout” trend.

Together, they challenged the “freedom of choice” argument that some Diaspora Jews intone in justifying the extension of support to Soviet Jews who, upon leaving the USSR, choose to settle in America or other Western countries.

“What kind of freedom of choice can there be,” Dinitz asked, “when their minds have been systematically turned against Israel for their entire lives? Let them at least come and see the reality of Israel before they decide.”

The two men also detailed plans for bone-cutting measures aimed at reducing dramatically the number of WZO-Jewish Agency emissaries abroad or, alternatively, convincing local communities to participate more fully in finding the funds to sustain the “shlichim.”

The general strategy for restructuring the Jewish Agency is to appoint blue-ribbon panels to study its essential service functions. The panels have license to propose far-reaching changes.

One area in which this already has taken place is absorption. In an age when few major institutions are prepared to relinquish time-honored functions, the Jewish Agency is now eager to turn over its absorption services for newcomers to the government’s Absorption Ministry, eliminating a historic duplication of efforts.

CLOSING ABSORPTION CENTERS

The switch, fostered by an agency-sponsored investigation, headed by academic Dr. Israel Katz, seeks to shut down several absorption centers, the newcomers’ traditional first sheltered residence upon arriving in Israel, and encourage “direct absorption” into mainstream Israeli society instead.

This move has brought a sharp protest from various immigrant associations. A typical outcry took place at the Mevaseret Zion absorption center, just outside Jerusalem, recently when a 10-year reunion of largely English-speaking olim turned into a protest forum against the proposed changes.

The bonds formed by shared challenges at the critical absorption phase contribute significantly to the ultimate success of the process, the successful olim argued.

But Jewish Agency Secretary-General Howard Weisband, himself a newcomer from the United States, thinks the move is long needed to bring efficiency to the absorption process.

“You certainly can’t just throw people into an apartment building,” he said. “But if you enhance the family’s planning through better pilot trips and augment that with more logical housing and neighborhood options, you can achieve a solid transition period within real society, not within a somewhat artificial environment.”

Weisband is proud that the agency is moving away from “governmental and quasi-governmental services, and toward the supplying of professionally administered services.”

NEW DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY

Another report to be presented at the assembly will focus on the agency’s rural settlement priorities. The major thrust will shift emphasis away from pouring overseas contributions into individual kibbutzim or settlements and focus on integrated regional planning.

The concept is that kibbutzim, development towns and other players in a given local scene will work together on developing the region. Common planning will cut duplication of efforts and bring more results for the dollar.

Yet another report, on youth aliyah, is in the works, with a 1989 implementation date.

Beyond substance, there is a remarkable change in the leadership style of the Jewish Agency. The old-school mold of Leon Dulzin, Akiva Lewinsky and their contemporaries has been supplanted by a crisper, higher echelon of policy shapers.

Simcha Dinitz is younger than his predecessors and is a savvy political leader, a former ambassador to the United States who gave up his Knesset seat to serve in this new capacity.

Mendel Kaplan has a reputation as a result-oriented businessman who demands accountability. And WZO-Jewish Agency Treasurer Meir Shitrit is a powerful up-and-coming Sephardi politician who also arrived via the Knesset route.

Whatever decisions are taken in the days ahead, the 1988 Jewish Agency Assembly promises to be more open to honest self-evaluation and change than gatherings of years past.

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