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A stormy session is expected at the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee on Monday as MKs raise the issue of Jewish Agency budget cuts in the former Soviet Union (FSU).
At issue are millions of dollars in cuts to the Agency's budget announced at the late-October Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem. Specifically, MK Ze'ev Elkin (Kadima) will raise the $500,000 cuts to the Agency's flagship program, the network of ulpanim that includes some 18,000 students and 300 teachers in 200 ulpanim spread over 190 cities in the FSU. The cuts are some 60% of the total budget for the program, some $850,000.
"By the end of May, the ulpanim, which in many areas are the only Jewish culture available, will be shut down," explained Elkin ahead of the Monday meeting. "It's a real hit, and it's being done from minute to minute, not in stages where funding could be found to replace it."
The Jewish Agency said that the cuts were a temporary suggestion as FSU ulpanim will be funded in the future by "elective" funds ( funds designated for specific projects by donors).
"The whole situation will be reassessed in February at the next Board of Governors meeting of the Jewish Agency," an Agency representative said, adding "in the end programs will not only not be cut, but they will be extended."
Elkin, who initiated the Knesset meeting, explained that the Agency had switched its funding strategy from one centered on the programs to one centered on the donors. "The Jewish Agency has enslaved most of its core budget to matching funds raised from donors. And since American donors aren't interested in Hebrew instruction, that's what's going to be cut."
According to Elkin, the move represents an "incredible ideological revolution. This opens a new page in the relationship between the state of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. The Agency is saying that Hebrew instruction is not one of its priorities, but only what the [American Jewish] federations [who fund most of the Agency's budget] want. In fact, the Agency today functions as just one more non-profit working to get American money. If the Agency is just another non-profit, maybe the state should relate to it differently, since it would no longer be part of the national institutions."
Senior officials in the Jewish Agency who are familiar with the situation told The Jerusalem Post that the Agency was caught between a rock and a hard place, since the move to cut the FSU ulpanim budget was intended by the Education Department to show donor committees that "something very precious" was going to be cut if the ongoing budget cuts to the Agency continued.
"Now it's backfired on the Jewish Agency, and it's getting hit from the Knesset," said one official.
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