MOSCOW (Sep. 6)
President Clinton is promising to press Ukrainian authorities to allow 250 high school students to take part in a program that encourages Ukrainian Jewish teen-agers to settle in Israel.
According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Ukraine has held up issuing travel visas to the students because the program chooses only gifted students. Ukraine claims that half of the students are not Jewish according to religious law and the program is causing a brain drain on the nation, with some of its best and brightest leaving economically depressed Ukraine for better opportunities in the Jewish state.
The Na’aleh program, run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, provides youth with the option of staying in Israel.
The paper said Clinton agreed to intervene in the dispute, which has been a source of tensions in Israeli-Ukrainian relations, after the matter was raised in a meeting last month with representatives from Jewish groups.
Controversy over the youth program is not the only source of tensions between Israel and Ukraine. Earlier this year, Ukraine expelled two Jewish Agency emissaries after claiming they had visited a security installation to try to persuade Jewish scientists to emigrate.
Ukraine has also accused the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body responsible for immigration and absorption, and the liaison office in Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office of going beyond the bounds of agreements regarding their work in the Ukrainian Jewish community.
In 1994, Kiev demanded that the Jewish Agency stop its operations in Ukraine – - a dispute that was settled when then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres intervened during a visit to Ukraine.
Over the past decade, Ukraine has been the source of 50 to 60 percent of all emigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel. Ukraine has an estimated 500,000 Jews. More than 250,000 Ukrainians have emigrated to Israel since 1989.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly expressed discontent with the Na’aleh youth program that recruits 15- and 16-year-olds to finish high school in Israel. Most of the participants move to Israel and adopt Israeli citizenship.
Over 8,000 youth from the former Soviet Union were enrolled in the program in the spring of this year.
The Na’aleh program in Ukraine operated according to the five-year bilateral agreement on student exchange signed by education authorities of the two countries in 1994.
Since then, Ukrainians have repeatedly expressed indignation, claiming that the Jewish Agency in fact recruits teen-agers for emigration under the pretext of cultural work.
Jewish officials in Kiev were told that Ukraine is especially unhappy with a quasi-governmental agency implementing an agreement signed on the governmental level.
The agreement on Na’aleh expired in July. Last December, Ukraine warned Israel that they would not prolong the agreement as long as the Jewish Agency runs the program. Last month, Ukraine’s education minister canceled his planned visit to Jerusalem, where he was supposed to renew the agreement. Ukrainians say they are ready to cooperate, but only if their partner is the Israeli government, and not the Jewish Agency.
At the Aug. 12 meeting in Washington involving Clinton and Jewish leaders, the chairman of the executive committee of the United Jewish Communities told Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger that the Ukrainian government is pressuring the Jewish Agency to limit its aliyah activities to its Kiev office.
Under a contract that expired in June, the Jewish Agency had been allowed to use its offices throughout the Ukraine “to inform the Ukranian Jewish community about their Jewish heritage and background, Israel and general concern and caring throughout the Jewish world,” Joel Tauber said.
The Jewish Agency is the primary beneficiary of the UJC, the organization formed by the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal.
The Ukrainian and Israeli governments are negotiating a new contract, but the restrictions called for by Ukrainian officials pose a difficulty because Ukrainian Jews are not aware of the opportunities available to them, Tauber explained.
Restricting Jewish Agency activity, he said, would require Ukrainian Jews “to make the initial effort” to come to the Jewish Agency and “will minimize if not eliminate aliyah.”
A Jewish Agency representative said the agency has instructed its staff to not “in any way cast negative inferences on the Ukrainian government or people” while promoting “Israel, aliyah, Jewish heritage and background.”
Political sources in Jerusalem were quoted as saying that the actions against the Jewish Agency are grounded in the Ukrainian government’s disappointment over Israel’s ongoing failure to make good on promised economic cooperation and investment.
However, Joseph Zissels, a prominent Jewish lay leader in Ukraine said he does not believe Ukrainian authorities are trying to complicate Kiev’s relations with Israel by restricting Jewish Agency operations, adding that the government does not necessarily intend to curb Jewish emigration.
Zissels, one of the leaders of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, an umbrella group, said the Ukrainian government wants to maintain Ukraine’s national dignity, which some high-ranking officials may think is suffering when the state allows a nongovernmental foreign group to freely take youths out of the country.
(JTA staff writer Julia Goldman in New York, and correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)