Huge Costs of Resettling Refugees at Center of Jewish Agency Meetings
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Huge Costs of Resettling Refugees at Center of Jewish Agency Meetings

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Huge increases in Soviet Jewish emigration are leading to tensions between Israel and the Diaspora, as worry mounts about the tremendous costs of absorbing the immigrants, the majority of whom choose to settle in the United States.

The tension is coming to a head this week in New York, where Jewish Agency officials have gathered for an executive committee meeting.

The Jewish Agency meeting, which began Tuesday, is led by Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive.

Dinitz made clear in Israel before the meeting that he objects to any efforts on the part of American philanthropic agencies to divert some of the funds normally allocated to Israel and other overseas needs to pay for the rising costs of refugee resettlement.

Roughly half of the funds collected by federations and the United Jewish Appeal in North America are allocated for overseas needs. Those funds account for two-thirds of the Jewish Agency’s total budget.

As many as 38,000 Soviet Jews are expected to be allowed out of the Soviet Union in 1989, compared to nearly 19,000 last year. To the chagrin of Israeli leaders, 90 percent will choose to live in the United States.

According to some estimates, the cost to the American Jewish community of resettling those immigrants could be as high as $140 million.


Jewish federations in this country are faced with a number of options. Dinitz objects most strongly to any effort by federations to skim off their allocations to the United Jewish Appeal to pay for domestic resettlement.

There has been talk of such an arrangement, as Jerry Levinrad, director of refugee resettlement programs at the Council of Jewish Federations, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Dinitz also objects to a “separate line campaign,” a proposal to hold a simultaneous appeal on behalf of resettlement in addition to the annual UJA drive. The model for such appeals is Project Renewal, which allows campaign contributors to give a separate gift on behalf of a designated community in Israel.

Jewish Agency officials are concerned that a separate line would only dilute total gift giving. Instead, Dinitz suggested last week that the federations dip into their capital funds and investments to make up the shortfall.

Supporters of a separate-line campaign argue that the Jewish community has not yet reached the level of “giving till it hurts,” and could be persuaded to increase its overall contribution level.

The battle lines in this country are not clearly drawn, however. Officials of the UJA, which was established to help Jews overseas and is in business to aid Israel, are not expected to welcome efforts to diminish the funds they channel to Israel through the United Israel Appeal.

These suggestions and others were expected to be discussed during meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. The results may not be known until Thursday, when Dinitz and Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, are to hold a news conference.


Among Dinitz’s most surprising proposals is one that the Jewish Agency begin running the centers in Vienna and Rome where Soviet Jews await processing for their trips to Israel or the United States.

Dinitz has even suggested that a transit camp be set up in Israel, according to some reports. There Soviet emigres would be exposed to Israeli life and could then choose to settle there. If not, their coveted refugee status would not be jeopardized, he maintains, because they would be issued only tourist visas and would remain free to emigrate to the United States.

Other Jewish Agency officials and former refuseniks have objected strongly to the proposal.

Responsibility for the transit centers currently falls to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also a beneficiary of the UJA.

Speaking at Tuesday’s Jewish Agency meeting, Sylvia Hassenfeld, president of the JDC, said its expenditures for those in Vienna and Rome will double and possibly quadruple in 1989.

Hassenfeld said that 1988 expenditures of $12 million were already 12 times those in 1987.

The resettlement issue was also the center-piece of a UIA executive committee meeting Monday, which Dinitz, Jewish Agency Treasurer Meir Sheetrit and other Jewish Agency officials attended as observers.

Presentations were made by officials from HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; NYANA, the New York Association of New Americans; and the JDC.

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