Jerusalem - For as long as Israel has existed, the Jewish Agency for Israel has had a government monopoly on bringing new immigrants into the country, but new legislation is set to change that.
This coming Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet is expected to approve a decision to allocate 19 million shekels to two privately founded programs that bring Jewish immigrants to the country — one from North America and Britain, the other from France.
For the past few years, the government has provided some funding to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the American program, and to AMI, the French program, but the new government decision will make that funding permanent, giving the programs the Israeli government’s imprimatur.
“This is the first step toward privatization of aliyah and giving professional organizations that specialize in this field support in bringing immigrants to Israel,” said Daniel Ayalon, co-chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh.
The government’s decision comes after a lengthy dispute between the Jewish Agency and the upstart private organizations. Over the past months, the two sides have sparred over financial issues and who can claim credit for the recent slight uptick in the number of immigrants arriving in Israel.
Nefesh B’Nefesh started off as a private initiative in 2002, and began receiving funding from the government and the Jewish Agency three years ago in order to cover the $3,000 it invests in each new immigrant it brings to Israel. Since the organization began its work, immigration from the United States has risen steadily if slowly, increasing to 3,201 in 2006 from 2,640 in 2004.
This week, Ayalon welcomed 260 new immigrants arriving on a special airplane carrying the organization’s logo on its front end. These immigrants will enjoy a fast-track absorption process that will cut red tape and provide them with job placement and loans until they settle in Israel.
“This is the first time we are seeing organized aliyah from wealthy countries such as the U.S., Canada and Britain,” said Ayalon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. “These immigrants aren’t looking for a shelter. They have specific needs, and our goal is to help them.”
While the Jewish Agency has publicly said that private groups play an important role in increasing emigration from North America, many in the Israeli establishment eye Nefesh B’Nefesh critically. Sources close to the agency point to the fact that while the private groups focus on the affluent immigrants from North America and Western Europe, the Jewish Agency carries the responsibility for the more difficult task of bringing Jews from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and other troubled regions.
In a controversial interview, Howard Rieger, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, said that “what Nefesh B’Nefesh are doing is the easiest part” of encouraging aliyah. UJC is the primary funder of the Jewish Agency.
Rieger and other establishment figures have argued that the work of private immigration organizations in North America could not have been done without the groundwork laid by the Jewish Agency’s network of emissaries, and that the private groups cannot replace the Jewish Agency, they can only supplement its work.
On the other side of the debate, sources close to Nefesh B’Nefesh have criticized the Jewish Agency for being an “an anachronistic bureaucracy.”
“They have tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of workers,” one source said.
In addition to the nasty words being exchanged, the dispute has recently taken on financial dimensions. Nefesh B’Nefesh says that earlier this year, the Jewish Agency unilaterally cut off part of the funding that it had been promised.
“The Jewish Agency declined to provide a detailed response to the allegations. Spokesman Yarden Vatikai said that “the Jewish Agency welcomes every organization which helps in bringing immigrants to Israel.”
Sources close to the Jewish Agency said that the cuts came because Nefesh B’Nefesh owes it more than a million and a half dollars for money that was advanced to the organization and never spent. Other sources representing the Jewish Agency told the Forward that the overhead costs and executive salaries of such groups as Nefesh B’Nefesh are unnecessarily high.
While an end to the dispute over the responsibility for bringing American Olim to Israel is not in sight, the private groups are gaining ground in the public arena. When Nefesh B’Nefesh’s next airplane full of immigrants arrives in two weeks, the newcomers will find Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waiting to greet them on the tarmac, in a show of support not only of Americans who chose to make aliyah but also of the private groups that brought them.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman