Betsy Gidwitx Reports









While in Israel during the latter half of October, Betsy Gidwitz participated in meetings of the Jewish Agency for Israel, met with the leadership of the Vaad (an organization professing to represent Jews in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova) and conferred with professionals responsible for operators of the joint Distribution Committee in the former Soviet Union.

39.The following is a summary of relevant material from meetings with the Jewish Agency for Israel committees on (1) Aliyah and Klitah and (2) Eastern Europe. (The latter committee is concerned with JAFI operations in the ground in the former Soviet Union and eastern/central Europe.)

All JAFI operations in the post Soviet Union are focused on aliyah; the mission of the Agency does not encompass community building in general or strengthening the Vaad in particular.

Reporting to the Aliyah and Klitah committee, Haim Chesler, the head of the Jewish Agency mission in the former Soviet Union said that he believes that JAFI resources should be concentrated on European Russia outside Moscow and St. Petersburg (because Jews in the largest Russian cities are so deeply acculturated into the Russian tradition that many maintain a strong rooted loyalty to Russia); the Ural Mountain area and Siberia, also in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Turbulence is so strong in Central Asia and the Caucasus that Jews will come on aliyah without special programs to attract them. (Mr. Chesler did not mention the Baltic states, but only about 25,000 remain in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after very heavy emigration. BG]

Lawlessness pervades the northern Caucasus. (Mr. Chesler is referring to an area in southern Russia that borders on Georgia and Azerbaidzhan. The major concerns of Jewish population are the Caspian Sea cities of Derbent (11,000 Jews) and Makhachala (12,000 Jews) and the island city of Nalchik (10,000 Jews), BG] About five young Jews are kidnapped to ransom every month in Nalchik; as much as $30,000 must be paid for their return. Mr. Chesler believes the area is ripe for aliyah, but many Jews from the Caucusus would encounter severe problems in Israel because their livelihoods are based on a trading economy that is incompatible with Israeli society.

In his comments to the Budget and Finance Committee Sub-Committee on Aliyah and Klitah, Baruch Gut, Director of the JAFI Unit for the C.I.S. and Eastern Europe noted that hyperinflation in the Soviet successor states has affected not only local currencies but also value of the dollar. Purveyors of various goods and services are demanding payment in dollars “according to western standards” , although the quality of goods and services that they provide is usually far below western standards. Dr. Gur said that a 1994 budgetary increase of twenty to thirty percent would be required just to maintain the level of services offered in 1993.

40. Mikhail Chienov, one of three co-chairman of the Vaad, reported on the activities of this group to the JAFI Committee on Eastern Europe. Dr. Chienov said that six former republics of the ex-USSR have established their own Vaads; Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaidzhan. Jewish organizations in the Baltic states have left the former Soviet Vaad and redirected their focus towards Jewish communities in other Baltic counties. The Jews of Central Asia never established national assemblies.

Dr. Chienov continued that 500 local Jewish communities had created municipal vaads. In larger communities, approximately ten to fifteen percent of local Jews affiliate with Jewish organizations; in medium-size Jewish communities (under 20,000 Jews) up to one-third of local Jews will affiliate, and 60 to 70 percent will affiliate in smaller communities. Dr. Chienov asserted that the multinational Vaad based in Moscow is the voice and central address of all Jews in the former Soviet Union. According to Dr. Chienov, the Vaad raises funds, operates Jewish educational institutions, combats anti-Semitism, maintains regular contacts with local authorities and rescues endangered Jews. Dr. Chienov said that the Vaad established aliyah communities in 120 cities with 150 compensated aliyah officials.40 He believes aliyah will increase slightly as a result of the recent attempted coup in Moscow, but that economic stabilization in Russia will encourage any Russian Jews to remain in Russia. Dr. Chienov said that inflationary pressured have increased Vaad expenses by 250% in the last year.

Dr. Chienov was severely critical of Israel and other international Jewish organizations active in the post Soviet Union. He charged that all these organizations ignore the Vaad. They are building their own empires; because of their existing support systems, these organizations are able to overshadow and thus undermine the Vaad. These groups hire local officials whom the Vaad have trained for their own staff. They build their own offices and complex communication systems. The JAFI budget increases according to an expansionist policy, introducing JAFI programs into ever more areas of the formaer USSR. JAFI (and other international) agency personnel approach local authorities directly, instead of working under and through the leadership of the Vaad. The Vaad lacks channels in which it could work to influence JAFI. Dr. Chienov considers the current situation “impermissible” and requested a special session of the JAFI Committee on Eastern Europe in which the relationship between JAFI and the Vaad would be examined.

Although the Committee on Eastern Europe was unable to reconvene in its entirety to meet with Dr. Chienov and his colleagues, JAFI representatives met informally with officials of the Vaad on three subsequent occasions. Dr. Chienov was joined by his two co-presidents, Josef Zissels of Ukraine and Semyon Veisman of Moldova and by Roman Spector, a vice-president. Representing JAFI were Shoshana S. Cardin (for the first meeting) , Acting Chairman of the Committee on Eastern Europe, Dr. Betsy Gidwitz, Dr. Baruch Gur, Alla Levy and Ilan Rubin. Yosef Tropansky, and employee of JAFI, also attended the meetings. The first session was conducted in English with Alla Levy serving as an interpreter; the second and third sessions were held in Russian without an interpreter. Major topics of discussion are reviewed here in sequence.

