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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Agency Chairman Optimistic on Improvemenes for Soviets Jews

The mystenious diversion of a Soviet airliner to Israel on Dec. 2 may have marked the first time an Aeroflot plane touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.

But what is not well known is that an Israeli aircraft had made an unprecedented landing at Moscow’s international airport just one month before.

The plane left Israel on Nov. I for the first direct flight to the Soviet capital. Aboard were top offials of the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency for Israel, who were on their way to the Kremlin for meetings with top Soviet officials.

As Mendel Kaplan describes it, the direct flight was not the only unique aspect of the trip.

The Jewish leaders apparently received unprecedented assurances from Soviet leaders that meaningful changes in the quality of life for Jews remaining in the Soviet Union would be instituted in the near future.

Kaplan, who is chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, discussed those promises in a wide-ranging interview here last month during the 57th General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.

One promise the Jewish delegation signed was an agreement with Soviet officials permitting Soviet Jews to set up a body that would represent their interests and have contact with other organized bodies of world Jewry.

The Soviets also promised to establish a Jewish cultural center in Moscow and to allow Jewish journals and a Jewish lecture bureau.

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze personally informed the Jewish delegation that the teaching of Hebrew would be decriminalized.

AMENDING THE CONSTITUTION

Furthermore, Religious Affairs Minister Konstantin Kharchev said the Soviet Constitution would be amended this spring to allow the teaching of Jewish heritage.

There will be no restrictions on teaching Jewish subjects anywhere in the Soviet Union, Kaplan said.

Among other subjects discussed was the resolution of long-term emigration cases and the possibility of restoring diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel.

But if assurances were made in these areas, Kaplan and the other members of the delegation are not talking about them.

This, of course, was not the first meeting between Jewish leaders and Kremlin officials.

WJCongress President Edgar Bronfman, who was on the mission, had met with Soviet leaders in the past, as had Morris Abram, past chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who declined an invitation to be included on this trip.

Each time such a mission took place, participants returned toting bags of Soviet good will and promises, some of which were never kept.

But Kaplan said he was confident that the Soviets would live up to their pledges this time around. He listed three reasons.

First, the Soviets are now facing ethnic unrest in several corners of their vast nation.

In Estonia and Lithuania, Armenia and Azerbaidzhan, ethnic tensions present a real threat to the stability of the Soviet regime and the viability of the Soviet system.

Kaplan believes the resolution of grievances from another ethnic minority, the Jews, could well serve as a pilot project for assuaging the concerns of all ethnic groups.

Second, Soviet leader Mikbail Gorbachev has expressed concern about the “brain drain” of talent leaving the Soviet Union.

With Jewish emigration at its highest in nearly a decade, the Soviets are looking for ways to entice some of their best and brightest to stay, Kaplan said.

Finally, the Soviets want desperately to host an international human rights conference in 1991, the Jewish Agency official observed.

The United States and other Western countries are unwilling to participate in such a conference unless the Soviet government makes further headway in resolving its own longstanding human rights problems.

SOVIETS’ SELF-INTERESTS

In sum, Kaplan believes the Soviets are willing to make significant changes in the quality of Jewish life, not out of some new-found good will, but for pragmatic reasons of self-interest.

Perhaps the new Soviet realpolitik does not come as a surprise to Kaplan since he is trying to accomplish a little “perestroika” (restructuring) of his own in the Jewish Agency.

Just as Gorbachev has begun to tackle the problem of waste and corruption in the government and Communist Party bureaucracy, so Kaplan has tried to rout out duplication and mismanagement in the Jewish Agency.

A longstanding complaint had been that the Jewish Agency and various ministries of the Israeli government were both trying to take responsibility for the same tasks.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of immigrant absorption, where the government’s Absorption Ministry and the agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department appeared to be stepping on each others’ toes while still not managing to cover immigrants’ needs adequately.

Kaplan and Simcha Dinitz, who chairs the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executiver, recently signed a contract with the Absorption Ministry to transfer most absorption responsibility to the govenment.

DIRECT ABSORPTION

Under the new plan, 55 to 70 percent of all immigrants will be absorbed directly, meaning they will be settied in apartments rather than housed temporarily in absorption centers, where most olim spend their first six months in Israel.

The Jewish Agency will continue to help the government come up with the money to find “housing solutions” for Ethiopian and Soviet immigrants.

But more of its budget will be devoted to education and job training — to helping immigrants become self-sufficient in Israel.

Soviet Jews have been among the most vocal of immigrants to complain about Israel’s absorption system.

With improvements expected both in the absorption process in Israel and the living conditions for Jews in the USSR, Soviet Jews will soon have a more promising alternative to choose from — if Mendel Kaplan gets his way.

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