By Lev Krichevsky
MOSCOW, Dec. 27 (JTA) - A Russian Jewish financier is poised to give a $50 million donation that may prove critical to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s activities in the former Soviet Union.
The gift from Arcadi Gaydamak should help the agency, whose budget in the region has decreased over the last few years, to fund “Zionist education” projects in the region.
According to the agreement, Gaydamak will receive a seat in the Jewish Agency assembly, a 500-member representative body of Jewish leaders, and will have broad powers in the Jewish Agency’s activities in the former Soviet Union.
The 53-year-old billionaire, who divides his time between Moscow and Israel, told JTA that the agreement was almost finalized.
“The issue has already been decided and we are expecting some legal matters to be concluded,” Gaydamak said Monday.
The Jewish Agency was more cautious in evaluating the prospects for an agreement.
The agency is “actively seeking partners” to help fund Zionist education projects in the former Soviet Union, Michael Jankelowitz, a Jerusalem-based spokesman for the Jewish Agency, told JTA.
Jankelowitz confirmed that Gaydamak was one of those prospective partners, but added that “these discussions are continuing and are yet to be finalized.”
The issue first came up in meetings between Gaydamak and the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Zeev Bielski, in October in Moscow. It was discussed again earlier this month in Jerusalem.
The issue should be finalized by February, when the agency’s board of governors is expected to adopt its final 2006 budget.
The agency’s budget has fallen over the past three years from $350 million to $290 million.
Immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union has decreased greatly in recent years, but still accounts for 40 percent of all immigration to Israel.
With North American federations, a source of at least half of the agency’s budget, cutting their overall funding for overseas needs, the agency has been looking for funds.
Programs in the former Soviet Union not geared directly toward aliyah — including Jewish day schools and Sunday schools, camps and youth clubs — were among the programs hardest hit by the budget cuts.
If the agency is unable to find additional sources, much of its operation in the former Soviet Union will be closed down, an agency source told JTA.
The agency will have to kill many of its Jewish education and Jewish identity programs in smaller provincial communities, shifting the remaining budget to larger centers such as Moscow, St. Petersburg or Ekaterinburg, said the source, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity.
Jankelowitz said the stakes for the Jewish Agency and for the entire Jewish world were too high to be disregarded.
“Jewish Zionist education in the former Soviet Union is of national importance to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel,” he said.
Jewish Agency projects reach some 120,000 people in the region, and the number should be increased, Jankelowitz said.
Gaydamak burst onto the Russian Jewish and Israeli scene several months ago with several high-profile sponsorship projects and purchases of sports teams. His eccentric philanthropy is generating nearly daily reports in the Israeli press.
A decade ago, Gaydamak was accused of unscrupulous business operations, most notably over his role in the sale of Russian arms to Angola in the 1990s. That scandal threatened the highest reaches of France’s political establishment, including the son of then-President Francois Mitterand.
Gaydamak denies wrongdoing and says he is a “victim of political persecution,” but reportedly is wanted in France on charges of fraud and tax evasion.
That image makes some in the Jewish Agency uncomfortable about Gaydamak’s future role in the organization.
“Yes, the [financial] situation of the Jewish Agency is very difficult,” an agency official from Jerusalem, who asked not to be identified for this article, told JTA. “And here comes a person who has a smeared business reputation and who through this gift will receive nearly unlimited influence over the Jewish Agency.”
Gaydamak dismissed the criticism, saying that his critics within the agency care more about their personal ambitions than about the Jewish Agency’s larger goals.
Gaydamak, who is president of KEROOR, an umbrella organization of Russian Jewry, insists the controversy stems from inaccurate and sensationalistic media reports.
He told JTA he is interested in funding agency-run education projects in the former Soviet Union only because of his concern for the Jewish people, and as a way to thank an organization that helped so many immigrants to Israel, including himself. Gaydamak made aliyah 35 years ago from the Soviet Union.
“If we keep remembering that we are Jews, there will be Jewish people and the Jewish state,” he said.
Gaydamak said he already had spent about half of what he promised the Jewish Agency over seven years on a single Jewish day school in the Kazakh capital of Almaty.
He also donated $30 million to the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities from 2000 to 2003, he said. He discontinued his support of the federation earlier this year when he became leader of KEROOR.
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