11 youths from former USSR forced to leave Israeli program

JERUSALEM — Eleven youngsters from the former Soviet Union who were taking part in an Israel-based program for potential immigrants were given one-way tickets home this summer, according to Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency.

The Na'aleh program is aimed at high-school pupils who immigrate before their parents and study at Israeli educational institutions for two years, returning to their home countries during summer break for a visit.

Burg was particularly incensed over the return of participants to the former Soviet Union after they were found unsuitable to continue in the program.

He said that while agreement had been reached on the proper way of handling such problems, there had been several violations of the guidelines.

These included the program administrators' decision to kick another 14 participants out of the program during their summer vacation in the former Soviet Union. Burg said the move angered the youngsters' home communities, and the youngsters "had simply been told at the last minute that their trip home would be one way."

According to Burg, the 11 youths who had their return tickets taken away did not even have a chance to take their personal belongings with them from their schools.

In an angry letter sent Wednesday of last week to Education Minister Yitzhak Levy, Burg said that only 29.3 percent of the applicants to the Education Ministry's Na'aleh program were accepted. "Many problems that have arisen over the past year have put in question our ability to continue to be identified with and participate in this program," Burg said.

Also on Wednesday of last week, there were reports that the Education Ministry planned to tighten criteria for acceptance into the program, so as to reduce the number of non-Jews.

This prompted an angry response from Knesset member and former Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein, who said such a move is very dangerous.

Rubinstein said the decision violates the Law of Return, creates official discrimination between those who are Jewish according to halachah (Jewish law) and those eligible to come under the Law of Return, sending a message of rejection to tens of thousands who want to immigrate.

Yohanan Ben-Ya'acov, who heads the ministry's absorption and immigration department, said Levy had already instructed ministry staff to look into the two incidents cited by Burg.

Ben-Ya'acov disputed Burg's figures regarding the percentage of candidates accepted into the program.

He said that of 2,550 candidates who showed up to be tested for the program, 1,050 turned out to be either too young or too old for it and were told to look into other existing programs suitable for their age groups. About 750 students participate in the program.

While he denied the criteria for acceptance were being made more stringent to keep out non-Jews, he said the murder of a counselor at a Rishon Lezion boarding school by a participant in Na'aleh had an impact on the program.

He added that while non-Jews were not being turned away from the program and criteria for acceptance have not hardened, the ministry tries to ensure those accepted into the program "at least show some interest in belonging to the Jewish people," and not just entry into a more Western society, via a program offering free education.