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Behind the Headlines: Soviet Emigration Challenge to Be Key Issue at Jewish Agency Assembly

The Jewish Agency for Israel, claiming aliyah and Jewish education as top priorities, has unprecedented opportunities and daunting challenges this year, as the Soviet Union allows record numbers of Jews to emigrate.

Jewish Agency officials are calling 1989 their “year of judgment,” and have been bringing that sense of urgency to briefing sessions for American Jews who will be voting delegates to the Jewish Agency Assembly, which will convene in Jerusalem from June 25 to 29.

The major obstacle to the Jewish Agency’s aspirations is its shrinking budget. It has dropped to $360 million in 1989-90, down from $388 million in 1988-89, tightening the budgetary limitations on the services the agency can offer Soviet olim.

With the new Soviet immigrants to Israel its top priority, the Jewish Agency has increased its funds for aliyah and absorption, despite the budget crunch. The allocation has come at the sacrifice of programs for rural development and Jewish education.

The Jewish Agency was to have been freed of primary responsibility for absorbing new immigrants.

Last November, the agency agreed with the Israeli government to hand over absorption responsibilities — most importantly, the operation of the absorption centers. The government was to have closed down the bulk of the centers, replacing them with apartment housing, in what is known as “direct absorption.”

GOVERNMENT MUST PROVE ITSELF

But Jewish Agency officials are now seriously reconsidering the agreement, saying the government has not demonstrated it is capable of housing immigrants.

“Unless we are satisfied the government has the capacity and the will, we will have to reconsider our decision,” Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, declared last month.

At a recent New York briefing for delegates to the assembly, the Jewish Agency’s secretary-general, Howard Weisband, said the government had promised a comprehensive report outlining its plans for housing both new immigrants and those currently in absorption centers. The report, he said, is a last chance for the government to prove itself.

Weisband said he is skeptical as to whether the government’s plan will be satisfactory. So far, he said, the agency has been unsuccessful in convincing the government that absorption, or “klita,” must be a primary concern.

“We had hoped that we would make aliyah and klita not the highest of priorities — there is defense, there is the economy — but to move it up the ladder somewhat, ” he said.

A resolution the assembly will consider proposes “the transfer of absorption from the Jewish Agency to the government be re-examined” and that the transfer “be suspended until such time as the re-examination process has been completed.”

In a paper Weisband prepared for the United Israel Appeal, he says there is a “probability that the Jewish Agency may fully reassume the responsibility for the absorption system.”

With the decision to retain responsibility for absorption likely, the Jewish Agency is calling for a substantial share of the money raised in the United States for the resettlement of Soviet Jews, despite the fact that the vast majority of Soviet Jews are not choosing to settle in Israel.

The agency’s rallying cry is for American Jews not to forget that “the free Soviet Jewry” movement started as an aliyah movement.

FREE CHOICE VS. FINANCIAL AID

While both Dinitz and Weisband endorse the principle of “free choice,” they insist that the Soviet Jews who go to Israel should get first priority for financial aid.

“Jewish people should use their energy to make Israel attractive. We must strive to make the Jewish home appealing,” Dinitz said in an address last month at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s commencement ceremonies here.

“We do not have the responsibility to provide the same amount of support to the Russians who come to the U.S. as those who make aliyah to Israel,” said Herman Markowitz, executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal. “Free choice remains the ability to make a choice — and accept responsibility for that choice.”

Markowitz spoke at a briefing session for New York area delegates to the agency assembly. The sessions were sponsored by UIA, which serves as the chief conduit of United Jewish Appeal funds to the Jewish Agency.

UIA briefings also were held recently in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Washington.

Of the 398 voting delegates at the assembly, approximately 170 will be Americans, 119 of them UIA delegates representing various Jewish federation across the country.

Aside from the absorption issue, the Jewish Agency is looking at ways to “streamline and strengthen” operations, particularly in the area of Jewish education.

To that end, the agency is looking at fundamental changes in its structure, particularly in its relationship with the World Zionist Organization.

A proposal will be presented to the assembly to consolidate WZO and Jewish Agency education efforts.

In the plan, the WZO’s 27 separate departments would be reduced to four or five, and its budget would be subject to approval by the Jewish Agency’s Budget and Finance Committee.

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