Absorption-related Issues Dominate Sessions of Jewish Agency Assembly

A crisp, business-like atmosphere pervaded the opening days of the Jewish Agency Assembly, new in progress here, as more than 500 participants from around the world gathered as much to deepen their own knowledge of the issues at hand as to set policy.

Two absorption-related issues were dealt with early on in the deliberations: the Jewish Agency’s stated intention of relinquishing day-to-day operation of immigrant absorption centers to government authority and the government’s declared innovation of bringing Soviet Jewish emigrants directly from Moscow to Tel Aviv, eliminating the phenomenon of Jews who “drop-out” and relocate in countries other than Israel.

Agency officials Simcha Dinitz, Mendel Kaplan and Uri Gordon conferred with Finance Minister Moshe Nissim and Absorption Minister Ya’acov Tsur on the first issue and cemented an Oct. 1 target date for the transfer of absorption centers to state control.

The plan calls for closing all but 10 of the country’s centers, with only three of these remaining in the heavily populated center of the nation. Two out of three centers in Jerusalem, for example, are slated to close. The government has promised to provide suitable rental housing, in line with the agency’s preference for “direct settlement” of newcomers in Israeli society.

Until now, most immigrants have taken the agency’s offer of free or low-rental housing in absorption centers, for a period of time ranging from a few months to a number of years.

TWO OPTIONS FOR IMMIGRANTS

The change represents another milestone in the agency’s quest to divest itself of routine administrative responsibilities so that it can concentrate on providing more creative, integrated human services.

Those immigrants who arrive in the coming years will generally have two options: direct residence in regular Israeli urban neighborhoods or a temporary stint in one of the remaining absorption centers in a typically outlying region.

On the other major issue, Dinitz and Kaplan presented delegates with a united front in endorsing the government’s recently declared policy of bringing Soviet Jews with Israeli visas directly to Israel. Dinitz represents the Israeli and Zionist establishments, while Kaplan’s roots lie more within the Diaspora philanthropic community.

They were joined in their endorsement of the plan by most Zionist organizational representatives taking part in the assembly, along with other fund-raising leaders, such as former agency Board of Governors Chairman Max Fisher of Detroit.

But leaders of the United Jewish Appeal took strident exception to the policy, balking over what they view as a stifling of the Soviet Jews’ “freedom of choice” to live wherever they wish.

President Chaim Herzog’s opening address to the assembly was well received. He took evenhanded pot shots at Jewish Diaspora critics of Israeli policies during these turbulent times, saying their positions are “neither justified nor helpful.” “Leading to diminished support for Israel, they are tragically harmful,” he said.

“One is sadly tempted to see self-aggrandizement as a motive . . . not expressions of moral anguish at all, but rather the unwitting results of clever manipulation by our enemies.”

HERZOG ASSAILS MEDIA COVERAGE

Herzog went on to challenge the news media’s coverage of some of the Arab violence, calling the uprising “the latest act in a worldwide play choreographed by the PLO, set in stage for the 20th century media, with a cast of stone-throwing children and a ready and willing audience sitting in front of a television screen in almost every household of the Western world.”

He characterized the news media as this generation’s battleground, with world public opinion Israel’s outer-perimeter skirmishes.

A number of other issues continued to percolate throughout the assembly sessions, discussed sometimes more often in hallways and newspaper headlines than inside the formal meeting rooms.

The publicity spotlight continued to focus on longstanding UJA and Jewish National Fund positions that they are barred, either by law or State Department pressures, from providing charitable funds to Jewish settlements and causes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Pro-settlement activists have attempted to demonstrate that any ban on such funding is more the result of internal organizational priorities than submission to American government pressure.

The ultranationalist Tehiya Party has used the assembly as a sounding board for criticizing the Los Angeles Jewish community’s new Project Renewal commitment of rehabilitating Jaffa’s Arab-Jewish Ajami neighborhood, calling it a “distortion of the Zionist dream.”

The plan has garnered much favorable overseas publicity as an unusual example of Jewish funds being used to foster non-Jewish as well as Jewish social change in Israel.

Lighting up a troubled backdrop to the assembly proceedings have been news reports of at least one notable forest fire each day. Apparently set by Arab arsonists, the fires have destroyed tens of thousands of trees. The fires have prompted official calls to redouble Diaspora fund-raising for forestry projects.

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