(photo credit: REUTERS)
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews on Monday announced that it will be establishing a private immigration and absorption program. The initiative is set to be headed by Eli Cohen, the former head of the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Department and the deputy CEO of the Mekorot national water company.
IFCJ president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has a history of clashing with the agency over immigration, dating back to his time as the head of the agency’s aliya committee.
The IFCJ has donated millions to the agency budget but has scaled down its commitments over disagreements with the body’s 2009 strategic road map, which emphasized a focus on Jewish identity- building in the Diaspora.
As part of that realignment, the Aliya Department was shuttered and merged with other units, leading to Cohen’s resignation.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post
, Eckstein said that he sees this shift as coming at the expense of aliya, and that the agency is “going through a difficult period” due to shrinking contributions from the Jewish Federation system.
The focus of the initiative, which will be fleshed out by Cohen over the coming weeks and months, will be on bringing Jews from the former Soviet Union – especially war-torn Ukraine – and other countries in crisis around the world to Israel, according to the IFCJ.
The organization, which raises money from a largely North American Christian donor base for its projects, has spent $150 million on immigration and absorption, largely in cooperation with the agency and other players, according to Cohen.
Both Cohen and Eckstein stressed that there will still be cooperation with the agency but, as Eckstein put it, “we are no longer going to be dependent on their cooperation.”
“The whole intention is cooperation,” Cohen said.
“We have not come to replace anyone.”
In August Eckstein announced that the IFCJ would sponsor several special flights of Ukrainian immigrants that would arrive in Israel within a period of weeks, but arrangements for the flights have apparently not yet been finalized. The difficulty in bringing off such a logistical challenge may be one of the reasons for Cohen’s hire.
“The Jewish Agency for Israel is the body tasked with bringing new immigrants to Israel. As part of its activities, The Jewish Agency works with various government ministries and other organizations interested in aiding its efforts to bring immigrants to the Jewish state,” said spokesman Avi Mayer in a terse response to the IFCJ announcement.
In contrast to this restrained statement, former agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said as follows: “Rabbi Eckstein should resign from the Jewish Agency Executive and Board of Governors as well as [his position as] chairman of its Aliya and Rescue Committee, if he has lost confidence in the organization. If he does not resign, he should be stripped of his position as chairman of the committee.”
Not everyone affiliated with the agency shares Jankelowitz’s feelings, however.
“It’s exciting to see that the fellowship has identified the need for an additional player in the promotion of aliya. And as someone for whom aliya has been important for all my adult life, my expectation is that everyone interested in promoting aliya will welcome this decision [of IFCJ],” said Daniel Goldman, a member of the agency’s board of governors and a supporter of Cohen’s recent failed bid to become mayor of Beit Shemesh.
“I am sure that [Cohen] will look for partnership and ways to leverage existing opportunities and, where necessary, introduce new initiatives or look for new ways to promote and increase aliya,” Goldman said.
In June a draft plan for a government aliya initiative, widely thought to be the work of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, was leaked to the press. That plan sought to establish a nongovernmental corporation to oversee European, and especially Ukrainian, immigration.
The plan called for the corporation to be owned jointly by the four “national institutions” – United Israel Appeal, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
The agency is currently embroiled in tensions with the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry over its role in the Prime Minister’s World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program aimed at using taxpayer funds to promote Jewish identity abroad.