Lawmakers Question U.S. Funding of Three Orthodox Schools in Israel

Key members of Congress have placed on hold $8.4 million in funds for Jewish institutions in Israel, including three Orthodox institutions whose religious nature appears to trouble the lawmakers.

The funds for the Jewish institutions are part of $35 million budgeted for the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program, or ASHA, run by the State Department’s Agency for International Development.

ASHA rules prohibit funds from being used to train persons for religious pursuits or construct facilities intended for worship or religious instruction.

The hold, which extends to the entire $35 million program, was ordered last week by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.

“We have got to weed out institutions that should not be there,” Obey told The Washington Post last Friday. “I want to expand the program. But I want to get those religious-related items out. It gets the program in trouble.”

But an AID spokesperson maintained that funding for the Orthodox institutions would not violate ASHA rules.

The ASHA program was in the news in the winter of 1987-88, when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) gained Senate passage of an $8 million ASHA grant to build schools for North African Jews in France run by Ozar Hatorah.

In the face of negative publicity, Inouye later asked that the funding be rescinded.

TIES TO WEST BANK SUGGESTED

Attention is now focused on proposed grants to the Sha’alvim Teachers College in the Ayalon Valley, the Machon Alte Institute in Safed and the Or Hachayim Girls College in Bnei Brak.

Both Sha’alvim, which is affiliated with Touro College in New York, and Machon Alte, run by the Lubavitch movement, are slated to receive $1.5 million to construct dormitories. Or Hachayim would receive $500,000 to build classrooms.

Or Hachayim’s purpose is “to raise the economic and cultural levels of Israel’s Sephardic population to that of Israelis from Western countries,” the group stated in its AID application.

Before Obey and Hamilton placed the hold, they wrote Mark Edelman, AID’s acting administrator, to complain about “the apparent increased politization” of the ASHA program.

Their July 5 letter was also signed by Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), the ranking Republican on Hamilton’s subcommittee.

The four did not name specific institutions, but complained about the “geographic distribution” of the proposed grants. Obey told the Post he was concerned that the Sha’alvim Teachers College places “teachers in new settlements in the West Bank.”

U.S. government funds can be used in the administered territories only to “assist the indigenous Palestinian population,” according to a statement issued by the State Department last year.

Rabbi Philip Singer, chairman of American Friends of Sha’alvim Educational Center, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Brooklyn that of 120 Sha’alvim graduates, only five to seven work in West Bank settlements, and they found the jobs “on their own.”

The college is located just inside the “Green Line” separating Israel proper from the West Bank.

SEVERAL LESS CONTROVERSIAL GRANTS

Some American Jewish groups also have expressed concern about the ASHA program, because they believe it, in effect, provides government aid to religious groups.

Obey said in a telephone interview Wednesday that when he met with leaders of major Jewish groups in New York three weeks ago, they asked “what could be done to clean out that program so that it would be less of an intellectual embarassment.”

Less controversial AID funding requests in Israel, also on hold, include $1.5 million to the Israel Arts and Science Academy this year, and $1 million next year, to construct dormitories.

The academy is a $1.5 million philanthropic project of the Chicago-based Music Foundation. The Washington Post made a point of noting that the foundation’s chairman, Robert Asher, also chairs the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

But in an interview with the Post, Asher said he did not use AIPAC influence in gaining support for the program. “I didn’t approach people saying, ‘Listen, this is the chairman of AIPAC calling.’ I don’t do that at all,” he told the Post.

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