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 implemented.

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.

The 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 Israeli perspective.

“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 semi-governmental body.

“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 Israel.

“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, meetings.”

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 the chairman.

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 year ago.

“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.

Sharansky 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 ads.

“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.

“The Jewish 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 emphasized.

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 position.

“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 programs.”

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.

He also said that while the relationship between the agency and the government might need to be redefined, significant reduction to aliya services is worrying.

“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 reduced.”

Despite that, Bielski concurred that it was time for the state to take over immigration programs and allow the agency to focus elsewhere.

“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.

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