Immigrant Absorption minister: Reduction of aliya envoys in former USSR could damage legitimacy of making aliya.
By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
The Jewish Agency is "losing its way" and "going bankrupt" by making personnel cutbacks in the former Soviet Union, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver told the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors Wednesday morning.
"The reduction in the spread of aliya envoys, mainly in the former Soviet Union, could damage the legitimacy of making aliya, the Zionist activities of the emissaries and the inculcation of Jewish values and Israel's heritage in the process of preparing for aliya," Landver said.
According to the Absorption Ministry, the number of aliya envoys has fallen from 52 to just 19 in recent years.
But the agency rebutted the accusations.
"There were 52 emissaries ten years ago when there were tens of thousands of olim each year. The idea that we should have 52 now is ludicrous," said an agency spokesman. "Furthermore, we've replaced envoys [from Israel] with local coordinators, expanded Internet resources on aliya and begun to use video-conferencing instead of traveling speakers."
Asked if the latest cut from 19 envoys to 17 in the past year, driven by a 10% cut in agency funds due to the global economic crisis, justified the accusation that the agency has "lost its way," Landver's adviser Alexei Lorentsson explained there was more to the issue than the financial cutbacks.
"The agency is closing absorption centers without notice, abandoning our joint work in the [ministry's] Student Authority, and bringing in planes full of olim [5,000 over the summer] without coordinating with the ministry," he said.
Furthermore, the cutbacks in the FSU were harming aliya from the "best reservoir of olim," Lorentsson said.
"Of the last 5,000 olim to come in the first few months of 2009, half were from the FSU. It's important to bring French and American olim, and others, but the largest strategic reservoir is the FSU. If aliya ends from there, what's left?"
A senior agency official said the organization was "furious" at Landver's speech, calling it "populism at its finest."
"Of all the troubles facing the Jewish Agency - where we're going, what our purpose is, how we bring five million American Jews closer to Israel - Landver believes the FSU cutbacks are the great 'bankruptcy' of the agency? She is being incredibly shallow and showing that her ministry is completely obsessed with the FSU, as we feared it would be," the official said.
An agency spokesman said the organization "welcomed Landver's call to increase funding to agency programs that have been cut." But he rejected the accusation that the agency had "lost its way."
"There's a financial reality that is forcing us to become efficient. When we had a huge workforce [in the FSU], everyone said we were bloated. Now that we've scaled back to a more efficient, Internet-based operation, they say we're cutting back on Zionism and hurting Israel," said Alex Selsky, spokesman to the Russian-language press.
"The agency is going through a process to make it more efficient. Everybody knows that. The donations are dropping. Everybody knows that," Selsky continued.
"But we're developing other tools to replace the emissaries, like the [online] Global Center, which allows any Jew in the world, even in Kamchatka, to begin an aliya process, to send documents and interact with the agency."
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