Jewish Agency, IFCJ spar over Ukrainian immigration

JAFI accuses charity of unfairly luring olim with cash; group counters with accusation of sabotage.

March 30, 2015 04:17

Ukrainian immigrants arrive in Tel Aviv last week on a flight from Kiev, sponsored by the IFCJ. (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)

The Jewish Agency on Sunday harshly criticized the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews over its decision to facilitate Ukrainian immigration to Israel by itself, saying the move ultimately hurts olim.

Last week, the IFCJ brought just over 100 Ukrainian war refugees to Israel on one of its “Freedom Flights,” the third such flight overall and the first to be run completely without Jewish Agency involvement. Two previous group flights, both in December, were a collaborative effort between both groups.

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The IFCJ is providing one-time payments of $1,000 per adult and $500 per child to the passengers on its flights in addition to consultations about the government benefits to which the newcomers are eligible, said IFCJ spokeswoman Tali Aronsky.

In a statement on Sunday, the Jewish Agency asked: “Is the IFCJ prepared to offer cash to all immigrants from Ukraine, including the overwhelming majority who choose not to travel to Israel with them? Would the individuals they’ve managed to draw to their flights be quite as willing to forgo the Jewish Agency’s vital assistance if money weren’t a factor?” “There’s something rather absurd about offering someone financial inducements to make a certain choice and then celebrating that choice as though it was made independently, without any connection to the monetary incentive,” the statement added.

IFCJ founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein first announced his intention to create his own aliya program in October, telling The Jerusalem Post that he anticipated flights would begin within a matter of weeks. The IFCJ had previously been a close partner of the Jewish Agency, but the two groups recently split in a very public spat.

In a statement to the Post ahead of Tuesday’s flight from Kiev, a senior JAFI official charged the IFCJ with “attempting to go rogue, to the ultimate detriment of those they purport to serve.”

Initially, JAFI asserted that the IFCJ’s immigrants would be required to undergo the aliya process in Israel because “these individuals were not processed by the Jewish Agency or by the relevant Israeli authorities.” The Immigrant Absorption Ministry later explained that this was not, in fact, the case.

According to the ministry, all of IFCJ’s immigrants have already received immigration permits from Nativ, a government body operating under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office which is empowered to handle immigration from the former Soviet Union.

“They will receive exactly the same treatment from our ministry as all other immigrants,” spokesman Elad Sonn said last week.

The IFCJ said it has been funding aliya “for decades,” and that it has been involved in “bringing close to one million Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia to Israel.”

“We recently stepped into the aliya arena as a direct provider to provide olim with a soup-to-nuts approach that processes their aliya and ensures a successful absorption in Israel,” explained Aronsky. “Since many of Ukraine’s Jews had to flee their homes in the east overnight, the IFCJ is providing them with a financial assistance package to help them get through their first year in Israel.

In addition, IFCJ reached out to Israeli communities to secure housing for the olim and is working closely with local municipalities’ klita [absorption] staff to welcome the new olim and to help them find gainful employment in Israel.”

Aronsky said IFCJ is working “hand-in-hand” with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry to take care of necessary paperwork and that last week’s flight demonstrated that there is a demand for “a holistic, more humane approach to aliya.”

The IFCJ has contracted with a human resources firm specializing in immigrants and plans on following up with the newcomers a month after they land. The group will also connect the immigrants to local municipalities’ absorption departments and provide them with information about education, Hebrew language instruction, opening a business converting a professional license.

Bilana Shakhar, the Jewish Agency’s director of aliya in the former Soviet Union, said on Sunday that while anybody willing to involve themselves in aliya from Ukraine is welcome, the way in which the IFCJ has done so “harms the olim.”

She said the Jewish Agency has many specialized plans and tracks for new immigrants that it runs together with the Immigrant Absorption and Economy ministries, and that around 40% of new immigrants are enrolled in such programs. These create a framework for quickly learning Hebrew and integrating into the job market in specialized fields, and those who come through the IFCJ will not be informed of their options in this regard.

“Forty percent of olim who might otherwise have participated in these programs customized to their needs may not do them because they took monetary incentives from IFCJ,” she asserted.

According to Shakhar, around 70% of those on last week’s flight from Kiev went through the aliya process with JAFI before deciding to finish with the IFCJ. She said there were many other immigrants who had expressed a desire to go on the charitable group’s flight and receive the stipends, but were unable to do so.

The Jewish Agency usually brings people to Israel in smaller groups instead of on large flights, because people have individual timing needs, she explained. Some of those who were unable to change their carefully laid plans to come with the IFCJ feel slighted, she added, calling it “discriminatory” that they were unable to benefit from the same cash grants as those on the flights.

“We find that particularly unacceptable,” another JAFI official, who asked to remain nameless, told the Post.

During an email exchange with the Post, the IFCJ stated that “sabotage notwithstanding, we’re planning several more aliya flights from Ukraine in the coming months.

And our April flight is almost completely full.”

Shakhar countered that accusations of sabotage are “very weird and cruel,” given how many people on the recent IFCJ flight had been involved with JAFI prior to their aliya.

The IFCJ also accused the Jewish Agency of refusing an offer to provide an “assistance package and housing efforts” for the immigrants and stated that it had “resorted to making false claims about the ‘arduous aliya process’ awaiting our olim.”

A senior JAFI official responded that “for reasons that defy comprehension, the IFCJ is trying hard to create two tiers of immigrants: the lucky few who make it onto their flights, and everyone else. We will have no part of it. Forcing immigrants to forgo the building blocks of a successful aliya in exchange for cash – and denying financial assistance to the vast majority who don’t – is no way to run an aliya operation. We call on the IFCJ to cease muddying the waters and to work with us to ensure that all immigrants receive the welcome home they deserve.”

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