Jewish Agency fiercely defends restructuring plans

Dismantling Aliya Dept. would be "about efficiency and transparency, nothing more."

Bielski 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bielski 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jewish Agency officials angrily denied on Thursday media reports suggesting that the agency had committed to dismantling its Aliya Department and scaling back its commitment to aliya. "This was an evil leak that caused damage," said agency head Ze'ev Bielski. "Aliya is our lifeblood. I have dealt with aliya all my life and was an [agency] emissary in South Africa. Aliya was, is and will be the core of the Jewish Agency's activities." According to media reports, suggested plans that are being discussed within the Jewish Agency would dismantle the Aliya Department and reduce the number of aliya emissaries worldwide. According to some suggestions for reform, the agency's overseas aliya-promotion activities, including the network of hundreds of emissaries worldwide, may be folded into an "external activities department," while the department's absorption centers in Israel would be incorporated into an "internal activities department." Meanwhile, in many cities around the world where two emissaries are stationed, one from the Aliya and another from the Education departments, the two positions would be replaced by one charged with both functions. Such plans "are about greater efficiency and transparency, nothing more," said Bielski. "If someone wants to harm the Jewish Agency," he added, "they're harming the Jewish world. We don't have another agency, or another state. Why do this damage when it's not justified?" Criticism of the plans was heard from outside and inside the agency, and overseas donors were reportedly particularly angered by the plan. "This is the bankruptcy of Zionism," railed MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), a former deputy director-general of the Aliya Department. "The fathers of Zionism who founded the Jewish Agency are rolling in their graves. The agency is disconnected from reality." Yet, according to a senior Jewish Agency official, the fact that the agency is questioning its old internal divisions, which were products of a system of political apportioning of agency bodies among political parties that has been largely irrelevant for 30 years, is a sign it is modernizing. "Since when are the departmental divisions so sacred?" the official wondered. The restructuring plans, which have not been finalized or formally announced, are part of an effort to streamline the agency due to the budget crisis faced by many non-profits that live on American dollars, explained Jeff Kaye, director-general of the agency's Department of Resource Development and Public Affairs. "For years, we've had a balanced budget," Kaye said. "Now, in the current economic situation, when we've lost 30% of the value of our budget in the past year alone [due to the declining value of the dollar], we're looking at saving money through internal restructuring. This is something I'd expect from any serious organization," he added. According to Kaye, media reports that donations to the agency were declining were incorrect. Rather, he said, the donations are increasingly shifting from gifts to the agency's core budget - which includes funding for administrative costs - to "designated giving" for specific projects. This process, he added, was taking place among American Jewish federations and in the field of philanthropy generally. According to agency figures, while donations to the core budget have dropped by up to $2m. each year, "designated giving" to specific projects run by the Jewish Agency has risen by some $10m. annually, and now makes up some one-sixth of all income from donations.