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Thursday, 10 April 2008

Jewish Agency to close immigration department

Jewish Agency to close immigration department
By Anshel Pfeffer


The Jewish Agency is planning to close one of its most historically
important branches, the Immigration and Absorption Department, as part
of a radical restructuring plan, Agency sources said yesterday.
The plan, which Agency officials consider to be a major change in the
identity of the organization that predates the creation of Israel and
has existed in its current form since 1948, will introduce reforms aimed
at addressing a series of financial and political blows that have
plagued the organization in recent years.
"The Agency has been taking punches from every direction in recent
years; politically, organizationally and [in terms of] its image," a
senior Agency official said. Donations made by individuals in the U.S.
Jewish community, which account for two-thirds of the Agency's annual
budget, have been in steady decline in recent years. Many
philanthropists have opted to give their money to private groups like
Taglit-Birthright Israel, which organizes free tours of Israel for
Jewish young adults, or Nefesh B'Nefesh, which focuses solely on
"revitalizing" immigration.
Others have stopped giving money to the Jewish Agency because they
disapprove of politicization within the organization, or because they
hold varying opinions regarding what its main mission should be. Some
donors, responding to the trickle of Jewish immigration to Israel from
the West, and the fact that bulk of of Jews from less developed
countries, such as the former Soviet Union, have already emigrated, have
urged the organization to focus instead on educational issues rather
than aliyah. In a confidential memo sent about a half year ago from the
UJA Federation of New York, leaders of the Federation, which constitute
the largest single group of donors to the Jewish Agency in the U.S.,
demanded that the Agency concentrate solely on Jewish education. The
memo argued that deciding whether or not to immigrate to Israel is a
matter of personal choice. The recent drop in the dollar's exchange rate
has also contributed to the Agency's shrinking budget.
Efforts to find alternative sources funding have not succeeded. A $50
million donation from Russian-born Israeli billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak
fell through, just as another pledge, valued at $45 million, from the
Evangelical International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is in
peril. As a consequence, the Jewish Agency's board of governors is
expected to announce cuts exceeding $20 million to $300-million budget.
"The new plan can either give it a new identity, or signal the end of
the road. In any case, we have no choice," a Jewish Agency official said.
Four teams are currently drawing up the reform plan at the behest of the
Agency's chair, Zeev Bielski. The JA is currently divided into three
departments: Immigration and Absorption, which sends out the emissaries
who work with Jewish communities around the world; Jewish Zionist
Education, which runs several programs at Jewish schools and community
centers around the world, and Partnerships with Israel, which is
responsible for social-welfare programs in Israel, particularly in the
Galilee and Negev. According to the committees' drafts, two new
departments will be formed, one to oversee activities within, and the
other with responsibility for those overseas. Areas currently under the
control of the Immigration and Absorption Department will be split
between the two, as well as other sections of the agency. Immigration
and Absorption's Global Center, for example, which runs the agency Web
sites, a call center and electronic communications with emissaries
abroad, will be subjugated to the director-general's office.
Emissaries dealing with immigration from abroad will not be cut
immediately, but their number will be reduced over time. Their
responsibilities will be delegated to education emissaries, who will be
given instruction in how to encourage immigration. Only a small number
of emissaries dedicated exclusively to aliyah will remain. They will be
given a broad scope of activity, with resonsibility for entire
continents, rather than being assigned to a certain country or city, as
they are now.
Another option being examined for the reorganization is the setting up
of separate companies under Agency control to carry out various
activities. Yet some senior Jewish Agency officials warn that
relinquishing its mission to encourage aliyah will undermine the
organization's raison d'etre.
Director-General Moshe Vigdor told Haaretz: "Moving to a framework of
two departments is being discussed as part of the new planning process
but it is only one of the options. Whatever we decide to do, encouraging
aliyah will remain one of our central activities."
"The Jewish Agency is a dynamic and self-renewing organization," a
spokesperson for the organization said. "Recently, staff have been
drawing up an extensive plan to examine ways of making its activities
more efficient and to provide solutions for the budgetary gaps caused by
the dollar's exchange-rate drop and world financial developments. We
have no intention of reducing our activity to boost aliyah; on the
contrary, the Jewish Agency will act to increase those activities."

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