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Jewish Leaders Gather at Assembly for Debate, Discussion and Change

June 26, 1989
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Diaspora Jewish leaders, Zionist organization representatives and Israeli officials gathered here this week for intense and often angry debate, but for the topics were neither the familiar issues of the Palestinian uprising nor “Who Is a Jew.”

Instead, delegates to the Jewish Agency Assembly returned to traditional ideological and operational questions that have gnawed at the Diaspora-Israel relationship since, and even before, the founding of the Jewish state:

These issues include the best system for absorbing new immigrants into Israeli society; the efficiency of the money spent for Jewish education in Israel and the Diaspora; and the effectiveness of the present structure of the Jewish Agency.

Debates over these issues are being fueled not only by the large number of delegates — more than 1,000 — but a new sophistication on the part of Diaspora delegates on the workings of the Jewish Agency.

For the 1989-90 fiscal year, the Jewish Agency is operating under a budget of $360 million, a $28 million drop since last year.

It is in this spirit of fiscal austerity that the largest assembly ever is being held at the Ramada Renaissance.

The hotel’s polished lobby is a grid-lock of Jewish professionals and volunteers, all plotting or arguing the points that will become resolutions at an all-day plenary on Wednesday, and, if adopted, will guide the Jewish Agency as it sets next year’s policy.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, associate executive director of the United Israel Appeal said Diaspora delegates are “better informed about the issues than they ever were,”


Allen said the interest is due to the growth of Jewish Agency committees at local federations, the “opportunity” of resettling Soviet Jews and the UIA’s own efforts in reaching out to its constituents.

According to Aubrey Herman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, “It’s more difficult to raise money today, therefore the donors need more accountability about where the money is going.”

Howard Weisband, the secretary-general of the Jewish Agency Executive, said although there are some in the agency who resent the assertiveness of the so-called “fund-raisers,” he welcomed the change.

“Their involvement is the key for a more substantive Israel-Diaspora bridge,” he said.

That bridge is seen as suspended between the Diaspora organizations that raise millions of dollars on behalf of Israel and the non-governmental Jewish Agency which spends it.

The most hotly debated issues are the following:

Soviet emigration. Officials in charge of the absorption of new immigrants are being overwhelmed by the new Soviet immigration.

Between 5,000 and 7,500 Soviet Jews are expected to immigrate within the fiscal year, and the costs of resettling the emigres are enormous. But Diaspora communities are already strapped by immigrants of their own.

The “Transfer Agreement.” A 2-year-old proposal to transfer all absorption activities from the Jewish Agency to the Israeli government has never been acted upon.

Some feel this will make absorption more efficient, while others argue that the Jewish Agency has the experience and historical mandate for the most successful operation of the service.

Jewish education. The $50 million spent by the WZO-Jewish Agency represents the single largest pool of money spent on Jewish education in the world.

Diaspora leaders, through a Committee on Jewish Education established in 1988, want to see the WZO’s 27 educational facilities run more efficiently and with less duplication of services.

Many Zionist leaders feel the fund-raisers’ intervention promotes a bland form of “pro-Israel” education over a truly ideological Zionism.

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