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Behind the Headlines: Delegates to Jewish Agency Assembly Are Being Asked to Rethink Its Future

Delegates to the Jewish Agency Assembly, which formally opens Monday evening in Jerusalem, are being asked to help rethink the operations of the non- governmental body, which is the principal recipient of money raised by the United Jewish Appeal for Israel.

Despite the success of UJA’s first Operation Exodus campaign for immigrant absorption, unexpected costs of resettling 20,000 Ethiopian Jews has led to a serious deficit, say Jewish Agency officials.

With the pace of aliyah from Eastern Europe and Central Asia expected to pick up, Jewish Agency leaders believe that only dramatic cuts will be able to ensure that its budget, now around $600 million annually, balances in coming years.

The central question up for discussion, said Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, is “what should be the direction of the agency, taking into account the tremendous challenge in terms of aliyah and our limited financial income.”

“Simply to go on doing things the way we have been doing is unacceptable,” said Shoshana Cardin, who heads the agency’s Goals and Priorities Committee.

“We cannot carry out all of our activities, so we must narrowly focus,” she said. “You can cut a segment of each area, like dismembering a limb, and end up with a group of disabled entities, or remove one entity completely, acknowledging that we can’t do everything and strengthening the things that are most important.”

The clear implication is that some of the Jewish Agency’s traditional departments and activities, many of which predate the State of Israel, may be eliminated.

Cardin’s committee has drafted a questionnaire that will ask the 398 delegates to the assembly to help chart the agency’s long-term direction.

While the delegates will be asked to approve a final revised budget for 1992 and an initial budget for 1993, the rethinking process will not see any results until 1994 at the earliest.

Among the questions raised by Cardin:

* How much Jewish Agency attention should be directed to Israel’s new immigrants, and how much to Israel’s long-term underprivileged?

* Should the focus be on long-term or short-term assistance?

* Should projects should be sub-contracted out?

* What should be the extent of the agency’s involvement in economic development, seen by its advocates as necessary to create jobs for the new immigrants?

* How high a priority should be given to Jewish and Zionist education, particularly with regard to the Jews of the former Soviet Union?

The annual assembly, along with its accompanying quarterly Board of Governors meeting, was also expected to put the finishing touches on an earlier streamlining process, which merged the Rural Settlement Department and the Renewal and Development Department, which oversaw Project Renewal.

Final details of this unification, scheduled to take place Jan. 1, will be worked out in a meeting with the government ministries that work with the departments.

One bitter controversy triggered by the streamlining plan apparently will not be resolved at this week’s assembly.

The controversy concerns a plan by Diaspora fund-raisers, who make up half of the agency’s Board of Governors, to eliminate the heads of the agency’s various departments, who are responsible for setting policy, which is then implemented by the departments’ respective director-generals.

Department heads are appointed by the World Zionist Organization, which is a partner with the Diaspora fund-raisers in the Jewish Agency.

Fund-raisers say the department heads are wasteful patronage positions; the Zionists counter that the posts represent the democratically elected Zionist Congress and are the equivalent of the lay leadership of American Jewish organizations.

The Zionists saw the proposal to eliminate the department heads, backed by the United Israel Appeal leadership and the Council of Jewish Federations, as a declaration of “world war,” as one of the department heads put it.

And indeed, for much of the past two months, both sides have been lining up the weapons they could use in any agency “civil war.”

The Zionists began talking about the possibility of bypassing the fund-raising establishment, which conducts the joint campaigns for Israel and the local federations, and raising money for Israel alone.

For their part, the fund-raisers pointed out that the contract between the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Agency comes up for renegotiation next year, with the clear implication that the Zionists in the Jewish Agency should best remember who pays the bills.

Both sides have now apparently backed down from the brink, perhaps scared by their own firepower. On Saturday night, the Zionists and fund-raisers ratified an agreement to maintain the status quo while a new committee studies such issues as the appointment of department heads, the election process and procedures for an assured Jewish Agency budget.

The cease-fire was announced by Jewish Agency Chairman Simcha Dinitz, who will be authorized in the interim to have a member of the Jewish Agency Executive “act on his behalf in whatever department he sees fit.”

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