The Vaad was asked by the JAFI representatives to consider four specific principles (1) regarding aliyah – because its leaders expect to remain in the former Soviet Union; the Vaad lacks competence to develop policy on aliyah; the Jewish Agency cannot be expected to transfer its mandate on aliyah to those who have decidd to forego aliyah; (2) regarding membership of the Committee on Eastern Europe – representation on all JAFI committees is determined according to an agreement between United Israel Appeal/Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization; JAFI itself cannot mandate a seat in the Committee for a representative of the Vaad; (3) regarding the presence of non-indigenous Jewish organization in the Soviet successor states – outside groups will operate in the former Soviet Union whether or not anyone “invites” them to do so; the Vaad cannot dictate what other organizations may or may not do; the mandate of JAFI is to encourage aliyah to Israel from all countries including the Soviet successor states and (4) regarding pluralism in the Jewish community – no Jewish organization is entitled to control the operations of any other jewish organization or to attempt to deny the right of another group to operate. The Vaad representatives agreed to these principles (or “concepts”, as Dr. Chienov referred to them.)

The Vaad and JAFI representatives also agreed on the following: (1) the Vaad will be given an opportunity to report its concerns at all future meetings of the Committee on Eastern Europe, (2) because the Vaad claims to represent all Jews in the former Soviet Union, it will confer with representative Jewish leaders in every successor state before attending JAFI meetings so that it can be the legitimate voice of post Soviet Jews. (3) the Vaad leadership will explain the JAFI agenda to Jews in the successor states, (4) the Vaad will recommend to local aliyah activists that they cooperate with JAFI, (5) the Vaad will not complain to local authorities (e.g., municipalities, security forces) about other Jewish organizations, in the media, (7) all Jewish groups have a right to exist, and to determine their own agendas, but no umbrella organization is compelled to accept all organizations as members or to allocate funds to any other Jewish organizations, and (8) Shoshana Cardin and Betsy Gidwitz will consider how the municipality of views among Jews in the Soviet successor states should be presented to the Jewish Agency. 41

Dr. Chienov continued that the Vaad should enjoy “primacy on its own territory” that all Jewish activity in the Soviet successor states should occur within the competence of the Vaad so that the Vaad is strengthened as an organization. He cannot accept the principle that the Jewsih Agen cy will negotiate independently with local authorities without employing the Vaad as its instrumentality. A member of the JAFI delegation responded that each organization has its own agenda and that the Jewish agency has its own agenda and that the Jewish Agency has been empowered by the UIA/Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization to conduct activities in the Soviet successor states. Dr. Chienov quoted a past chairman of the Committee on Eastern Europe who said that the policy of JAFI to work through the existing Soviet Jewish community; Dr. Chienov said that that JAFI was not fulfilling its own policies, but was instead pursuing an expansionist strategy in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Chienov said that the Vaad regarded the earlier statement as a covenant; if JAFI did not adhere to this “covenant:, there would be Jewish war. Representatives of the Jewish Agency responded that there was no need for a Jewish war.

The second meeting commenced some time after its scheduled beginning due to the late arrival of Dr. Chienov. Several individuals acknowledged the agreements reached at the previous meeting. Mr. Tropiansky suggested formation of a standing Vaad-JAFI commission to deal with all the issues that had been raised; such a commission should include representatives of Chabad (because the Chabad movement is so active in the former Soviet Union) and all copmmission members should speak Russian so that its deliberations could proceed without interruptions caused by translators.

Asserting that everyone agreed on the principles during the first meeting, Mr. Zissels said that the group should now discuss JAFI funding of various Vaad proposals. Mr. Zissels was ready to suggest some specific projects.42

Dr. Chienov repeated his statements of the previous meeting, i.e., that the Jewish Agency must conduct its activities in the Soviet successor states through the Vaad and that JAFI programs shuld strengthen the Vaad. Dr. Gur responded that the goal of the Jewish Agency is to strengthen aliyah, not to strengthen the Vaad.

Dr. Chienov opened the third meeting by declaring that the Vaad is sovereign on its own territory, yet the Jewish Agency treats the Vaad as if it is Burundi. For example, JAFI has recently initiated several new programs in various post-Soviet localities without consulting with the Vaad. Dr. Chienov cited a kindergarten and a Jewish youth group in the Ural Mountain city of Magnotogorsk. Dr. Gur responded (1) that JAFI would work with the Vaad and/or other organizations in the implementation of such projects if the projects are Israel-oriented, Zionist and have potential for increasing aliyah, and (2) that Dr. Chienov meets monthly with Haim Chesler, the Moscow-based head of the JAFI delegation in the successor states, who informs Dr. Chienov of all new and ongoing JAFI programs in the post-Soviet Union.

Dr. Chienov insisted that the Vaad should organize and operate all seminars, camps and other programs currently administered by the Jewish Agency. The appropriate role for JAFI is to provide financial support to the Vaad for such ventures. (Note: Dr. Chienov and some other officials of the Vaad have suggested to Israelis and to diaspora Jews on numerous occasions that all resources designated by Israel, JAFI, JDC or other entities for programs affecting the Jewish population in the (post-) Soviet Union be transferred to the Vaad which would then allocate funds to programs that it would plan and subsequently administer. BG)43

40. Most independent observers consider Dr. Chienov’s claims about Vaad operations to be exaggerated.

41 The Vaad leadership acknowledges diversity within its own as one of its co-presidents, Semyon Veisman, represents a state Vaad (Moldova) that perceives its chief role as promoting aliyah rather than building Jewish community.

42. Mr. Zissels has prepared several lists of potential projects for the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of the Ukraine that await funding.

43. The Vaad is not known to have any planning and allocations mechanism. It has not always proved accountable in the past.

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