As they have been asked to contribute their time, money and energy to the effort to absorb Soviet Jews in Israel, many practical-minded American Jewish leaders wonder why Israel has not yet mapped out a comprehensive plan for absorption.
One of the biggest obstacles to the creation of such a comprehensive plan is the number of agencies serving the needs of Soviet Jews and other immigrants.
Ministries within the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel and voluntary immigrant organizations, such as Natan Sharansky’s Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, all have important roles to play in the absorption process.
But despite the fact that the Jewish Agency is the recipient of millions of dollars in absorption funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal, it is sometimes shut out of the process.
An illustration of this problem occurs daily at Ben-Gurion Airport, the first stop in Israel for the new Soviet arrivals. It is there that the immigrants are counseled about whether to take the path of direct absorption or opt to live in absorption centers instead.
Despite the fact that the Jewish Agency runs Israel’s absorption centers and funds 50 percent of the cost of direct absorption, it has not been permitted direct contact with immigrants arriving at Ben-Gurion.
NO HAND IN THE PROCESS
When it protested this policy to the government Absorption Ministry, lengthy negotiations ensued. In the end, the Jewish Agency was told it may be permitted to send one social worker to the airport in the near future.
But right now, it has no hand in the process at Ben-Gurion.
Sharansky’s group has had even less success. The activist and former Prisoner of Zion has been foiled numerous times in attempts to send Russian-speaking volunteers to Ben-Gurion to greet the newcomers and guide them through the process.
Even the new immigrants’ relatives cannot see them until after they have been processed by the ministry, which takes five to six hours.
Competition among various agencies serving the Soviet immigrants and olim from other countries has led to confusion among the new arrivals as to the proper address for counseling, housing, education and job training. Often they find themselves being shuttled between various offices.
The joke going around among the immigrants now is that after glasnost runs its course in Eastern Europe, Israel will be the only Stalinist bureaucracy left in the world.
“It seems it was easier to mount huge demonstrations to free Soviet Jewry than to change one bureaucratic principle to make absorption proceed more smoothly,” Sharansky complained last month to visiting Jewish leaders.
A number of efforts have been formed over the years to untangle the red tape. The latest committee to try to coordinate efforts among various government ministries and the Jewish Agency was chaired by Yossi Beilin, the deputy minister of finance in the government that col-lapsed March 15.
But while “the Beilin Commission to a great extent has worked, it has been getting too large to be effective,” said Jewish Agency secretary-general Howard Weisband.
Instead of solving problems, it is merely “a channel for putting issues on the table,” Weisband said.
Like the rest of the Israeli government, the committee is currently undergoing turmoil. But on each day that Labor and Likud fight their political battles, a serious housing crisis looms nearer.
MARKET SATURATION PREDICTED
Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency has been predicting publicly that in six to 10 months, the rental housing market will be fully saturated. Construction of new housing has been proceeding slowly, seriously crippled by strikes from the Arab labor force.
Without available rental housing, the much-heralded system of direct absorption of immigrants will not be able to continue.
In order to put a roof over the heads of Soviet immigrants should such a crisis arise, the Jewish Agency has a contingency plan: It has identified 190 temporary facilities in which there would be 50,000 beds for new immigrants.
“We will have to open all of the clubs, all of the youth movements, all of the hotels,” Uri Gordon, chairman of the Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Center, said in an interview. He vowed dramatically that “not one Jew will sleep on the street.”
And so the Jewish Agency is still indefinitely responsible for the housing of immigrants and, in order to fulfill that responsibility, must restaff and reopen absorption centers.
Is there a solution, a cure for the lack of coordination afflicting the absorption system?
The latest popular idea in some Israeli and American Jewish circles is the concept of absorbing immigrants on a municipal level.
Ra’anana Mayor Ze’ev Bielski tells Diaspora audiences that when neither the Jewish Agency nor the government would take charge of the immigrants’ overall success, he decided that he would.
EARMARKED FOR RA’ANANA
Bielski independently raised $500,000 for his absorption project from the United Jewish Federation of Metrowest New Jersey. The funds technically are earmarked for Ra’anana, though ultimately controlled by the Jewish Agency.
An American Jewish Committee think tank also has recommended a municipal model, coordinated by a mayor, a city council or, in the case of a large city, a neighborhood council, in which voluntary associations like the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum would take an active role in locating housing and employment.
Jewish Agency leaders have some qualms about this system. While they recognize its success in a small community like Ra’anana that has a strong leader like Bielski, they worry that it may not work as well in neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
But overall, “I believe it has tremendous potential and can make the system more effective,” said Weisband.
Officials like Weisband are hoping that this small, neighborhood model will foster a spirit of cooperation that on a national level often seems to be an elusive goal.