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The South American immigrant association will be forced to close in June if the Jewish Agency does not restore money axed from its budget, according to President Leon Amiras.
To finance its social programs, small loans, extra Hebrew classes, and assistance navigating through Israeli bureaucracy, the Organization of Immigrants from Latin America, Spain and Portugal in Israel (OLEI) depends almost entirely on funds from the agency, which reduced its contribution from NIS 1 million in 2005 to NIS 200,000 in 2006.
"We will have to stop everything. We will close the institution, because we don't want to be in a situation where we owe money," Amiras said, adding that the timing was particularly distressing because of the hundreds of olim from Venezuela that might move to Israel in light of the political situation there. "We think there will be a lot of Venezuelans coming, and we have to be prepared to help them."
The cuts are part of a shift in priorities and belt-tightening at the agency which has seen the total budget for olim associations shrink from $2.1m. to $1.6m. this year, according to the Council of Immigrant Associations in Israel.
"These are very serious cuts," said Esther Blum, the council's project coordinator. Many of the 20 member organizations are discussing "closing offices, cancelling projects, and selling their property."
Blum and Amiras acknowledged that the Jewish Agency has faced its own budget cuts, but they criticized a system which has seen tremendous emphasis and funding increases for programs such as birthright and Masa, which encourage young Diaspora Jews to make aliya, alongside reductions in services for olim once they arrive.
"When it comes to the practicality of the end product of these programs and people actually making aliya, we have many less resources to make sure that aliya will be smooth and effective," said Frank Stein. The director of the Israel office of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Stein stressed that he supports the efforts of birthright and Masa.
Stein said that his organization hadn't even applied for Jewish Agency funding this year since the most it could receive would have been NIS 6,000 - and it would have had to spend several times that amount on programming to qualify for the grant.
Jewish Agency funding over the years "has rapidly decreased to the extent that it's no longer viable for us to put in for an application," he said, noting that education and Diaspora activities will suffer as funds are shifted to help make up for the loss of income.
While the Australian association and other immigrant groups are taking money from other sources, Amiras said OLEI didn't have that option.
He said that as a condition for the funding he does receive, the Jewish Agency has prohibited him from soliciting donations from Jewish communities in South America, which in any case have less resources than other Diaspora communities.
A Jewish Agency spokesman said he was not familiar with such an arrangement, and the head of the Jewish Agency's subcommittee on immigrant associations could not be reached for comment.
Amiras said that he has been approached by Christian groups that are willing to contribute to OLEI, but he had turned down their offers.
"I don't want money from these people, because we don't have the same aims," he said. "That I would have to ask non-Jews to help Jews from Latin America to live here, I think that's nonsense."
In the meantime, Amiras has written to Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski pleading with him to reinstate funding for OLEI.
"The closure of this well-known 50-year-old institution and branches, mainly run by devoted volunteers, will lead those new immigrants [who] arrived in Israel recently to an irreversible chaos," he wrote. "Moreover, it will obviously present a negative image with a discouraging message to those worried potential newcomers who will find themselves helpless to handle their daily problems."
Some 100,000 Jews have made aliya from Latin America, of whom 6,000 are members of OLEI. They pay NIS 50 each year, though dues are waived from those who have immigrated in the past two years.
"When new immigrants come to Israel and need someone to help them, they come to us and not the Jewish Agency or the Absorption Ministry because we speak their language, we speak Spanish," said Amiras, who himself immigrated from Argentina.
In a response to Amiras's letter, Bielski praised OLEI's efforts and work "hand in hand" with the Jewish Agency.
He also wrote that, "As close partners you are aware of the [recent] changes, as a result of which we were forced to significantly reduce our budgetary assistance for the immigrant organizations: on one hand, the new strategic program that was adopted by the Jewish Agency, and on the other, the drastic reductions in the organization's budget."
He ended by promising to "make every effort to increase next year's budget" for the immigrant organization.
Amiras said that next year will be too late, because OLEI's money will run out as of June 30.
The Jewish Agency spokesman reached Thursday said that the issue would be examined at the agency's Board of Governors meeting at the end of next month.