It’s been a stormy week for the Jewish Agency. Not only did bad press reveal how
the 80-year-old quasi-governmental organization, after significant budget cuts
and mass layoffs, is paying its senior directors arguably exorbitant salaries,
but a series of media reports has shown that the body set up to promote and
facilitate aliya is determined to head in a new direction.
While it might
not be news that the Jewish Agency, which traditionally supported immigrant
absorption programs, has over the past few years been trying to pull back from
working with new immigrants, what seems to have come as a shock to Israeli
society and officials is that its plan is now actually being
This week, it was reported that the agency is stopping its
funding for ulpanim (intensive Hebrew-language classes), a move that could leave
thousands of new immigrants with no way of learning the language.
announcement comes just a month after the agency attempted to reduce its
involvement in immigrant study programs and following cutbacks in other areas
such as immigrant absorption centers, reducing its flagship aliya department and
shrinking its emissaries initiative, which once sent senior representatives to
almost every corner of the globe to teach about the Jewish homeland from an
“I am very worried over what is happening today,”
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver told The Jerusalem Post in an
exclusive interview on Wednesday.
“The problem is much bigger than just
closing down ulpanim or programs for immigrant students,” said the minister, who
believes that the organization, which is set to hold its annual Board of
Governors meeting starting Sunday, is not only “turning its back on its
responsibilities” but is behaving in an arbitrary way that is unacceptable for a
“They wanted to leave the student program and
they just upped and left without discussing it with anyone and now they want out
of the ulpans, too, so that they can focus more on the Diaspora,” said Landver.
“The Jewish Agency cannot just wake up one morning and say they have decided to
cancel this program or that program.”
She emphasized that when the agency
was created it had a specific role to promote aliya among Jewish communities
worldwide and facilitate the absorption of new immigrants upon their arrival in
“Sadly, aliya is no longer an important issue for them,”
continued Landver, pointing out that this is unacceptable as the organization is
supposed to be a committed partner to the government.
Attempts to meet
with Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to discuss the changing status quo
have been snubbed, said Landver, adding: “They are not interested in meeting
with us but that still does not mean they can unilaterally decide that they do
not want to continue their traditional role. The Jewish Agency is not a private
organization where it can do whatever it wants; there needs to be discussions,
Concern over the control and supervision of the agency extends
way beyond the immigrant absorption minister, however.
A memo obtained by
the Post this week from inside the Prime Minister’s Office shows that there is
growing concern there too over the agency’s new direction and its decision to
turn away from supporting programs for new immigrants.
As the political
debate over the organization’s role as a facilitator of aliya or as a promoter
of Jewish identity becomes deeper – several other government ministries have
also expressed fears over the new strategy – Sharansky brushed off Landver’s
criticism, maintaining that the agency’s new direction would only strengthen its
place as a conduit between Israel and the Diaspora.
“I believe that our
strategic plan is the best Jewish answer because it strengthens Jewish identity,
it is the best Israeli answer because it strengthens the connection between the
Diaspora and Israel and it is the best Zionist answer because ultimately it
promotes aliya and strengthens the feeling of that we are all one family,” said
He pointed out that the Jewish Agency wrote and presented
its new strategic plan to the Jewish world and to the government more than a
“The Prime Minister’s Office was involved in this discussion
and the result was that our plan was unanimously approved and then presented to
the prime minister,” said Sharansky, pointing out that the only government
minister who opposed it was Landver.
“She said that our focus on
Israeli-experience programs was equivalent to promoting tourism,” he said,
adding that maybe it was time for the minister to concentrate more on absorption
and less on criticizing the agency’s method of promoting aliya.
hit back at Landver’s criticism of the Jewish Agency approach to promoting
aliya, saying: “but if her way is right then why did the ministry’s attempts to
promote aliya draw such a negative reaction from communities abroad?” Sharansky
was referring to a recent series of online ads by the ministry encouraging
Israelis abroad to return home by indicating that staying in the Diaspora
prevents one from living a full and rich Jewish life. US Jewish media and
leaders from the organized community harshly criticized the
“Everyone should stick to the sphere in which they are most
competent and cooperate with one another,” he said.
Sharansky went on to
say that it is time to redefine the division of responsibilities between the
Jewish Agency and the State of Israel. When Israel was created, he said, the
Jewish world helped to fund and support its creation, including facilitating
programs for new immigrants, but as the country has grown and become more stable
financially, it is time for Israel to change the status quo.
Agency’s job is to connect Jews to Israel and bring them here, but the minute
they become citizens then it is up to Israel to take care of them,” he
Sharansky said he has been pushing this point with the
government for more than a year but has received little response and no real
commitment that will allow the agency to move away from its former
“I really hope that the government finds a solution,” he said,
adding that while the agency does not want to see these programs closed down,
“every month we stay involved, we have to cut more than $100,000 from other
Asked how such cutbacks could be justified when it was
revealed last week that senior Jewish Agency officials, including Sharansky, are
paid more than the prime minister (Sharansky earned $214,000 in 2010, while
Prime Minister Netanyahu made $164,000), the chairman responded: “Our salaries
here in Israel have not changed for many years and they are much lower than
those of senior officials in other organizations.”
Former Jewish Agency
chairman MK Ze’ev Bielski told the Post Wednesday that he had been disturbed to
hear about the salaries, especially against the backdrop of mass firings and
other cutbacks in the organization that took place after he left.
said that while the relationship between the agency and the government might
need to be redefined, significant reduction to aliya services is
“During my time, I worked closely with [then-prime minister]
Ehud Olmert on creating a new paradigm whereby the Jewish Agency would be in
charge of both Jewish education and aliya,” he said. “I am very sorry to hear
that instead the aliya department has been significantly
Despite that, Bielski concurred that it was time for the state
to take over immigration programs and allow the agency to focus
“The Jewish Agency has an important role in bringing together
the Diaspora and the State of Israel. I hope that this can be invested in and
that it will take the right steps in the future to strengthen that
relationship,” he finished.