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In Israel, plans to close immigrant center stir integration concerns

Israel developers want to build new housing at Mevaseret Zion site

What began as a neighborhood campaign against the planned closure of an immigrant absorption center in the town of Mevaseret Zion is now focusing a spotlight on the troubled integration of Ethiopian immigrants and the long-term fate of donations to Jewish causes in Israel.

Newcomers from Western nations often find housing after a short stay in one of 16 centers run by Israel's Immigrant Absorption Ministry. But others, mostly immigrants from Ethiopia with higher economic and social barriers to overcome, do not have the means to move out even after three years of government entitlements have run out.

The Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center is home to 400 families, many of whom cannot afford to leave, who were brought to Israel over the last decade by the Jewish Agency of Israel. On the front lawn is a blue mosaic honoring U.S. donors Edward and Mabel Byer, who, according to a 1989 book called "Pioneer Jewish Texans," provided the largest single gift to date to the United Jewish Appeal.

The Jewish Agency used such donations decades ago to obtain the land for the center.

But now the center's future and that of its residents lie in doubt. The 200-acre property, west of Jerusalem, is being offered to private developers at an opening bid price of $67 million for construction of a housing development with units that most immigrants could not afford.

The housing would also be too expensive for many young locals, who have reacted by launching a campaign for fair, affordable housing. A solidarity tent has been set up nearby, protesting the planned development.

The center was built by the government ministry on the property owned by the Jewish Agency. But ownership of the property was transferred decades ago to the pension fund of the Jewish Agency's employees. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry rents the center, which is run by a separate management company.

The pension fund now aims to complete the sale of the property, and authorities have yet to determine where the 1,300 residents would be moved when the lease ends in December.

An absorption ministry official told a committee in the Knesset, or parliament, in May that it had yet to locate housing for residents who want to keep their jobs or continue sending their children to school in the area. The Mevaseret center is the largest in the country and provides educational, medical and welfare services.

Ayelet Shilo-Tamir, a deputy director-general at the Jewish Agency, favors a gradual phase-out of the center that would enable longtime residents to move to permanent housing, while allowing recent immigrants still eligible for benefits to remain close by.

Resident advocate Avraham Negosah told the parliamentary committee that the government should offer aid to enable veteran residents to move out. It's fine for the owners to sell the center, he said, but only if there is a housing solution for its residents. Negosah demanded that the Jewish Agency and government fight for the immigrants and not allow "poor people to be thrown out because of rich people's greed."

Agency officials told the parliamentary committee that transferring the property to the pension fund had been legal and that philanthropy contributes to all agency work, including employees' salaries and pensions.

The pension fund is rightfully obligated to its members — retirees of the organization — and is within its rights to sell, Shilo-Tamir told legislators.

Mevaseret Councilman Doron Tashtit is not satisfied with that logic. "If the Jewish Agency has become a real estate agency, we have a problem," he said.

In a letter to the state comptroller, lawmaker Yoel Razbozov asked him to examine the sale of a "public asset donated for the purpose of absorbing immigrants, first to private hands and now to real estate sharks."

Razbozov, who heads the Knesset's immigration and absorption committee, expressed concern that repeated uprooting of the immigrants would deal a "harsh blow to their integration in Israel."

Several residents have filed a legal petition, seeking an injunction against the sale, at least until new housing for residents is determined. For now, the sides have been ordered by a judge to try to settle the dispute out of court.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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