Just hours after outlining ways he would like to use the entire $20 million allocated by the United Jewish Communities for school security, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office was told he could use only $8 million. The remaining $12 million is now to be used for other projects.
“The $12 million is now off the table [for school security],” Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s chief executive officer, told Avigdor Yitzchaki.
“It is news to me that the $12 million has now vanished,” Yitzchaki said.
The exchange came in a conference call placed to clarify comments Yitzchaki made early Wednesday to The Jewish Week in which he said the entire $20 million set aside by the UJC for school security would be used for that purpose.
“We will not put the money into something else,” Yitzchaki insisted. “It’s for the security of the pupils of Israel. … Until now we used $8 million to upgrade security for the pupils in schools, and we will send them [the UJC] additional programs for the last $12 million.”
Yitzchaki said the additional programs all relate to school security and involve such things as buying vehicles for volunteers who would patrol several kindergarten buildings.
“Security is not only putting a security man at the gate of a school,” he explained. “We want volunteers going from school to school to look around the schoolyard and stop suspicious persons. There are a lot of things that have to do with [school] security.”
Yitzchaki said that position is not inconsistent with a letter he wrote earlier this week to the leadership of the UJC in which he said all $20 million was not needed because he was referring only to the hiring of stationary guards at schools.
“What we don’t want to do is put stationary men in 10,000 to 12,000 isolated kindergartens,” he explained. “If the contributions stopped next year, I would have to bring in this money and it would be very difficult to bring it from the budget. And I can’t do less next year than I’m doing now.”
Yitzchaki said the $8 million he did have was being used to hire security guards at elementary schools and at clusters of kindergartens each with fewer than 100 students. The government of Israel provides a security guard at schools with more than 100 students. The UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign raised money in part to provide security at the unprotected schools.
Yitzchaki said he was working on an overall school security plan with police and that “after a few days we’ll get the other $12 million … to enhance the [security] patrols.”
But in the conference call with Hoffman, Yitzchaki was told that he would have to submit those plans for review. Hoffman said that if a UJC committee overseeing allocations of the Israel Emergency Campaign chose to fund any of those proposals, the money would have to come from unallocated funds.
“The $12 million is now moving towards hospitals, trauma care and certain home front command issues having to do with shelter preparation, special needs and the civil guard,” Hoffman said. “We’ll come back to their security issues when the government puts a request to us.”
Until now, UJC officials had insisted that they were simply responding to the needs of the government of Israel as defined by the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It would be presumptuous of an American organization a half world away … to make decisions [in a vacuum],” Gail Hyman, a spokeswoman for the UJC, said Tuesday. “It’s important for people to understand that there are hundreds and hundreds of competing crisis needs in Israel and we are trying very hard to make sure that donors’ funds are put to work in the places that can be most helpful. We don’t act arbitrarily; we are trying to do the right thing for the people of Israel.”
The decision to use only $8 million of the $20 million allocated for school security has angered many parents, some of whom filed suit against the government demanding that it provide security for all preschoolers.
Yoram Yazdi, whose 4-year-old son, Shaket, attends a neighborhood kindergarten with 16 other children in Ramot Eshkol in northern Jerusalem, is the plaintiff in the lawsuit. He said Tuesday that his son’s school still had no security guard and that parents had to depend on local police patrols that come along “every hour or two.”
As first reported in The Jewish Week, the first guards were not hired until nearly three weeks after school started in Israel on Sept. 1. And instead of hiring 1,500 guards with $20 million, as announced at an August press conference, the UJC quietly scaled back the project. It now plans to hire 856 guards with $8 million.
Also upset by the decision to cut back funding for the school security program are the municipalities in Israel. Hilik Goldstein, a spokesman for Israel’s Union of Local Authorities, which represents 265 municipalities, said Adi Eldar, chairman of the union, complained to Yitzchaki two weeks ago about the cutback.
Goldstein said that because of a municipal employees strike that began Sunday, all 856 guards would not be hired for another two or three weeks. And he noted that many preschools closed this week because teaching assistants are on strike.
Despite the UJC’s announced plans to cut back the school guard program, Goldstein in an interview Tuesday said Eldar still believes there is a chance to reverse that decision. But he added that if Eldar becomes convinced that the $12 million will not be restored, “we would be prepared to go to The Jewish Agency and ask them for a list of donors.”
“We want to send a letter to them and we intend to tell them that the money didn’t come,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein added that such a letter would be sent with great reluctance because the UJC and its representative in Israel, The Jewish Agency, “do big things and we are really grateful for the money they raise. … But if some of the [$20 million] doesn’t go for security, we would do something like that; we don’t have any choice.”
But Goldstein said he was confident The Jewish Agency would not allow such letters to be sent because it would do “great damage to donation activities. … It’s an extreme move; it’s a big weapon. We don’t want to use it until we are convinced that the $12 million will not go to security in the kindergartens and other schools.”
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said neither donors nor parents should have input in security matters, only the police.
“Maybe parents think they know better,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s right.”
# Jeff Kaye, coordinator for financial resource development at The Jewish Agency and manager of the Israel Emergency Fund, said that at the request of the UJC he sent to its allocation committee a prioritized list of needs in light of the current crisis in Israel. He said that heading the list were:Equipment and training for the civil guard, volunteer neighborhood patrols. Among other things, they need uniforms and flashlights.
# Community safety. Needed are such things as vibrating beepers for the deaf to alert them in an emergency situation, an upgrading of perimeter fences for communities, as well as entrance lighting.
# Emergency room equipment such as respirators for Israel’s hospitals.
“This all adds up to $15 million,” said Kaye. “I’m not sure if it will be connected to the $12 million or not. But given the situation in Israel and our donors’ willingness to assist, we have listed the highest priority items.”