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Under Pressure, Israel Acts To Prop Up Birthright Trips

Under heavy criticism from Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders, the Israeli government abandoned a proposal to end its support for a popular program offering young Diaspora Jews free trips to Israel.

Reports early this week that the cash-strapped Israeli government was set to eliminate its financial support for Birthright Israel prompted an outcry among the program’s supporters. Now, however, Birthright Israel officials say that the government is proposing only “modest cuts” to the program that since 2000 has paid for about 40,000 Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to visit Israel on group tours.

“Basically, the cuts are much better,” Birthright Israel USA’s chairwoman, Marlene Post, told the Forward Tuesday. She said that “the Israeli government is now trying to preserve the integrity of the Birthright Israel program.”

The initial proposal to cut all Birthright funding was part of a controversial budget-cutting plan being pushed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As prime minister, it was Netanyahu who overturned Israel’s longtime opposition to funding such a Diaspora program and authorized the initial Israeli money for Birthright.

The Israeli Cabinet did not eliminate Birthright funding Tuesday, but buffeted by a severe recession and the ongoing intifada, the government still approved a drastic set of budget cuts Tuesday, totaling $2.3 billion. Israel reportedly faces a total budget deficit of $6.3 billion — or 6% of the country’s GDP. Netanyahu has said that the overall cuts are necessary to save the economy from the worst recession in the country’s 55-year history and reverse two years of negative growth. Critics have assailed the proposed cuts in social welfare programs, citing the high rate of unemployment, which last year averaged 10.3%. Israel’s largest union has threatened a general strike in response to the proposed cuts. Diaspora communal officials have raised particular alarm at proposals to cut immigration absorption programs.

Vera Golovensky, an adviser to Natan Sharansky, minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs and chairman of Birthright Israel’s steering committee, said that the Israeli Cabinet ultimately decided Tuesday to propose reductions in Birthright allocations rather than eliminate all funding. The government currently plans to reduce support for the program by only $2.1 million this year and $4.2 million next year, she said.

The budget, including the allocation to Birthright Israel, must ultimately be approved by the Knesset.

Birthright Israel was set up as a five-year, $210 million partnership between the Israeli government, a group of Jewish philanthropists and Jewish communities worldwide, with each of the these three sources footing a third of the program’s bill.

But Gidi Mark, Birthright Israel’s international director of marketing, said that the $70 million pledge by the Israeli government was a maximum pledge, and that the government gives annually to Birthright Israel in amounts that are contingent upon how many trips the program actually provides in a given year. He said that the government gives in a ratio of one dollar for every two dollars spent by the other funders of the program.

Birthright Israel officials say that because of this formula, the program brings twice as much money into the Israeli economy as the government winds up spending on it. They also say that the Birthright program is the largest single source of tourism to Israel.

Birthright Israel supporters were upset by Israeli government proposals to cut off its support for the program in its fifth year, which caught some program officials by surprise.

Birthright Israel co-founder and American philanthropist Michael Steinhardt told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that the proposal to withdraw support for the program would be “singularly unwise,” while Yossi Beilin, a former Labor Party minister who was instrumental in creating the program, told the newspaper that “a government capable of canceling a project like this is a post-Zionist government.”

Post told the Forward that steep cuts by the Israeli government could have undermined the funding partnership at the core of Birthright Israel, prompting other partners to cut their allocations as well. She said, however, that because the Israeli government decided to propose only “modest cuts,” she believed that the other partners would not decrease their allocations.

Glenn Rosenkrantz, spokesman for United Jewish Communities, a key Birthright partner, told the Forward that his organization remains committed to the program and were “confident of a positive solution” to the government funding issue.

Birthright Israel had initially expected to bring between 90,000 and 100,000 Diaspora Jews on tours to Israel during its first five years, with the numbers of participants increasing incrementally each year, Mark said. While the program is widely considered a great success, since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000 the numbers of participants have dropped off somewhat and the program has developed more modest expectations.

Birthright Israel brought approximately 9,500 trip participants to Israel in 2000 and 13,500 in 2001, with the numbers falling to 11,500 in 2002, according to Mark. This winter alone, however, he said that the program attracted a “record” 8,200 participants.

But the drop-off among North American participants has been steep. Whereas in its first year some 75% of program participants were North Americans, this winter Mark said that only about 40% were from North America, with more participants coming from Europe and Latin America.

With reporting by Ha’aretz.

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