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Flaws in Absorption System Aired During Agency Assembly

Israel’s famed system for absorbing new immigrants is in a shambles, representatives of emigrants from the Soviet Union and other countries charge.

They say that unless the government and the Jewish Agency for Israel move quickly to improve social services and create jobs and housing, Israel will lose an opportunity to attract the largest wave of Soviet Jewish emigres in a decade.

The Israeli government and Jewish Agency officials in charge of absorption services refute or dodge blame for many of the most serious charges, but acknowledge the need for a serious review of the absorption and housing system.

No subject has so dominated proceedings at the Jewish Agency Assembly here than immigration and absorption, especially the challenge of absorbing 5,000 to 7,500 Soviet Jews expected to arrive in Israel this year.

One new answer to the housing problem was unveiled here by Finance Minister Shimon Peres, who offered a two-year, $120 million plan to provide public housing and subsidized mortgages for needy immigrants.

But the plan has already run into resistance from Diaspora Jewish leaders, who are being asked to raise $80 million of the total goal.

At a closed-door meeting of the government-Jewish Agency coordinating committee Sunday night, Peres received a flat “no” from Jewish Agency leaders already pressed for cash for their own programs.

“The Jewish Agency indicated that it was giving a high first priority” to immigration and absorption that it “would maximize the resources available,” said Norman Lipoff of Miami, chairman of the budget and finance committee of the Jewish Agency.

But the Jewish Agency also indicated “that it was not in a position to make commitments for the housing necessary in the future, said Lipoff. The agency is “looking for the government of Israel to provide the necessary housing,” he said.

SCOLDING FROM HOUSING MINISTER

Housing Minister David Levy scolded Jewish Agency leaders on Monday for turning down the government’s housing plan.

Jews always lived in hope of a large wave of emigration from the Soviet Union, said Levy, but that now that it is here, the Jewish Agency is talking about deficits.

“What is a deficit at this historic time? What is a balanced budget when there is such a new hope for Jews?” he asked.

Despite Levy’s admonitions, agency officials appear loath to take on a new responsibility of housing when their perennial responsibility of absorption is in such disarray.

Immigrants’ complaints and proposals for solutions were heard at the opening plenary session of the Jewish Agency Assembly on Sunday, in Peres’ address to delegates Sunday night and in workshops Sunday and Monday.

The Council of Olim Organizations, a private group representing a number of immigrants rights groups, says a government program for “direct absorption” has “failed miserably.”

Under the plan, the government gives cash grants for new immigrants to begin life in Israeli society, while the Jewish Agency gradually phases out its use of the orientation hostelries known as “absorption centers.”

Critics say that new immigrants, especially the Soviets, need the centers. “Direct absorption may be natural for Jews from Western countries, who have the language skills to find jobs,” Yuli Kosharovsky, the former prisoner of Zion, told delegates Sunday.

“But Soviet Jews are still behind the Iron Curtain when you are throwing them into this ocean,” he said.

The absorption centers, meanwhile, are failing from neglect, in part because veteran immigrants have been stuck there for years, unable to find jobs or housing, new immigrants charge.

THE SYSTEM HAS FAILED

Uri Gordon, head of the Immigration and Absorption Department of the Jewish Agency, acknowledged that the direct absorption system has failed Soviet Jews.

But he said the absorption centers are overflowing, for which he blamed the government. “The Jewish Agency deals with absorption. Now it must also deal with housing?” he asked delegates Sunday.

But according to Rabbi Aharon Lapidot, director general of the government’s Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency-run absorption centers are themselves to blame for blocking the effective absorption of immigrants.

“A person who leaves the absorption center after two years is a new immigrant,” he said at a workshop on the issue Monday. He said the nurturing atmosphere of the absorption centers creates immigrants “who do not have the courage to go out and cope with society.”

Immigrants participating in the workshop booed lustily.

Despite these charges, counter-charges and counter-counter-charges, there is a going theoretical consensus on what needs to be done to shore up the absorption system.

First, absorption resources for immigrants must be brought together at one address, all sides say.

Despite the recommendations in the 2-year-old Katz Commission report that the government should assume all absorption responsibilities, the Jewish Agency still retains a major part of the portfolio.

Second, immigrants must be allowed to choose an “absorption track” to their liking, and those options should be improved in terms of the services and amenities they provide.

Third, and most difficult, jobs and low-cost housing need to be created.

Solutions to these problems will be hotly debated when the assembly adopts resolutions Wednesday.

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