Diaspora Leaders Agree to Launch New Drive for Soviet Jews in Israel

The leaders of the major Diaspora organizations involved in providing funds for Israel have agreed to undertake a special campaign to help the Jewish state prepare for the massive wave of Soviet immigrants expected to arrive in the next few years.

The total sum to be raised will be “refined in the coming weeks” and presented to the Diaspora organizations for final approval sometime next month, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Consulate General of Israel in New York.

Israeli Finance Minister Shimon Peres has asked the major Diaspora philanthropic bodies to mount a $500 million campaign over the next five years.

His proposal is part of a $3 billion Israeli master plan to create the housing, jobs and infrastructure needed to absorb a predicted 100,000 Soviet newcomers.

Beyond the Diaspora share, $2 billion would come from the Israeli Treasury and the final $500 million would be raised in commercial debt, for which Peres has requested U.S. government guarantees.

President Bush has been informed of the plan. He told Peres at a meeting here Monday that he would personally seek U.S. guarantees for the $500 million in new debt the finance minister has proposed.

Peres made the appeal for Diaspora funds in a series of meetings here during the last two weeks with leaders of the national United Jewish Appeal, the United Israel Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and Keren Hayesod, which raises funds for Israel outside the United States.

Also participating in the meetings were the heads of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the philanthropies’ main beneficiary.

SEVERAL AMERICAN RESERVATIONS

The ambitious plan has received a mixed reception from Jewish leaders around the world.

Jewish philanthropies outside the United States immediately agreed to the appeal, according to Nessim Gaon of Geneva, president of Keren Hayesod’s world board of trustees.

He said he expected the non-U.S. communities to take on about one-third of the total Diaspora goal, some $33 million a year for five years.

But leaders of the U.S. philanthropic bodies have a number of reservations about the Peres plan, according to several ranking figures in the national UJA-Federation network, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Those concerns were not resolved at a meeting top worldwide Diaspora leaders held late Monday afternoon with Peres. But the leaders agreed, in principle, to mount a campaign, with the details to be hammered out in the coming weeks.

Some of the American leaders are said to be skeptical about Peres’ figures, which, according to one source, include funding for such infrastructure items as highway improvements that “have nothing to do with the Russians.”

Other leaders question the likelihood of large numbers of Soviet Jews settling in Israel, even if the Bush administration restricts the flow of refugees to the United States.

Another concern is the ongoing cost of resettling the Soviet Jews who continue to pour into this country. Federations across the United States are now in the midst of a special $75 million campaign for Soviet resettlement, due to end Dec. 31.

The current Passage to Freedom drive divides its proceeds between Israeli and U.S. resettlement programs. Discussions with the Israelis are now focused on starting up the new campaign after Jan. 1, the sources said.

‘WE NEED THEM AND THEY NEED US’

Peres appealed for U.S. Jewish support in a strongly worded speech last week to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“Let me speak openly and clearly: You don’t need them,” Peres said, referring to the Soviet emigres.

“You are strong enough without them. We need them. They are the last great reserve of Jews who may come to Israel in this century. We need them and they need us — more than they need you.”

He added: “We expect that the same warmth shown traditionally by American Jewish leadership, when trying times came to our door, will happen again — not to be stingy, not to be skeptical and to act again with great support.”

The number of Soviet Jews headed for Israel is expected to jump dramatically after Oct. 1, when the U.S. government begins accepting applications for refugee visas only in Moscow, instead of Rome.

The procedural change will mean that Soviet Jews unwilling to brave the long waiting period to enter the visa section of the U.S. Consulate in Moscow will have no choice but to fly to Israel.

“A much larger number of Soviet Jews will enter Israel after Oct. 1,” Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, said in an interview Monday.

“There will be an extremely large financial impact on the State of Israel. And we are going to appeal to the Jewish people to share the burden with Israel.”

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