A little-known Jewish organization will receive $8 million from the United States next year to build schools in France thanks to a project promoted by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) over the State Department's objections.
A contributor to Inouye's most recent senatorial campaign, New York real estate developer Zev Wolfson, said he sits on the board of Ozar Hatorah, the New York-based group that will get the money. But he said no one in the group stands to benefit personally.
The money, contained in a massive $600 billion appropriations bill that President Reagan signed into law before Christmas, will go for construction of schools for North African Jews settled in Paris.
The bill classifies this group as refugees even though many have lived in France for a decade or more and have prospered. The U.S. government, the French government and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees do not consider the group as refugees.
"It doesn't make any sense except that Dan Inouye wanted it badly," said Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.). "Dan doesn't ask for much and when he has a small amount of the total package that seems to be important to him you don't embarrass him."
Lehman was a member of a House-Senate conference committee that met in the final weeks of the congressional session to iron out differences on a $13 billion appropriation for foreign aid. Inouye is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
"I hold my nose and vote for a lot of things around here," Lehman said. He said he was bothered that the money was earmarked for a specific group when other refugees seem to have a much greater need for American assistance. He cited the Falasha Jews forced to flee Ethiopia as one example.
"It was a lousy $8 million," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who added that he knew little about Ozar Hatorah but agreed to Inouye's request in the spirit of compromise. Obey is Inouye's counterpart on the House Appropriations panel.
Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) also said he didn't know specifics about Ozar Hatorah, but bowed to Inouye's wishes. "This was something he wanted."
Numerous attempts to reach Inouye over two days last week were unsuccessful. Gregg Takayama, his press aide, said the senator had been given a list of questions about the matter. Inouye did not return telephone calls.
Jonathan Moore, the State Department's coordinator of refugee programs, wrote the Senate to complain that earmarking items "can have a dangerous, negative and possibly discriminatory impact" on the U.S. government's ability to cope with refugees worldwide.
Another State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were other objections.
"This is a program to subsidize French education, which we don't think in the current budget climate is needed," the official said. "This isn't the proper use of U.S. taxpayers' money to build parochial schools in a developed country."
The State Department said yesterday that it opposed the $8 million appropriation. Spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said the department opposes earmarking funds, in which Congress asserts that money be appropriated for a specific purpose.
"Our position in principle on earmarks is clear. We oppose them," Oakley said. "We opposed this particular earmark, among others."
Agencies oppose earmarking in general because they say it unduly restricts their flexibility.
Ozar Hatorah is a New York-based group established in the late 1940s to provide educational opportunities to Sephardic Jews in North Africa, which is predominantly Moslem, according to Stephen Shalom, a New York real estate investor whose father founded the group.
Another member of Ozar Hatorah's governing body was Wolfson, who said he has met Inouye and gave him $1,000 -- the legal limit for an individual donor -- for his primary campaign in 1985.
But Wolfson said other members of Ozar Hatorah's board were more involved in the school project than he was. "Everybody involved here is a volunteer," he said. "Nobody has a personal interest."
Berel Wines, another Ozar Hatorah board member, said the $8 million will be used to build schools to serve more than 3,000 students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
The money is needed because the French government, which provides two-thirds of the funds to maintain Ozar Hatorah's schools in France, is barred from building the structures, he said.
Wines, principal of the Orangetown-Muncie Hebrew School in Suffern, N.Y., an Orthodox Jewish school for boys, said the U.S. government should become involved because "these are legitimate refugees who cannot return to their countries of origin."
Shalom said the schools help the roughly 450,000 North African Jews in France maintain their cultural identity.
However, the appropriation clearly was not something pushed by Jewish interest groups in general.
An official of B'nai B'rith, speaking on condition he not be identified, said the $8 million was not something the organization sought.
Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress in New York, said the North African Jews in France have had a mixed record of success.
"Some are doing wonderfully, but they are in the minority," he said. Others have not had an easy time adjusting in France, he said.