A heated debate regarding the future of immigration to Israel broke out among delegates to the Jewish Agency’s tri-annual board of governors meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, causing some to question the Zionist body’s commitment to expediting Jewish immigration.
During a briefing, members of the organization’s Aliya and Rescue Committee disputed the continuing effectiveness of their overall strategic plan, with some citing a nascent but growing alternative aliya program being run by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
The IFCJ, run by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a former chairman of the agency committee, has been at odds with the Jewish Agency for some time, with members of both organizations occasionally questioning the efficacy and motives of the other.
One agency representative from South America told the meeting that budget cuts would curtail its ability to operate, stating that it “required a strategic decision” and that “if we don’t do it [facilitate aliya], somebody else will do it, either [North American aliya agency] Nefesh B’Nefesh or Eckstein.”
“Without aliya we have no right to continue to exist – not here and not abroad,” he said.
“How many people from Ukraine is Eckstein moving? From France?” he asked.”People are getting [from him] more money and an easier way to come. We will find competition, and if strategically we say we don’t deal with aliya,” then it will be difficult to achieve key agency goals.
During a 2009 overhaul in which chairman Natan Sharansky unveiled a strategic plan, the Agency closed down its aliya department, consolidating its functions together with other bureaus.
Speaking in a similar vein, board member Karma Feinstein said that Director of Aliya and Absorption Yehuda Scharf and his department must be empowered and provided with more resources, despite the reduction of the agency’s budget year after year.
It was “not a good strategic decision to get out of the aliya business,” another delegate added, although he added that he believed that the agency was going back into it.
During the meeting, Eckstein’s name was bandied about, with delegates arguing over whether he was a partner or an “enemy.”
“We have an increasing level of cooperation with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry,” which includes funding, said committee chairman Dr.
Danny Lamm of the Australian Zionist Federation. “We are doing more and more and you mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We continue to do the work and the number of olim goes up.”
According to Lamm, in countries such as Ukraine, the Jewish Agency does much of the work and the IFCJ comes in at the last minute to offer financial inducements to immigrants to come through their framework.
“We never left aliya,” Lamm told the delegates, calling it “a ridiculous assertion.”
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, Lamm said that the Jewish Agency has “always led the way with aliya” and that it would continue to do so.
“Now Eckstein has set up a fund for aliya and from my perspective the ultimate importance is that we have more immigrants and as long as we can work together to advance aliya, that is all that matters.”
While the budget for aliya has fluctuated over the last several years, there has been “no reduction” in the growth of aliya programs; in fact, there has been an expansion, he continued, stating that fund raising from outside bodies has “enabled an expansion of programs” catering to the younger and more educated immigrants.
Agency officials said that there is an increase in aliya fairs and increasing participation in Hebrew-language courses in Ukraine and Russia.
“Far from aliya being dead, it has grown, and this is reflected in the numbers,” he said, projecting more than 32,000 immigrants for 2015.
During the meeting, Scharf stated that pending a government decision on those remaining in Ethiopia, it would be possible to reopen aliya from that country almost immediately. Two years ago the government celebrated what it termed the “end” of Ethiopian aliya. However, there remain relatives of olim who have not been permitted to come, and there is increasing pressure on the government by activists to allow them to enter.
One of the key issues for the current board meeting was Jews from the former Soviet Union, who comprise “almost half of worldwide aliya,” at 47 percent of all immigrants, according to Roman Polonsky, the director of the agency’s unit for Russian-speaking Jews.
He noted that more Jews came from Russian than Ukraine, despite the ongoing military conflict and economic collapse there.
Describing graphs marking immigration from Ukraine as reminiscent of the “temperature of a very sick man,” Polonsky pointed out that the numbers spike and drop according to the state of the conflict.
“It drops when there is hope for a cease-fire and there are sharp increases when this collapses,” he said.
More than 1,200 Jews from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine have passed through the Jewish Agency’s Mayak refugee center outside of Dnepropetrovsk.
The profile of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union is increasingly that of young and educated professionals who are Jewishly involved, he continued. Half are under 35 years old.
According to the agency, while funding for the Russian- speaking Jewish unit is down, the Ukraine crisis has brought in more funding from outside sources and increased government cooperation.
Addressing members of the committee tasked with dealing with the issue, Sharansky stated that in countries such as Germany, there are many Russian speakers who are not halachically Jewish but are showing interest in reconnecting, and there is a finite time frame in which to reach out to them.
“They are still open to being part of the Jewish people, but who knows for how long,” he said.